I needed to make several research trips to the UK while writing my medieval crime series, The Janna Mysteries, so that I could walk in my character’s footsteps and see what she would have seen (and also try to visualise some of it from the ruins of castles and abbeys.) I walked for miles, armed with guide books to the areas, maps and also books to help me identify trees, wildflowers and herbs, birds and other creatures. And I kept a photographic and written record of my travels, along with a notebook of ideas, as what I saw often stimulated further plot possibilities – for example, the decision to visit Stonehenge, made on a whim and only because I was in the vicinity looking at the site of the once-famous Amesbury Abbey, led to a vision of a bleeding body stretched out on one of the fallen monoliths which then became a crucial plot point in Willows for Weeping, Book 4 of The Janna Mysteries. The experience of, effectively, living and describing Janna’s life was so intense that even now, some years later, I remember everything I saw with great clarity. There are still times when I feel quite disorientated; when I feel homesick for a country that is not, and has never been, mine. On nights when I can’t sleep, I often take myself on walks through Grovely Wood (or the ancient forest of Gravelinges as it was then) imagining how it used to be, or remembering how it was when I roamed through it. It has shrunk in size, but the deer are still there although the wild boar and wolves have gone. There is also a wide ‘road’ through most of it now, but even so I sometimes got lost, just as travellers got lost almost a thousand years ago. I remember these research trips in far more detail than I remember more recent holidays, much and all as I enjoyed them at the time. But it was only on a recent trip to Bali that I worked out why. I was snorkeling over a beautiful coral reef near an island off Sulawesi, enjoying the moment, when I became aware just how noisy fish are! I began to listen more carefully, trying to describe in my mind what I was hearing. The solid crunch as a parrot fish bit into coral; clicks like stuttering electricity as a shoal of small fish flickered past; a low growling and a sort of contented purring – where did they come from?? I enjoy snorkeling, and have done it quite often in the past, so I know some of the fish categories. Later, I tried to put specific names to what I’d seen: not just butterfly fish but Saddled, or Meyers or Pyramid butterfly fish; not just angel fish but Regal or Lemon Peel. There were black and white banded sea snakes, and equally poisonous lion fish, strikingly pretty with all their frills. There were also lots of my favourite Nemos: black, orange and blue, or orange and white, or pink, and sometimes even a bright tomato red, nestling in anemones in shades of pink, purple, green and white. How to describe the octopus that crept out of its cave and oozed along, changing shape and colour as it flowed over and through cracks and crevasses, almost indistinguishable from its surrounds as, in the blink of an eye, it turned black, brown, speckled white and grey and even red in its navigation over the reef. Utterly thrilling and, now that I’ve put it into words, utterly unforgettable. Is it that authors don’t really ‘see’ anything until they consciously describe what’s in front of them? And does that mean that the new is easier to write about than the familiar which has become so much a part of one’s landscape that nothing in particular stands out? I’d be interested to hear what you think.


  1. It always felt like an honour to read something about how an author takes their inspirations or just how much their books affect them as well. Personally, I believe that familiarising yourself with what you’re writing makes the process easier – because you understand the environment and what makes it stand apart from other places, and I feel that the New is always harder to put into words than the familiar.

    Also, I just wanted to say, I’ve been reading Janna’s books since the first one came out when I was 12, and I am so glad I can finally read the conclusion of her story 7 years on. I love your work so much, and I can’t thank you enough for sharing this story with us!

  2. Hi Lia,
    first up, thank you for your lovely comments about the Janna Mysteries! I really hope you enjoy reading the conclusion of her quest. Thank you also for your thoughtful comment about writing the familiar as opposed to writing the new. Perhaps I should have emphasised that I believe you need to familiarise yourself with whatever you write about – hence my research trips to the UK to write the Janna Mysteries. But coming to scenarios with a fresh eye, so’s to speak, I think enables you to pick out (and emphasise) their special qualities as opposed to the mundane when setting the scene. But – arguing against myself here – writing the familiar means there are far fewer traps for the unwary, and you can be sure of ‘telling the truth’ when you write something. I suppose what I was really getting at, in my blog on noisy fishy, is that when I describe the new things I’m seeing, when I put them into words, whether on paper or in my head, the scene becomes much clearer because I’m identifying (in words) what I’m actually looking at. If that makes sense??

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