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.)
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?