Wanderlust and Writing: Following Your Blood Compass

Please enjoy this encore post on one author’s fundamental need to travel, originally published March 2016.

In this ongoing series, we ask SF/F authors to describe a specialty in their lives that has nothing (or very little) to do with writing. Join us as we discover what draws authors to their various hobbies, how they fit into their daily lives, and how and they inform the author’s literary identity!

There is a secret hidden in my writing, admittedly in plain view. I will call it a hobby, so that I don’t sound too obsessed. You see, there are things I like to do and there are things I have to do, things that keep my blood pumping. The only explanation I can come up with is that I must have been born with an excess of iron. My earliest memories involve planes landing and new landscapes flowing past car windows. My parents had wanderlust, but what I have is something more fundamental. My blood, infused with some abundance of magnetized iron, spins like a compass to point to the next destination and I have no choice but to follow. I have to travel.

So, as I said, it’s my “hobby,” my dominant one. When I decided to write full-time, I knew that somehow travel needed to be integrated into the work, or I wouldn’t be able to stick with it. Travel writing perhaps? No, there was only one option. As a preteen visiting England, I read the first book that had a significant impact on me: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. Thus traveling with The Chronicles of Narnia logged some inescapable destiny within me, or revealed it. How could I then not write fantasy set in Europe? And so my distant future was set.

I resisted writing a novel for longer than most who embark on this mission, arguably for all the “right” reasons: gainful employment, dyslexia, fear. When I finally concluded that I could not die without having written at least one book, my path was clear—it would have to be fantasy and it would have to involve geographical exploration. The research phase of The Last Days of Magic took me all across Europe where I had such a great time investigating my characters and plot it made me wonder why I had waited so long. Now I travel to write, and travel while I write—the words transporting me back to the places I love.

As it turns out, literary traveling, as I like to call it, does more than satisfy my blood compass. It also produces story. The genesis of The Last Days of Magic occurred while I was hopelessly lost on the back roads of County Clare, Ireland. Instead of finding the graveyard I was looking for, I stumbled upon a small castle. Inside, framed on the wall, was the legend of Red Mary—the story of a woman who went to extremes to protect her estate, including using witchcraft. From there, my imagination took off and I began to wonder what might have happened if it was all of Irish magic she was trying to protect. Thus a storyline unfolded from a character discovered on the road.

Many other such discoveries helped build the narrative. Had I not gone to Armagh, Ireland, I would not have learned that St. Patrick enchanted his bell so that its ring would kill people. This was not the St. Patrick I learned about in Sunday school! Nor would I have discovered the trick used to draw King Richard II out of Conwy Castle had I not visited there.

Travel also brought the opportunity to write from direct experience. How could I have described the visceral sensation of running through the terrifyingly slim gap between two huge bonfires had I not actually done it? Or what it felt like to stand on the Hill of Tara under a full moon? How could I have described the otherworldly Bru na Boinne, without having entered the stone doorways myself? It was a particularly gloomy, misty, mysterious evening in Venice when I decided to locate the Vatican’s clandestine office there. Perhaps others have the ability to describe such things from afar; I don’t, nor do I even wish I could.

Map from The Last Days of Magic; art by Laura Hartman Maestro

Map from The Last Days of Magic; art by Laura Hartman Maestro

Thus the poorly hidden secret aspect of my book, that it is part travelogue. I admit to being one of those travelers who keeps a scorecard. The Last Days of Magic’s tally includes London, Paris, Oslo, Rome, Venice, Manchester, Conwy, the Isle of Mann, and Sicily—not to mention a large swath of Ireland. It is exciting to share these marvelous places with readers who may not have been there. Perhaps the novel will encourage some to explore themselves.

I am working on the next book that is set in the same magical world. The characters, those who survived The Last Days of Magic, have their motivations and destinies to play out. At the same time I will keep the storyline fresh by introducing new locations, each with its own unique mythos. There will be Ireland again, as well as France and Italian city-states. But my blood compass is spinning and settling on… Ibiza, Syria, Jerusalem, and perhaps Greece. There is only one way to find out for sure. There are characters to discover, to break, to redeem. I am feeling the urge to get on a plane…

last-days-magicMark Tompkins’ debut novel, The Last Days of Magic, is an epic novel of magic and mysticism, Celts and faeries, mad kings and druids, and the goddess struggling to reign over magic’s last outpost on the Earth. It is available now from Viking. Connect with Mark online on Facebook and Twitter, or visit his site to learn more.

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