Place as Inspiration for Writing a Novel

Stamey-Islands_600x900Since the new ebook edition of my romantic suspense novel Islands was released by Book View Café this month, everyone has been asking if the free-diver on the cover is a photo of me, and I wish I could say yes. If I had pics of my underwater explorations from my time teaching scuba in the Virgin Islands and other Caribbean locations, this could have been me. In those hot, tropic days, I practically lived in the sea, and like my character John in the novel, I wished to be reborn as a dolphin.

The question raises the issue of inspiration for my stories, and place has always been a big one. I’ve traveled and lived in a number of exotic locales, and my fascination with the geography and culture of foreign places stirs my writing muse. The Islands storyline started with my journals while living in the Virgin Islands – the diving and sunken treasure angle pretty obvious, since I did some diving on wrecks and found a lovely antique perfume bottle exactly like the one my archeologist Susan Dunne inherits from her brother John.

I’ve been accused of having a “Hemingway Complex” in needing to actively explore the world in order to write about it, and my literal immersion in the tropic seas permeates the story of Islands – crucial to both the plot and the rebirth that Susan undergoes. I will probably never succeed in capturing with words the magic and mystery of gliding weightless in the shimmering clear depths among fish and coral, but I hope I give readers at least a taste of it.

After moving to St. Thomas, I started research in the island archives, and pieced together bits of actual ship logs for the “Parker Manuscript” that starts Islands. And yes, crew of ships caught in storms or pirate attacks actually did seal notes or pieces of their logs in bottles or tubes and toss them into the sea, hoping they’d be found! The story blossomed with the colonial history of the slavers and African religion as the roots of Caribbean Vaudun (Voodoo). In one of the St. Thomas “jungle towns,” as the native quarters were called by many locals, I stumbled upon a funky little hole-in-the-wall café, Le Lambi’s, pretty much like the one where James takes Susan for lunch. And there I noticed some interesting décor suggesting the owners might have connections to the Vaudun, which officially didn’t exist in the formerly Danish Caribbees.

GlyphsCaribI started hearing references to “Jumbies” (mischievous spirits) and “power spots,” and some of these seemed connected with the petroglyphs Susan is researching in the novel, so of course I checked out any sites I could find. I also delved into the local herbal lore, and while on my petroglyph hikes tried to find some of the plants used for healing and protective charms. When I learned about two very similar, shiny red seeds – “crab eyes,” a nasty poison, and “Jumbie seeds,” a protection against tricksy spirits – they ended up playing a role in the plot.

In addition to working as a scuba guide and instructor, I also did some cruising through the U.S. and British Virgin Islands as deck hand on a yacht, absorbing the larger expanse of sea and islands, and I try to impart that glorious, sensual paradise that exists beyond the frantic pace of tourism taking over some of the more developed islands. There are so many contrasts of people and place, and that tension helps drive the plot and character issues for me. Susan is a fish out of water when she first arrives in the tropics, and part of the story concerns the unraveling of her preconceptions about the native society, as well as her ideas about “reality.” A scientist and self-described “logical person” from the cool, laid-back Pacific Northwest, she’s jolted by the unexpected fast pace of the tourist town and in-your-face locals, some of whom scoff at her quest for “the truth” about her brother’s drowning as well as possible pre-Columbian contact from Africa evidenced by the petroglyphs.

As a side note on creating characters: I must admit I enjoyed basing a flamboyant  anthropologist character, rejected by academia for his radical theories, on a real-life professor I had interviewed years ago about the theories of pre-Columbian contact in the Americas. He was insufferably arrogant and scoffed at the theories that, these days, are pretty much universally accepted by scholars. Just one of those little pleasures for authors!

SaraOnRuinsPeople have asked for a sequel, and Susan and other characters clearly have issues and further adventures to explore. I’ve started the next novel, set in southeast Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala, drawing on my travels in those areas. Happy trails and pages to you!

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