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: