07 February 2015

Fantastic Settings & Real-Life Inspirations: Rookwood Marshes

My novel, The Name and the Key, is set in a fictional universe that really is an echo of our own. I wanted the setting to be plausible and realistic for the reader in order to accomplish the suspension of disbelief integral to speculative fiction. I've taken inspiration from real-life places I've loved in order to create the world of The Name and the Key.

Rookwood Marshes

Rookwood Marshes refers to an undefined area outside of the Camomescro campsite, where Lily meets with Zurca and Andresh for the first time. After the first night at camp, Andresh convinces Lily to sneak off into the forest with him, which leads directly into a tragic scene that takes place in the actual marshes--the discovery of her mother's body.
"We arrived at a clearing well into the woods, where the trees thinned so the forest seemed brighter, but felt colder. The wind picked up when we dismounted, and shook the leaves from their branches. I eyed the path that stretched behind us while Andresh tethered the restless Ashena to the trunk of a large maple."
--From The Name and the Key

The path at Gorman Nature Center. (c) KEB.

I had a wonderful childhood where a large chunk of it was spent outside in the woods. At a very young age, my grandmother took us on hikes through the forest, and a popular haunt was Gorman Nature Center. While I walked, I actively pictured entire scenes playing out in front of me. I thought I was in Sherwood Forest with Robin Hood, or at other times, following Tecumseh on a secret trail, evading soldiers. I didn't consider the forest as a forest, but a movie set.

It was only natural that decades later, the forests of my childhood would pop up in my fiction.  I envisioned a forest like the one within Gorman Nature Center as I wrote, and it was only while I was working through a draft of The Name and the Key that I decided to take photos (and video) of the places that inspired me. Especially for moments where I needed to capture details that appealed to the five senses.

"The wind picked up again and tickled the trees, rousing limbs and shaking leaves in their branches." --The Name and the Key

That particular video helped me with thinking about how the forest sounds. And interestingly, if you're in the woods on a windy day, it almost sounds like the waves in the ocean. That in and of itself can be a beautiful image, especially in prose.

Aside from observing the scents and sounds of the forest, one of the more important missions I set on was to observe the actual marshes within the park's 150 acres. The grounds have both marshes and ponds, and I wanted to make sure I clearly understood the differences between them. To be honest, there's very few. The only substantial note I could come up with is that for marshes, the vegetation dominates the water, whereas in a pond, the water dominates the vegetation.

The marshlands at Gorman Nature Center. (c) KEB.

When I first wrote the forest scenes where the marshes play an integral role, I relied on my memory of the Gorman Nature Center pond for the initial descriptions. My mental images provided a more delicate sensibility, and I wanted to capture that when I wrote the descriptions leading up to the discovery of Lily's mother. In my mind, I was writing a fantasy with fairy-tale elements, so I thought a more romantic depiction of the death scene would be suitable.

There's a tradition of romanticism when it comes to the image of the drowned woman--it's an object of fascination for photographers and painters. As someone who's drawn to pre-Raphaelite art, the particular image of Ophelia, as painted by John Everett Millais, always drove my vision of Lily's mother Estella, lying in the water, her golden hair floating around her.

Ophelia by John Everett Millais. 1851. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
But some of the harshest critiques I received on The Name and the Key came about because of the imagery I chose for this scene.

Even when writing fantasy, there's still the burden of realism, and as much as I would like Estella to be Millais's Ophelia, reality dictates otherwise. 

People do not come out of the water like this.  And this death is not tranquil, despite how "quiet" drowning can be.

It ended up being one of the most challenging rewrites for me, to scrap the romanticism of the drowned woman and replace it with horrific reality. This did improve the manuscript and made for a more compelling story. Even so, I tried to contrast the ugliness of human decomposition with beautiful scenery, perhaps to in order to confuse Lily and compound her lack of awareness of the situation around her; perhaps I wanted to soften the blow for the character (and readers) by pairing an ugly death with descriptions of beautiful life.
"Gold and green algae surrounded me on all sides as my feet sank into the muddy floor. Several water lilies floated ahead of me while groups of tall cattail reeds hovered above them and shook in the wind. A section of the reeds thinned out, revealing clusters of rose mallow and wild angelica in a marriage of pink and white, dusted by bits of green clover; a strange and lovely contrast to the dreariness of the marsh. There was an odd familiarity to it all, as if I'd seen shades of it in a dream." --The Name and the Key 
Rose mallow and wild angelica. Images (cc) Wikimedia Commons.

That description took quite a bit of research to write! Only some of the specific flora mentioned in the passage above I found at Gorman Nature Center. Aside from cattail reeds and water lilies, there weren't a lot of flowers for me to identify; the exception being Queen Anne's Lace, which I thought was a bit too "earthly" for the book. I wanted to settle on plants that had a variety of species and subspecies and grew on various continents--things that existed in the real world, but couldn't be specifically pinned to a real-world location. And it helped that these flowers have very pretty, vivid names to work with, which made the passage sound much lovelier than I anticipated. It's one of my favorite brief setting descriptions in the entire novel.

The water lily pond at Gorman Nature Center. (c) KEB.

 That's it for Rookwood Marshes! If you would like to switch locations, feel free to stop by the coastal town of Mariner while you're touring the world of The Name and the Key. More posts and settings coming soon.

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