I’m about to head on my first international trip since before the pandemic, and I’m beginning to immerse myself in the process of exploring a new city and culture.
I used to dream of being constantly on the move — road trips with the wind in my hair and the open highway stretching out in front of me, backpacking adventures stumbling into small towns and new sights, life a constant stream of new and fascinating experiences.
Like most people, my travel plans in 2020 were shunted down the road by the pandemic — but that didn’t stop me from exploring.
Because near the end of 2020, I began writing the Nanshe Chronicles.
I’d spent the previous three-ish years working on the Bulari Saga, which takes place almost entirely in the city of Bulari. I enjoyed immersing myself in the world, but I was itching to hop on a ship and start exploring the rest of the Durga System.
As a writer, my world building process is basically to make things up as needed to serve the story, rather than creating a world from scratch and layering story over it. I’d mentioned dozens of places, but didn’t know much about them. I knew a few facts, but I didn’t know how these places felt.
When I started working on the Nanshe Chronicles, I knew I wanted to do the exact opposite of the Bulari Saga, when it came to location. Instead of diving deep through the layers of a single city for five books, I wanted each book of the Nanshe Chronicles to take the reader — and me — to fantastic new locations.
Like any science fiction writer, I draw on what I know in order to write what I don’t know. I thought it would be fun to share some of the real-life travel inspirations behind locations in the first three books of the Nanshe Chronicles.
Let me take you on a tour.
Nanshe Chronicles 1: Lost in the labyrinth at San Jose, CA
In book one, Ghost Pirate Gambit, the newly-minted crew of the Nanshe are still learning to trust each other. I needed to send them out on a job — and into a physical location — that would put them under enough pressure that their deeply-locked secrets would break out. A place designed to test them physically and psychologically.
What better inspiration than the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, CA?
My Grandma Kwak instilled in me a longstanding fascination with ghost towns, houses with turrets, and the Winchester Mystery House — so when I got a chance to go during WorldCon one year, I jumped at the chance. Instantly, I knew how I was going to use the visit in the novel I’d just begun starting to plan.
(I wrote a longer post about my visit over on Patreon.)
The house, if you’re not familiar, was built by Sarah Winchester, the widow of firearms magnate William Winchester. As the story goes, after the death of her husband and newborn in 1881, a medium told her that she should leave her home in New Haven and travel west to construct a home for herself and the spirits of people who had been killed by Winchester rifles.
Supposedly the medium told Sarah that the way to placate the spirits was for the home to be under construction continuously — for the hammers to never stop ringing.
She moved to California hired workers, and from 1884 until her death in 1922, her mansion was continuously under construction.
In Ghost Pirate Gambit, Auburn Station is the fever dream of a long-dead space pirate who thought if she constantly kept her station under construction it would keep her safe: airlocks that open to nowhere, halls that corkscrew dizzily, corridors that dead-end without warning.
And plenty of boobytraps to keep out unwanted visitors. 😉
Nanshe Chronicles 2: From Canaima, Venezuela to Aguas Calientes, Peru
Just after college, I spent six months living in Santa Elena de Uairén, Venezuela, working as a carpenter and volunteer coordinator for a small local NGO.
Santa Elena is on the edge of Canaima National Park, which is one of the most stunning places I’ve ever seen in my life. You can stand at the edge of a cliff and look over the brilliant emerald canopy of the Amazon rainforest as far as the eye can see. You can climb the tabletop mountains (tepuis), hike rivers made of pure jasper, and see the tallest waterfall in the world.
And while the tourists gawk, the locals are doing their best to scrape by in a place so remote that — unless you’re incredibly wealthy — the nearest airport is an eight hour bus ride away.
I drew on my time in Santa Elena de Uairén for Nanshe Chronicles 2, Blood River Blues. In it, the crew touches down in New Manila for a job that has them facing down old ghosts as they con their way into racing the famous Liluri Star Run.
Part of the race takes place deeper in the mountains of New Manila — and anyone who’s been to Machu Picchu will probably recognize where I took inspiration for the town of Moie. Aguas Calientes is the spot most tourists overnight in before trekking or bussing up to Machu Picchu: it’s a lovely village set into the cliffs of a deep mountain ravine, with a river tumbling through the middle. I tapped into the visuals of the town as much as the frenetic tourist energy it exuded when writing about Moie.
Nanshe Chronicles 3: Scarred hearts and scattered bones in Alba de Tormes
The locations in Nanshe Chronicles 3, Cursed Saint Caper were inspired less by a physical place I’ve been than a single line I wrote down on a Post-it:
“Dendera, temple of dreamers.”
I don’t remember why I wrote that down, or where I heard about Dendera. I didn’t research it at all — I didn’t want to. Something about the idea of a dreaming temple sparked my imagination, and I didn’t want to tie it down with reality.
In doing some quick googling now, I find that Dendera was an Egyptian temple dedicated to the goddess Hathor, and supplicants who visited the temple could stay in special quarters where they could commune with the goddess in their dreams.
Coming from a Christian background myself, the idea of a dreaming temple brought to mind Christian mystics like Sta. Teresa de Ávila and St. Julian of Norwich. I’d seen Sta. Teresa’s heart at the convent of Alba de Tormes, carefully preserved in an ornate reliquary; I remember studying it, searching for the scar where she’d been pierced by the arrow of Christ’s love.
Did I find the scar? Hard to tell. Was Sta. Teresa’s experience real? It was to her, and in my mind that’s the important bit.
I’ve stood in sacred places like Alba de Tormes and read the writings of people who truly believe they’re channeling the divine. But I’ve also come across plenty of con artists and self help gurus who are only trying to channel other people’s money.
No matter your religious or philosophical tradition, people will try to use faith to make a quick dime on people who just want to trust.
It was that dichotomy of holy and scam, divine and con artist, true faith and shell games that inspired me in this book. The crew of the Nanshe will need to unravel truth from fiction in their own dreams as they tackle a con artist. This job takes them from the glitz and glamour of Artemis City to the mystic, unsettling quiet of the distant gas giant Bixia Yuanjin.
Introducing the Nanshe Chronicles
When I wrote the very first book set in the Durga System, Starfall, I had no idea the adventure I was about to set out on.
I didn’t know how much readers were going to resonate with the main character, Starla — and I had no idea how much I would eventually become intrigued by the story of her parents, the notorious Raj and Lasadi.
I was worried when I began writing the Nanshe Chronicles. I’d spent years living with the characters and stories in the Bulari Saga, and meeting the crew of the Nanshe was odd at first.
Lasadi doesn’t trust that easily. Jay doesn’t give up many secrets. Raj and Ruby seem like open books on the surface, but then you find out they’re only showing you select pages. And Alex is still figuring himself out — let alone learning how to share himself with others.
Slowly, though, I began to find my way into this first book. Then the second. Then the third. Eventually, the crew started to open up to me, and I started to realize they were something special.
As I write this, I’ve finished the first three books in the series, along with a prequel novella, and I feel like I know this crew pretty damn well.
I’m having a blast writing these books, and there are plenty more adventures to come in this series!
Stay tuned for more sneak previews and goodies as we get closer to the launch date. I can’t wait to share this new adventure with you!
How to get your hands on Ghost Pirate Gambit
Right now you can pre-order Ghost Pirate Gambit in print, ebook, and audio directly from me. I’ll be launching this book into Kindle Unlimited on May 24th, but if you’re not a KU reader, don’t worry. If you’ve pre-ordered from me, you’ll get to read the book before it goes into Kindle jail. 🙂