I just got back from Edinburgh. It was my first trip over the England/Scotland border, and my partner, Sandy’s first time out of England ever. As always when I go away, I didn’t want to come home, and although Sandy will maintain he’s a homebody at heart, I don’t think he wanted to come home either.
Edinburgh is a beautiful city, but most people don’t need me to tell them that. It’s full of good food, friendly people, and very expensive alcohol (like, really expensive alcohol!). For me, it was a way of going on holiday without having to totally give up on my PhD: Scotland was famous for its witch trials, and of course the reigning monarch for much of my research period was James I & VI, a Scotsman. Whilst there, I met a fellow researcher studying the Renaissance, though his specialty lies in Venetian Renaissance history. Technically, it is a significant place in my PhD’s geography.
Of course, for those of you who, like me, are categorically obsessed with Harry Potter Edinburgh has even more significance. The ‘Elephant House’ café on George IV street was where J.K. Rowling wrote the first parts of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, a fact it loudly proclaims on the front of the store as the ‘birthplace of Harry Potter’. Victoria Street and Cockburn Street (where I actually stayed!) both claim to be the inspiration for Diagon Alley, the wizarding street home to Olivander’s Wand Shop, Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes, and Eeylops Owl Emporium. There’s even a cemetery where people bearing the names McGonagall, Moodie, and Tom Riddell appear: bearing many similarities to characters in Rowling’s series of books. The beautiful landscape of Scotland is undoubtedly the inspiration for Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry; it’s not hard to see why.
As a huge Harry Potter nerd, Edinburgh was a bit of a pilgrimage for me. I went to the graveyard. I made Sandy take eight million pictures of me fangirling over the Elephant House. I marveled at the scenery, realizing in the few days I was there exactly why Rowling wanted to set her magical world amongst the enchanting landscape of this country.
I knew that this would happen. I knew, as I booked a hotel in our own Muggle-world Diagon Alley, that I would fall in love with the city that spawned my generation’s major obsession. I knew I wouldn’t want to leave: what I didn’t know was that it would re-kindle the fire in my chest that makes me write.
My own novel, Viper, is very much a work-in-progress. By work-in-progress, I quite simply mean this: it is completely unfinished. I have the finished, untitled, stage play that it was based on, but as a novel it is about half done. It’s rough around the edges, with many a square bracket note to myself saying that I need to [FIX THIS BIT], [ADD A BIT MORE?], or some other vague, nonsensical comment. There is a lot that needs sorting, a lot still to write, and a hell of a lot that I should be doing. Unfortunately, I am not doing it.
Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? I’m a writer: I have been a writer since I was 13 years old and discovered fanfiction.net, where I could write the stories I wanted to see in Harry Potter (i.e. Hermione ends up with Fred) and Doctor Who (i.e. the Doctor just got around to telling Rose Tyler). They were mostly romantic, almost entirely ridiculous, and bloomin’ brilliant fun to write. I used to be able to knock out a 30+ chapter fanfiction in a week. I progressed to writing little dramatic sketches, sometimes comic, sometimes not so comic. All of them were intended for my university theatre company; none of them saw the light of day because I’m so horribly nervous about sharing my work. I wrote hundreds, all of them still stored on various USB sticks around my house. Then, I wrote a full length play. I didn’t give it a title, and one day I decided to turn it into a novel. To this day, I have no idea why. It would eventually become Viper.
Unfortunately, I did a thing called “growing up” (not highly recommended at all), got two degrees and decided to get a PhD, did not get funding so started working three jobs to pay for it all. Now, when I sit down to write that novel, I don’t have that ability to bring my world to life in front of me straight away. Maybe it’s because Viper is the first time I’ve actually attempted a novel, with my own characters and my own world. I put Viper forward to be published by Endever, and for some unknown, brilliant, reason, they accepted; maybe it’s the fear of people actually reading my work that keeps me from writing as quickly as I used to.
But Edinburgh. My word, Edinburgh. Something about stepping foot in that city, the city that spawned what would eventually become a hallmark of my childhood (and more than a little bit of nostalgia in my adult life) through Harry Potter; the city that gave us Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of my beloved Sherlock Holmes; the place that was home to one of the writers who inspired my love of Gothic fiction, Robert Louis Stevenson. Something about Edinburgh has made me want to write, and write voraciously, again.
Viper is not set in Scotland. It’s not really set anywhere. The village where the majority of the action takes place is a small, sleepy one, somewhere in England. It is simply called “L-” (a small homage to another childhood favorite, Jane Eyre). It doesn’t have dramatic landscapes, or quaint closes. There is a distinct lack of tartan or cashmere, and there is almost no whiskey whatsoever (save that consumed in the making of). There are no bagpipes, and, more importantly, hopefully no stereotypes. There is no magic, no small closes to be turned into wild and wonderful magical worlds.
But somehow beneath all of the Harry Potter lip service and the historical brilliance of this city, there was something there that resonated with me on a much more instinctual level, and with Viper. A little beating heart of community, of a wonderfully friendly atmosphere with a hidden darkness. The gorgeous man-made landscape of Prince’s Street Gardens, a site of death for many women accused of witchcraft in the Renaissance. A heart paved into the street, once the door to Old Tolbooth, a place of horrific torture and incarceration, now the only place in the city where it is legal to spit. A beautiful view over the Old Town from the New, where we saw a girl get her handbag stolen, the mugger throwing things out of the bag to make her stop chasing him. We went to the Edinburgh Dungeons (go at once if you haven’t been, it’s amazing) and learnt more about torture devices than I thought possible. I also learnt that my nyctophobia is still alive and kicking, but that I do, in fact, enjoy being dropped from a height.
This is probably going to sound a bit weird, but that’s the side of humanity I just can’t stop looking for. The side of our species that burns each other, spits, tears out tongues, and sticks butcher’s hooks in places you really don’t care to imagine. I love fear, even my own, and the twisted part of our mind that reaches out when we’re scared silly. Viper isn’t a “scary” book, it’s never going to be: but it does deal with the side of humanity that most people don’t like to see, the side that we ignore in favour of the pretty gardens and friendly people. In the same way, Viper follows a girl from that underbelly of society as she connects with people who have no understanding of that place. I suppose, in a way, I’m even doing this for my PhD, which looks at representations of religious madness in early modern drama. It’s the mad, the dark, the witches, and the ‘devils’ that are interesting to me. I can’t help but look for this, even when I’m meant to be relaxing and, you know, enjoying myself.
As an author, you tend to find inspiration in the strangest of places. I suppose, when I think about it, it’s not really that surprising that a city like Edinburgh was so integral to my sudden burst of creativity, but I certainly wasn’t expecting it. Hopefully, this one lasts long enough to get me closer to the end of my novel, which really should be finished by now (sorry, everyone at Endever!), so I can finally reach the dizzying heights of being a published author.
If it’s not too self-indulgent, I’d like to leave you with a small snippet from Viper:
David’s curiosity got the better of him. ‘Then what do you believe in?’