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Thursday, September 25, 2014


Award-winning author Karen McCullough’s wide-ranging imagination makes her incapable of sticking to one genre for her storytelling. As a result, she’s the author of more than a dozen published novels and novellas, which span the mystery, fantasy, paranormal, and romantic suspense genres. A former computer programmer who made a career change into being an editor with an international trade publishing company for many years, she now runs her own web design business to support her writing habit. Learn more about Karen and her books at her website and blog.

Inspiration in the Details

I recently made a trip to England. A few years ago, my only son went to graduate school in Wales, met his future wife there, and later got a job with Osprey Press in Oxford. Two months ago, he and his wife welcomed a new member to the family, a baby daughter, so of course we had to head over there to meet her. We had a great visit, enjoyed being with them, and delighted in getting to hold and cuddle the new grandchild.

Oxford is an interesting place to visit. Millions of tourists can’t be wrong—and they’re not. Despite the crowds of tour groups and visitors that pack the city in summer, it’s fun just to walk the streets and soak in the history, but there’s also the wonderful Ashmolean Museum, the Sheldonian Theatre, the Bodleian Library, the Museum of Science, the Children’s Story Museum, and all the various colleges, some of which are open for tours at various times. For a writer, there’s all sorts of inspiration.

For me, it’s generally specific things that spark ideas. It’s not that long since I got back, so I haven’t had time to develop any of these into stories yet, but they will be. Here are a few things from the trip that are going to be part of my stories some day.

The Story Machine
One of the more fascinating items I saw was the Victorian Story Machine that resides in the Children’s Story Museum in Oxford. This incredible, steam-punkish item supposedly harnesses the power of a child’s imagination to generate new and unique stories. I have no idea how or even if the thing was supposed to actually do anything, but the possibilities… Oh, my goodness, I already have several story ideas!  Suppose someone could invent a story machine that actually worked? What effect would it have on the kids?  The adults who heard those stories? The whole publishing industry?  Or perhaps someone created some other interesting invention in the process of trying to make this work?  Or it was put there by an alien culture trying to figure out what makes us humans tick?  I like to take my story ideas in any direction they’re willing to go, no matter how absurd. I never know when one idea might rub up against another and spark an explosion of…story!

The Ashmolean Museum of Oxford is home to one of the most interesting, mysterious and beautiful items from Anglo-Saxon English history: the Alfred jewel. More about this unique item here, but what struck me was how sophisticated the design was for the time period and just what a beautiful piece of art it is. We think of that time period as being part of the “Dark Ages,” but clearly an appreciation for design, color, and form was already well-developed, and certain crafts were already being practiced at a high level of skill.
The Alfred Jewel

There are so many things you could do with something like this. An historical romance about the jewel’s creation. A mystery where a second version of the jewel showed up and was judged just as legitimate as the one in the museum. A heist from the museum. Of maybe a fantasy where items like this were created for magical purposes. So many possibilities!

This one may seem a bit obvious, even trite, given the number of stories it’s already inspired, but I have to mention it anyway: Stonehenge. I’ve seen pictures of it all my life and I’ve read plenty of books and stories in which it, or other stone circles, figured. But even so, I was stunned when I saw the actual thing.  It’s not the thought of the work involved in building it without modern tools and transport or even speculation about the function. It’s just the sheer physical impact of it. Although they have almost nothing else in common, seeing it with your own eyes has some of the effect as seeing the Grand Canyon. No picture can quite convey the scale of it, the sheer monumentality of size and grandeur.

Do I actually have to talk about all the possibilities?  So many books have already been done using Stonehenge and other stone circles – historical romances, time travel, mysteries, etc.

When people ask me where I get my ideas, I tell them ideas are all around us. You just have to set your imagination loose on everything you see, do, hear, and experience.

In going through some old books that my husband had gotten from older members of his family, I found several ancient tomes with hand-written pages. Some of it was barely legible. At about the same time, I needed to write a gothic novella for an anthology and the book came to mind.  I’d been visiting my daughter recently and she has a cookbook she refers to as her Grimoire. The ideas began to jiggle against each other, and Guardian of the Grimoire resulted.  A year or so ago, I got back the rights to the story and have re-released it as an ebook. It’s just $1.99.

Guardian of the Grimoire
Magic, mystery and romance combine in a gothic story that sees a peaceful, small-town library turned into a supernatural battleground. In the library’s basement a dangerous book lies hidden somewhere in stacks of old crates, and librarian Jess O’Rourke is caught in the middle of a battle between a demon and the book’s mysterious guardian for possession of it...


Karen McCullough said...

HI Lois -- Thanks for inviting me to visit. I see the link for the article on the Alfred Jewel didn't come through in the article. It's here.


Sorry about that. It should be linked now.

Angela Adams said...

Thanks for sharing the awesome photos, Karen!

Karen McCullough said...

Thank you!

Marni said...

Karen, I agree--Oxford is a truly magical place. That's why I chose it for my first of the Nora Tierney Mysteries and down the road, Nora will return there. I was able to visit again last summer for St Hilda's Mystery and Crime Conference, and if you have a chance to attend that on a future trip, I think you would really enjoy it!

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Karen,

A terrific blog post! What a great reason for a trip to England.

Linda Thorne said...

I remember reading about this visit to England. I'm not sure if it was on your website or you e-mailed it to me as an example of a blog (since I'm a rookie and was asking you for information). It's very exciting, and I get how priceless experiences like this can be when we can weave them into a novel story-line.

Karen McCullough said...

Marni -- I think missed the St. Hilda's conference by a week or so. I'll have to arrange the timing better next time.
Jacqueline--Thanks! Yes, it was a great reason to go. But it's hard having a grandchild so far away.
Linda - I've been doing a series of posts on my blog about the trip and some other things I saw. Maybe that's what you saw.

Melissa Keir said...

Sounds like a wonderful trip. I do agree that authors can draw inspiration from the world around them. :)

Congrats on your new grandbaby!