Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Researching the Book: Landscapes that Inspired UNTAMED by Madeline Dyer

Greetings Blogosphere! It's been nearly a month, but today I'm interrupting my usually scheduled radio silence to bring you something special! A guest post from the extremely talented young UK author, Madeline Dyer. I'm particularly excited because Madeline is going to tell us how she researches her setting, incorporating the familiar (the amazing Dartmoor) with the not so familiar.

Before I started writing UNTAMED, I had rather specific ideas for the landscapes in mind. I knew the world needed to be harsh and ‘unfamiliar’, and that the difficult landscapes would heighten the survival focus of the story. But I wanted the landscapes to feel new to me too, to provide me with a challenge. I wanted the setting to be exciting, and have an ‘exotic’ element which would interact with the fantasy side to the book. But, at the same time, I wanted the landscapes to be believable and realistic. And this meant a lot of research.

So, I started off with some general Google searches, looking for landscapes that felt ‘right’ or partly suitable—anything that really started to inspire me. (Unfortunately, I only discovered Pinterest a month before UNTAMED released… oops). I made hundreds of notes, poured through thousands of images of real-life places, noting down things that I liked from one, and other things from another. A few years ago, I visited Cobo Bay, in Guernsey, and found it really inspiring. It felt almost magical, with an unseen supernatural presence. Although no such Cobo Bay made it into UNTAMED, I drew on the atmosphere a lot. And, I believe, this is where my idea to include a paranormal element in UNTAMED came from, through the presence of somewhat dangerous, but hard to see, spirits of the land.
Figure 1 Cobo Bay, Guernsey

UNTAMED charts the main characters’ journey through landscapes that change, setting that are unpredictable and tests their survival skills. I already knew that I wanted the start and end landscapes to be vastly different from each other, to mark not only the distance travelled, but the characters’ emotional journeys—and I had a rough idea of which two landscapes these could be. But I needed to know how much distance there should realistically be in between the two climates, and how long it would take for characters to cross from one to another using different transport, and how one landscape would gradually merge into the other.

So, I spent a while researching countries that had two vastly different climates, making loads of notes, and bookmarking hundreds of images. But I couldn’t find any one country that fitted this rather strict requirement of having the two particular landscapes that I wanted for the beginning and end, and immediately inspired in me the same ambience for spirits and a paranormal element, that Cobo Bay did —or at least not from Google images. But the more I searched, the more I did find little parts of different places that were perfect if I slotted them together across my landscape spectrum (as I called it). And it wasn’t long before my Untamed landscape was an amalgamation of a variety of real life landscapes, and my imagination. And I was so excited. I had the perfect world mapped out for the plot to take place—but, so to speak, I hadn’t filled the map in. It was just an outline, as I hadn’t experienced all the climates myself.

If you’re read UNTAMED, you’ll know it starts in the desert, before the characters journey through a variety of landscapes, featuring rock formations, jungles, moorland and lakes. Living on the edge of Dartmoor, UK, I was most confident writing the scenes where the landscape was mainly moorland, covered in rock formations and tors.

Figure 2 Dartmoor Wild Ponies

I knew Dartmoor, but the other landscapes… well, I had no idea. But I felt so inspired by the images I had seen, that I knew I had to include them. And for that, I had to rely on research.

I started by researching habitable deserts, learning about the different types of sand, the climate, that sort of stuff. Yet for me the landscapes were more than just setting. The landscapes were the homes of the characters, and were tied intrinsically to the system of spiritual beings that I would create. To an extent, the landscapes controlled the characters and their actions, and the characters were fighting back, trying to gain the upper hand. Because UNTAMED is essentially a story about survival in near-impossible circumstances, I had to make everything difficult. By picking climates that made even the small tasks difficult for my characters, I learnt a lot about how to survive in extreme circumstances. And I learnt some fascinating stuff.

But it soon became clear to me that because I hadn’t personally experienced these climates, this was going to be a problem. There was only so much I could learn from the Internet, and I desperately wanted my writing to be authentic. With no way to physically visit a desert, I had to come up with ways around this.

I drew on previous holidays I’d been on—one to the Mallorcan mountains in particular, and I focussed on the dry climate, the food, the weather patterns, the buildings, the architecture. I loved how the mountains seemed to rise around the houses, as if protecting the villages. And the dry, dusty ground definitely made its way into the opening chapters of UNTAMED.

Figure 3 Valldemossa, with the Mallorcan Mountains behind.

But the most valuable research I did was through visiting two large biomes in Cornwall, UK. Each biome has a completely different atmosphere to UK weather, and houses several different climates. I was able to take a walk through a Mediterranean landscape, South African landscape, a Californian landscape, and a tropical rainforest—each biome section complete with birds and other wildlife too!

Okay, so these weren’t exactly deserts, but they helped me immensely—and tropical rainforests do play a part toward the end of UNTAMED, as the characters are forced to keep moving through changing landscapes.

When I was at the biomes I really got a feel for these new landscapes. I spent hours in each one, just listening and getting a feel for the place. They felt exciting. And they were inspiring—exactly what I wanted!

In one, the heat was dry and the air felt ‘thinner’; in another , the air was heavy, humid and muggy. I could hear the thick buzzing of insects, see the birds in the canopies, touch the old twisted trunks of olive trees. There was also a mine of information about the plants in the biomes too. I learnt which plants needed to have waxy leaves to survive, how they stored water for so long if they were in the drier landscapes, and which ones people used for food or building materials.

And, not only that, but the biomes also had traditional houses, African totem poles and shamanic wall paintings too. Sculptures were everywhere. Agricultural machinery was also present, and it felt so real. Just walking around these biomes helped me with the sensory descriptions in UNTAMED. The more I stayed there, the more inspired I felt.

I made pages and pages of notes—and later, I learnt that you could go inside the biomes on Google Street View too! But perhaps the most important thing that these biomes taught me was how people survive in these climates, what their routines are, and how different their culture is from ours. And once I knew this, my characters really came to life.

Because UNTAMED has strong fantasy elements, I realised that if I wanted those to be believable to readers, then everything else—including the fictitious landscapes—had to be absolutely as realistic as I could possibly get them. 

Yet, at the same time, I think you can see my own culture in this book. The setting for UNTAMED really is an amalgamation of so many things—and that’s what made it fascinating to me. There are the ‘exotic’ landscapes, and then there are more western belief systems incorporated in, and a whole bunch of other stuff, including the presence of spirits. I wanted this book to blend a lot of things together in a somewhat ambiguous way. After all, the Untamed world is a turbulent, ever-changing place, and I want my readers to feel a little of the disorientation that my characters experience.

If writing this book has taught me anything, it’s just how important the setting is in a book. It had to feel real for me, for it to feel real for my characters. The landscapes of UNTAMED play an integral role, testing both the characters who live there, and myself as a writer.

Madeline Dyer is the author of Untamed, a YA dystopian fantasy novel from Prizm Books (May 2015). She is currently working on book two in the Untamed Series, as well as a new dystopian trilogy for adults. Aside from writing, Madeline enjoys reading, painting, and inline skating.
Madeline can be found at:

Monday, June 22, 2015

Guest post by Heather McCollum, YA author of BROKEN and ovarian cancer survivor about how life and art are a reflection of each other

Thank you so much for having me here today on Salon Witz! I’m a writer of Young Adult paranormal romance and adult historical paranormal romance. My second YA book, BROKEN, released on April 1st. The heroine in this book is very special to me because we share a common problem.

Taylin Banes was cursed to live over and over without being able to love. She has died ten horrible deaths. (Okay, that’s not the issue I’ve dealt with, thank goodness!) But now that the curse is broken, Taylin has a new problem. She’s afraid of dying again, dying painfully and permanently this time, leaving behind the people she is now able to love.
And this is where Taylin and I are similar.
I am an ovarian cancer survivor. This past April 5th was the four year anniversary of the morning I woke up in a hospital bed after major surgery and was told “it is cancer.” My life would never be the same. Surgery, 5 months of intensive chemo, 10 more months of a clinical trial chemo, and 6 months of recovery has killed off all those vicious, stealthy cancer cells (triumphant fist pumping!).
Since ovarian cancer has an ugly tendency of coming back with lethal force, I’m checked every three to six months. Remission is bitter sweet. Sweet because the cancer is gone. Bitter because the thought of it returning is terrifying.

Chemo and I don’t mix well. Besides the hair loss (Everywhere! Where do those nose hairs go?), I had nerve damage throughout my body (from my teeth to my toes), sores in my mouth, toenails that turned brown and could be pulled in and out of their sockets, ulcers throughout my digestive track and bleeding end to end. The thought of going through that again, added to the thought of dying early, leaving my three kids and wonderful husband – well the fear can grab me by the throat.
When I started writing BROKEN I thought the theme would be “you can’t fear dying or you can’t really live.” It sounds like a great truth to help Taylin (and me) discover and implement. But as I approached writing the middle of the book I slowed down and eventually stopped. I just couldn’t figure out how Taylin could learn how not to fear death when she’d experienced such pain and fear. I spent days wracking my brain and dredging my creative well for something that could teach her not to fear. I came up empty.

When I met with my therapist (ah therapy, something I recommend for everyone) I mentioned how I was stuck in my book. She’s a novice writer and has great insight.

“How can I make my heroine not fear dying?” I asked.

She tilted her head. “Why should she not fear dying? Fearing death is a very human thing. If she didn’t fear dying at all, she wouldn’t be human.”

I blinked. I stared. I inhaled. “If you fear death you can’t really live.”
“I don’t know anyone who doesn’t fear dying, at least somewhat, and a lot of people live wonderful, happy lives. They just don’t dwell on death.”

Holy Crow! Taylin didn’t have to completely lose her fear, volunteering for the bomb squad or walking in dark alleys by herself at night. She just needed to learn not to allow fear to stand in the way of living. If we dwell on dying, what we would leave behind or the pain it could entail, we will miss the whole beautiful parade going by before us.

Both Taylin and I still need to work on this. Every time I have a CT scan or bloodwork drawn fear becomes large and darkens my world. But for the most part I’ve learned to acknowledge the fear and look the other way toward the beauty of living and the possibilities of each day.
I’m very lucky to have an avenue to explore my inner craziness. I wrote a blog all through my treatments about survival. It kept me sane. The posts are on my web site. http://www.heathermccollum.com/ovarian-cancer/ I plan to one day organize them into a survival book.

It is amazing how much of ourselves come out in our writing: lessons we wish to learn, people we wish to be, love we hope to find. We can learn so much about ourselves writing and we can absorb important lessons reading. I’m a firm believer that if you read enough happy endings, you will bring one your way.

Have you learned something from reading a favorite book or writing a character that resonates with your heart?

Taylin Banes’ familiar world shatters when the cruel curse that kept her unable to love is broken. Now she’s bombarded by all the human emotions she’d been forbidden over eleven lifetimes. The nightmares of her deaths crack through her tough exterior, reminding her that this last life is fragile, and fear becomes a new type of torture.

Zach Buchanan comes from a long line of Guardians and has trained with the Magic Alliance his whole life. With the shake-up in the organization over the recent end of Lamont’s curse, he’s been reassigned. He is to help The Cursed learn basic protection skills. But can Zach set aside his hatred for the infamous Taylin Banes who targeted his family two generations ago?

As Taylin and Zach clash, a sinister force rises up, targeting members of the Magic Alliance and Taylin. With her last life on the line, Zach turns from instructor to protector as the frenetic conflict sparking between them transforms into a fierce attraction. Together they must stop the malevolence threatening those with innate magic before darkness consumes them all.

Excerpt (817 words):

“Taylin, you shouldn’t walk back there in the dark.” He’s following me. I continue to head through the trees that surround the center on three sides, leading back toward the abandoned part of the institute. The stillness of the trees makes them look like they’re watching. My stomach tightens, but I keep moving, anger overriding the sheer terror that should be turning me back. I will not admit that Zach’s presence makes the night less menacing. I will not.
“Taylin,” he calls again. “We haven’t figured out who locked us in or who attacked Zoe. It isn’t safe for you to be roaming around out here.”
“If you’d stop following me, I’d stop roaming,” I throw back. One glance shows he’s closing in even though I can’t hear him. I manage to beat him to the brick building and hurry around the corner.
“I can’t,” he says, and I whirl around.
“You can’t stop following me?” I stare at his dark face in the shadows. “Is it still your job to track me, hunt me down?”
“If it was, you’d never know.” He lays heavy hands on my shoulders.
“Until you killed me. Or would you have stabbed me in my sleep so I wouldn’t know who to damn with my last breath?”
His hands drop, releasing me. “It was never my job to kill you,” he says softly.
“No, that was Patricia Ashe’s job,” I remind him. “But no one tried to stop her until she wanted to cut open the precious Siren, Jule.” Why am I talking about this? I haven’t spoken about the incident that broke the curse to anyone. Yet here I am out in the dark, vomiting it up all over Zach, a Hunter.
Zach raises his hands and I take a step backward. “She was nuts, Taylin. Alba didn’t figure out her plans until the very end. We were supposed to just watch you three.”
“And that’s why you have a tat of the blade that was supposed to kill us. Not a set of binoculars to watch us, but a triblade to slaughter us like the Hunters two hundred years ago.”
He runs a hand through his hair, looking every bit the warrior in his costume, his face hard and sliced by splashes of moonlight. “It’s an old symbol, Taylin. That’s all. It means nothing now, especially since the curse is broken.”
Stupid tears press against my eyes so I walk farther behind the old psych hospital. He follows and I breathe relief that I’m not alone out here in the dark. If he’d just leave, I could leave.
“Those of us who were trained as Hunters have been reassigned. The job is obsolete.” He grabs my arm, forcing me around.
My jaw aches. “I’m sure you’re not the only Hunter at the center. Maybe someone still wants me dead.”
“I was in that sauna with you,” he says.
“Maybe you just got in the way.”
“Or maybe you did. What if I’m the target? Someone attacked my sister.” He drops my wrist. “Taylin,” he says and stares hard at me. “I get it.” He looks sincere, but his expression borders on pity. I almost pop him in the nose, but I want to hear this.
“You get it?” I ask.
“Yeah. You’ve lived life after life knowing you’d be born again. This is the first time you’ve had to face mortality. When you die now, you die for good. That change would freak anyone out.”
I stare at him, unmoving, but the tension in my chest presses hard. He takes a step closer, his voice low. “Everyone is afraid of dying, Taylin. I know what that’s like. It’s the unknown.”
“So,” I start just as low, drawing out the word. “You’ve got me figured out.” My smile is anything but warm. I nod. “So, Zach Buchanan, you know what it’s like to have a blade jammed into your middle, slicing open your intestines like they are sausages. You know how it feels to refuse chemo because no matter what docs give you, it won’t work and you’ll waste away. You know the burn in your lungs as you breathe in water until the world around you fades away.” I shake my head but keep my eyes on him. “Oh, how about dying of scarlet fever, alone, because no one wants to risk caring for you? And my all-time favorite, being burned alive.”
“Shit, Taylin,” he murmurs. “You’ve been burned alive?”
I blink and push his pity behind my hard eyes. “Luke shot me in the forehead with a crossbow before the flames reached me.”
He rubs a hand over his face but still watches me. I release a bitter chuckle and glance upward so the tears will stay put inside. “You, Zach, are afraid of the unknown.” I level my gaze on him. “I am afraid of the never-will-forget.”

Heather McCollum is an award winning, historical and YA paranormal romance writer. She earned her B.A. in Biology, much to her English professor’s dismay, and was a 2009 Golden Heart Finalist.
When she is not picking her teen’s brain for authentic attitude and finding time to write, she is usually found educating women on ovarian cancer symptoms. Ms. McCollum has recently slayed the cancer beast and resides with her very own hero and 3 kids in the wilds of suburbia on the mid-Atlantic coast.

For more info about Heather and her books, please visit her web site at www.HeatherMcCollum.com. She can also be found here: