Thank you so much Helen for this amazing guest post! Over to you...
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am generally grateful when anyone listens to anything I have to say! I can’t speak for other authors, but this is how it works for me.
When I wrote my first book, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, I was most definitely inspired by the town in which I was living at the time: Bad Münstereifel, in Germany.
I’d always wanted to write a book, and had dabbled with short stories and articles, but it wasn’t until we moved to Bad Münstereifel that the right idea came along. I find it hard to believe that anyone could live in Bad Münstereifel and not find that their imagination was stirred a bit by this fascinating little town.
It has an intriguing history – for example, in the 1400s a flash flood filled the walled town centre up like a basin and drowned quite a few people and animals. It has some stunning old buildings including two castles. Best of all, it has more ghost stories and legends than any other place I have visited. There is a headless ghost, an eternal huntsman, a terrifying fiery man who lives in a cave called the "Devil’s Hole" and a coven of witches disguised as ebony cats. I found all this so fascinating that I wanted to make it part of a book, and indeed the legends of the town are woven into the events of my first novel.
The demon of the title, Bonschariant, is actually based on a legendary demon of that name who is said to have acted as a servant to Count Sigebodo, who built Steinfeld abbey. I like to use genuine folk legends in my books because it blurs the division between fiction and reality; I’d love readers to Google Bonschariant and realise he is a "real" character and think, "Wow, how creepy."
Since writing my first two novels, I’ve actively gone out looking for new inspiration. I go to the sorts of places I find atmospheric and see what ideas present themselves. People sometimes ask me if "researching" a book takes me a long time, and I don’t quite know how to reply; I never really think of visiting interesting sites as "work" and I’d do it for the sheer love of it, even if I didn’t use the material in one of my books. I’m never happier than when poking about a 500-year-old church or a ruined castle. I’ve been up several bell-towers, down the sewers in Brussels and Paris, visited a museum of torture instruments in Gent and toured the Paris catacombs.
This kind of research is not just about soaking up atmosphere; it’s also about getting the practical details right. If I hadn’t been up those bell-towers, I would never have known how cold it is up there. You expect an unheated stone-built church to have a cool temperature, even in summer, but up the bell-tower it’s actually very cold. There is no glass in the windows, of course; the idea is to let the sound of the bells travel. So the wind blows straight in and it’s freezing. If I hadn’t been up there, I wouldn’t have known.
Of all the places I’ve visited, the Paris catacombs really stands out in my memory. You turn up at a little kiosk at street level – it looks quite nondescript really – and then descend 19 metres into the ground via a little spiral staircase. Then you have to negotiate dimly lit tunnels into you reach a stone doorway over which the following words are engraved (in French): Stop! This is the Empire of Death.
Inside are the remains of six and a half million Parisians, carefully arranged in piles. Sometimes the skulls and femurs have been arranged in decorative patterns. What surprised me about the visit was how much it moved me. To be honest, I thought it would be a thrill to visit the catacombs; I wasn’t expecting to feel touched so personally. There is something very melancholy about the anonymity of all those bones. All those people once had lives; each of them had their own story. Now it would be completely impossible to say who was who. It took me a few days to shake off that feeling of sadness, but I’m glad I went.
In 2011 we moved to Scotland. For the forseeable future I shall still be working on a series of books set in Flanders, but after that I might well set one in Scotland. With that in mind I have already started visiting the kinds of places that inspire me – ancient churches, castles, standing stones, an antiquarian library.
Who knows what ideas these places will generate? Only time will tell.