Traveling to Poughkeepsie, by Way of Rome


This time, last week, I was in Rome, Italy.  I was enjoying a family vacation that I had been looking forward to for months.  I was eating pasta.  Or I was eating gelato.  Or I was traipsing through ancient ruins.  Or I was studying art so powerful it took my breath away.

I was coming up with story ideas.

One of the most frequent questions we get asked, as writers, is “Where do you get your ideas?”  (Come on.  Raise your hand if you’ve heard that one.  OK, I can’t count that high.  Raise your hand if you’re the only writer in the world who *hasn’t* heard it.)  Neil Gaiman famously answered the question “from the Idea of the Month Club.”  Harlan Ellison answered “Poughkeepsie.”  (Or “Schenectady”, depending on which source you read.)

My answer is “everywhere.”

The trick is, the ideas don’t come in neat little wrapped up packages.  If I lifted them, wholesale, everyone would say, “Oh, yeah, I heard about that before.  No need to read about that in your book!”  Instead, the ideas come in dribs and drabs, one bit from here, another from there.

One example:  In my upcoming DARKBEAST series, the people who reside in the primacy of Duodecia worship a dozen gods.  Each god has unique characteristics — an area of control (money, war, darkbeasts), an animal sigil (white mare, dun cow, chestnut hound), a godhouse (marble columned rectangle, slate square, brick circle).  These attributes are sprinkled through the story — they’re so well-known to the characters that they’re hardly worth remarking on.

Except, the world order is changing in DARKBEAST.  There are powerful forces at work that are going to upset the known and the familiar. And one of those forces involves a new religion (or, to be more precise, the revelation of an older religion.)

Enter Rome.

Rome, of course, is a city of layers.  The contemporary city sits lightly on top of Mussolini’s grand fascist constructions.  Those, in turn, build on Renaissance palaces, which were built out of medieval rubble (all that sacking leaves a lot of rubble.)  In antiquity, there was Imperial Rome, and Republican Rome before it, with the Kingdom of Rome and Etruscan settlement back before that.  Layer upon layer upon layer, the city reveals its true self.

For example, the Basilica of San Clemente has a twelfth-century building, complete with gilded mosaics, a tessera floor, and all the trappings of a late-medieval, early-Renaissance Catholic church.  Walk down a flight of stairs, though, and there is a fourth-century basilica — lower ceilings, smaller chapels, darker frescoes and mosaics reflecting a newly-accepted official religion.  Walk down *another* flight of stairs, and there is a Roman house, with dozens of small rooms.  And walk down a hallway in that house, and there is a mithraeum.

A what?  A mithraeum — a temple dedicated to the worship of Mithras, a sun god who may or may not have been imported from Persia, who was worshiped by many Roman soldiers around the time that Christianity was coming into existence.  Scholars estimate that there were once more than 700 mithraea in Rome; all but a very small handful were eradicated as the Catholic church came to power.  Mithraea are typically underground.  They consist of a rectangular room with long benches where worshipers shared ritual meals.  Altars were decorated with plaques showing Mithras slaying a bull.  The altars are often under shafts of light that penetrate from the surface.  There is almost always flowing water (in the case of San Clemente, there’s a subterranean stream that surfaces at three different places in the Roman house and can be heard beneath the mithraeum.)

Am I going to lift Mithras-worship wholesale and drop it into my secondary fantasy world?  No, of course not.  But I’m going to capture the feeling of that underground chamber — the chill of the water in the air, the glimmer of dust in the shaft of light.  I’m going to fold in the notion of “underground” religion — literally and figuratively.  I’m going to pick and choose details, molding them into my unique world of Duodecia.

After all, that’s what worldbuilding is all about — not just creating (and showing) the *present* world, but illustrating its *past* as well.  Here, in the real world, we’re constantly looking at renewal — whether we call it gentrification, urban reform, or “ruins”.  My goal is to put that depth into my stories.

So, how about you?  What real-world places have found their way into your work?  And how have you changed them to fit your stories?


16 comments to Traveling to Poughkeepsie, by Way of Rome

  • I can’t say that I’ve lifted a specific place, but when I envision scenes, they start as having a “base” setting somewhere I’ve visited or somewhere I know. It helps give me a sense of place. At one point in my WIP, I have a desert setting. Going to Vegas (and watching the landscape below as we near McCarran Airport) has been useful.

    It also really helps that I live in Vancouver and grew up on the North Shore, where I spent quite a bit of my childhood hiking trails and crashing about in the woods. Perfect for high fantasy!

  • Okay, I’ll raise my hand: no one ever asks me that (about where my ideas come from).

    Then again… I’m not a published author. No one really has a reason to ask me that.

    I get ideas from all sorts of places as well: dreams, news, mythology, places I’ve visited (mostly for flavor rather than for plot ideas) as well as a good amount of light-lifting and heavy-shaking from other stories (i.e. taking ideas from other stories and shaking them up and spinning them into something hopefully new and different).

  • History is, metaphorically speaking, a lot like Rome is on a very literal level–layered. I love the link and the way you show it so clearly, Mindy. Great post.

  • I lifted a river in middle-north Tennessee and used the rocks the way it flowed. And…uh… I used the Mithrans. Yeah. In the Jane Yellowrock novels. It’s what the vampirs call themselves, with a history that is being revealed book by book. I am sure my Mithrans will be nothing like your religion in your world. But — Small world! Ideas are like that!

  • Well, I was born in Seattle, and have lived my entire life ‘cept for a few years in Pittsburgh for college. Kinda natural to gather my stories from my home stomping grounds. And there are so many different worlds here to draw from. Rural. Island. High tech. Gothic. Lotsa good stuff.

    However, I’ve done a lot of traveling. My goal is to hit all of the James Bond locations, including space. I may skip Uganda, North Korea and a few others. At least in this century. I’ve actually lived through some good stories in some great exotic locales, such as Egypt, Thailand, Turkey and most of Europe (Old Greek fishermen + crazy Australians + a lot of Ouzo + computer nerds make for interesting evenings). Those are assuredly going to find their way into some future works.

    More important for me, though…all of the interesting people I’ve met along the way. I’m really into character, so most of my memorable experiences involve crazy adventures with other people. Good thing I’m not shy.

  • Laura – Ah, that outdoors experience… I wish I had more of it. (I rarely lift places *directly*, although I did use Orvieto’s well, the Pozzo di San Patrizio, in one of the Glasswrights books…)

    Stephen – You just have to tell more people that you *are* writing, even if you’re not yet published! ::grin:: I like the notion of “light-lifting” and “heavy-shaking”. I also like the “one from column a and one from column b” approach, borrowing notions from disparate works and recombining them…

    Edmund – The more I think about worldbuilding, the more obsessed I get with layers. No matter *which* history we study, there are always deeper levels…

    Faith – It *is* a small world, isn’t it. I look forward to reading about your Mithrans!

    Roxanne – I have to admit, I laughed when I read your James Bond goal. Now, to hit those places in the company of the Bond-of-my-choice… And yes, I “borrow” people too. A lot. 🙂

  • mudepoz

    *sigh*. It’s my life. Just my life. I am surrounded by zombies who walk into my carts in the morning. Skeletons that need to be articulated. Once put together, yeah, it’s fun to celebrate by dancing with them. Hornworms are bored, so we race them. It wasn’t my fault the crickets escaped in the office! AGH! Who opened the bin and left it open, how many mice just ran into the greenhouse? No. No! NO! Don’t let the Animal Rights guys know we are pitching piggies on that day, they make a mess when they pitch them out. OMG! The physarum escaped! You might not want to use that cup anymore. No, I didn’t pour anything into it, you left a swallow of coffee in it and the Rhyzopus took up housekeeping. Email: Will whoever left the biohazardous waste in the autoclave room come and contain, kill and clean it up. Thank you very much.

    I have plants that make Audrey look tame. I have bones that weren’t degreased in the 1800’s and apparently no one noticed until I opened the boxes. I have been stabbed and infected by a porcupine killed in 1849.

    The real question isn’t where do I get my ideas, it’s more, will the story of my life be believed as non-fiction?

  • Timely post, Mindy. I just got my panel assignment for World Fantasy, and I’m on a panel about getting how visiting new places influences our fantasy worlds. My experience in Australia, where my family and I lived for a year, informed a lot of the worldbuilding for my Blood of the Southlands series and continues to percolate through my work. There’s also a magnificent beach on a barrier island in Georgia that appeared in my first book, and will appear in others as well.

  • Razziecat

    I haven’t done all that much traveling, but bits & pieces of places find their way into my stories. The brick-red soil I saw in Oklahoma will probably turn up in something. I’ve lived all my life in a city and one of my favorite trips was to London, so winding streets, old stone buildings, dark alleys and tall towers pop up. Even the places I haven’t visited–Greece, Egypt, ancient Damascus, the African plains–still give me feelings of awe and mystery when I read about them, so I try to blend those feelings into my work.

  • mudepoz – I don’t know which of those facts/ideas *you* are going to use, but I suspect that you just inspired a bunch of us to come up with Halloween-appropriate fiction!

    David – I saw the WFC schedule and laughed when I saw your panel. Wish that I could be there…

    Razziecat – I’m consistently surprised by how the “mundane” things in our everyday lives are exotic to other people! (And yes, we don’t have to travel physically to be inspired – I find some of my best settings browsing online…)

  • I pretty much lifted the cathedral at Rheims France and used it as a base for the Grand Temple in my WIP. How can you not use such imposing architecture. For anyone who hasn’t been into one of the great cathedrals, you don’t know what you are missing. They are mind-numbing in their scale.
    PS: avoid Notre Dame in paris as it is over crowded and you’ll lose the effect. Go to Tours, Rheim or even Der Dom in Mainz Germany. That thing was built more than 1000 years ago. Take that Machu Pichu

  • I spent my youth (7 through 12) running wild in mountains. I spent my teens riding horses through the deserts of Arizona. Since then, Japan, the South and the Plains states. And they all appear in my stories. I’m fascinated with religions – how they were formed, grew, changed over the years; how the different sects formed and split from the main. And I’ve mutated them even more! People – Oy! What can I say about people! Airports, malls, midnight at Walmart – all such rich idea factories. And then there are the horses, dogs, jackasses (2 and 4 footed), lizards, rabbits, pigs and other assorted critters I’ve known and loved…

  • Unicorn

    I am one of those desperately horse-crazy teens, and my biggest source of ideas is definitely the horses. Exploring places on my trusted mare often inspires new settings for the current intrepid hero and his valiant steed to travel through. As for galloping full speed up a hill on a spirited horse in a high wind, well, to say the least, it’s an instant cure for writer’s block. I’m lucky to ride in some of Africa’s most magnificent country alongside some of its most beautiful wildlife. Trotting through shoulder-high golden grass, watched by wildebeest and zebra… it’s pretty much an idea overload.
    Thanks for the great post, Mindy.

  • sjohnhughes – When I was 16, I fell in love with the cathedral in Le Mans, the first large cathedral I’d ever seen. When I revisited it, decades later, it did not move me at all. I think that my initial response had been to the scale and the … aspiration conveyed there. I’ve tried to capture that feeling in some of my books, without drawing on specific buildings…

    Lyn – I, too, am fascinated by religions, particularly by ones that are syncretic. As for jackasses – I know far too many of them 🙂

    Unicorn – My “horse” phase was very short, and I was very young (I’m a physical coward, at heart…) I love reading good fiction where the authors know that horses are not just slow cars, though! (And yes, yes, yes, about finding a mental release to let the thoughts flow free – for me, it tends to be the shower 🙂 )

  • I use lots of real places in my mystery/thrillers. Some of them you just walk into and KNOW there’s a story here. The most memorable for me is probably the Fontanelle, an underground ceremetery where the bones are simply stacked up against the walls in Naples, which I used for my Thomas Knight thriller, On the Fifth Day. You can see some of the researchg pictures I took mid way down this page: Not for the faint of heart…