Landscapes have a tendency to set off questions in my head, about what lies below the surface of a place and what possibilities there might be.
I live in a beautiful part of the world, near glens could be taken straight from fairy tales, beside the crashing ocean, close to caves and mountains. When the land and my imagination combine, they take on a new shape. Therein lies the challenge. How to capture a place, so that it is true to itself, but also use it in a story.
One of the key scenes in my fantasy novel, Waters and the Wild, takes place on a lonely hillside, beside an ancient stone ring. I visited the site – called Oisin’s grave – on a holiday a few years back. (In fact, that holiday pretty much forms the basis of the settings in the book. It’s one way of bringing back a souvenir, I suppose…)
There are a number of legends about the site. One is that it is an ancient burial site. The other, more exotic, tells that Oisin was granted eternal life but only if he stayed in Tir-na-Nog. But he wanted to see the beauty of the Antrim Glens once more and was granted the boon to return, with one caveat – if he set foot on land he would become mortal. Now, Oisin was a great horseman and he rode to the hillside, but his horse stumbled and Oisin fell to the ground to die.
Coupled with such fabulous mythology, there is another side to the site. A small cairn marks the memorial spot to John Hewitt, who is known as the Poet of the Glens.
For me, on that grey afternoon (it was summer, hence not raining continuously) I looked between the circle and the memorial and felt that the death of a mythical hero and a poet’s memorial must combine to create strong magic. Which is all well and good – but how do I make that scene fit the story?
Remember that I said the whole book was based around places I visited that summer? I’m a big believer in my subconscious and how much work it does in forming stories and I’m sure it sorted through the places we visited and decided which fitted into some kind of pattern. However it works, I was left with three key sites in which to place scenes:
Glenariff, the biggest of the nine glens of Antrim, forms the opening of the book. The great waterfall behind the Larragh Lodge attracts tourists from all over. It could be fairyland with its golden, peaty water, its wooden walkways, the small rivulets forming into tiny pools that could be fairy baths. It is impossible – for me, anyhow – not to be moved by the setting.
Oisin’s grave, the site I talked about above and sea-caves at Cushendall, which lead to a barred gate and a hidden house beyond.
To me, none of these settings lack darkness. They’re full of shadows and biting winds on bleak hills. Crashing waves hemmed in by giant rocks on every side. What could live in those caves and fields? The obvious answer was the fae – and fairies in Ireland are not considered sweet little things. They’re feared by people who live in the rural areas, and placated.
So it was that I started to work out what magic I wanted to write about. A dark, old magic, stretching back into mythology, but one close enough to the surface to break through. That magic made sense of the place – and the place gave shape to the magic, a realness that it would not otherwise have had. Which meant, when I came to the write, the two worlds – our modern world and my fae world – crept in and out of each other, seamless and all the more fearsome for it.
I hope, if you read the book, you like what I’ve done with the land and its myths. I hope it makes sense that there might be things we can’t see or know – and that those things make fertile ground for a story, if we have time to find it.
Recently listed as one of the Guardian’s Top 10 Irish sf authors, Jo writes stories based both in her native Northern Ireland and her fictional world of Abendau. An Amazon bestseller, she has appeared in numerous anthologies and online magazines. Find out more on her website or on her IQ author page.