Welcome to the Crossroads of the Multiverse: cover reveal for The Secret of Zoone

Welcome to the Crossroads of the Multiverse: cover reveal for The Secret of Zoone

After sitting on this beautiful design and artwork for the last couple of months, I’m finally able to officially reveal the cover for THE SECRET OF ZOONE, the first book in a new series I’m writing for HarperCollins Children’s Books, due out in March 2019.

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It was my intention all along to not illustrate this book, and I’m so happy with that decision—because I simply adore the cover, with its beautiful artwork by Evan Monteiro and whimsical hand-lettering by Michelle Taormina. A big thank you to HarperCollins for providing such an awesome team, including my editor, Stephanie Stein, who guided me through the process.

I’m so thankful that Stephanie and her team allowed me and my agent, Rachel Letofsky, to participate in the design of the cover. Even though I am in a unique position, having worked as both a professional graphic designer and illustrator, I knew that didn’t automatically mean that I would be invited to contribute. Which is all to say that I am really grateful—and thrilled—that my ideas and character suggestions were incorporated into the artwork.

In a future post, I’ll show some of those sketches and ideas, but suffice it to say that this cover really matches what was dancing inside my imagination:

Giant winged cat—check!

Boy with a key—check!

Princess with inappropriately purple hair—check!

Doors—check!

Station house in the background—check!

Here’s the official text that will appear on the dust jacket:

WELCOME TO ZOONE, CROSSROADS OF THE MULTIVERSE

When an enormous, winged blue tiger appears on his aunt’s sofa, Ozzie can tell he’s in for an adventure. He’s thrilled to follow Tug, who calls himself a skyger, through a secret door in the basement of his apartment building and into Zoone, the bustling station where hundreds of doors act as gateways to fantastic and wonderful worlds.

But some doors also hide dangers—and when the portal back to Earth collapses behind them, Ozzie gets more than the adventure he bargained for. With the help of a friendly blue skyger, a princess with a peculiar curse, and a bumbling wizard’s apprentice, Ozzie will have to fix his only way home . . . and maybe save the multiverse in the process.

~

I can’t wait to introduce everyone to Ozzie, Fidget, Tug, and the rest of the ZOONE crew in 2019. In the meantime, I’ll continue posting new visuals and background art for the book.

And, hey—the book is already available for preordering. Just sayin’.

 

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Finding the threads: weaving together different strands of inspiration for a new children’s book series

Finding the threads: weaving together different strands of inspiration for a new children’s book series

Everyone has a different approach to writing. Some of my friends are unabashed “pantsers” (flying by the seats of their pants as they write), while others are plotters. I’m somewhere in between. I like to plot to a certain point, then fly by the seat of my pants, trusting in the process.

What about you?

Last year, I reached the stage that so many authors dream of: signing a three-book deal with a major publisher. In my case, it’s a children’s middlegrade book series called Zoone, which will start coming out with HarperCollins in 2019.

It’s really exciting, but it’s forced me to confront a schedule I’m not used to, essentially having to deliver three books in three years.

Book 1, no problem! It was mostly done anyway. But I took a decidedly different approach to Books 2 and 3.

I’ve written sequels before (four of them, in fact, for my Kendra Kandlestar series) and I find myself facing the same situation: the world is created, the main characters established, and now it’s time to make something that equals—and hopefully surpasses—everything I achieved in Book 1.

A New Approach

The differences with this series is that 1) it just doesn’t involve one made-up world and 2) it doesn’t have one major plot arc stretching over all three books. (An emotional arc, yes, but not a plot one).

World-Building

This time, I’ve created a multiverse filled with many different worlds. I don’t cover them all in the series, but there are dozens that are mentioned, which has prompted me to become an expert record-keepering, building a “bible” of kingdoms, empires, and lands. This bible lists all the important details of each world: flora, fauna, official symbols and colors, type of money, and of course any specific mentions in any of the books.

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Plot

In a way, world-building is the easy part for me. Or at least the super-fun part. Plot is always a bit more challenging. This time, I decided to tease the plots out of my world-building.

Inspiration from everywhere

Even before I had a contract, I knew I wanted to do more than one book with these characters and worlds. So, for the past few years, I’ve been collecting lots of inspiration, especially from my travels. At the time, I didn’t worry about where exactly anything would fit; I just focused on recording the things that inspired me.

I took a lot of photos, of course, but more important to my process are the ideas recorded in my various notebooks. I usually like to have one notebook per project, but in the past couple years, I’ve been filling those up and now am in the multiple notebooks stage for this one project.

Hunting for inspiration

Some places I went to intentionally to seek out specific inspiration. For example, Hạ Long Bay in Vietnam was a place I knew that would serve as a model for one of the worlds I wanted to build.

Of course, in today’s world of connectivity, you can browse photos and videos of virtually any place on the planet. But there are some ideas that you can simply only stumble upon by being in a place.

That’s exactly what happened at Hạ Long Bay for me. I knew the limestone cliffs would inspire me, but I hadn’t considered the interractions with the people. To be honest, I didn’t even think there were people (other than tourists) at Hạ Long Bay.

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But it was on the second day of our tour when I wandered onto the deck of our boat at the crack of dawn to hear this almost-woeful call: “Something to buy? Something to buy?”

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I gazed over the railing and there, appearing out of the mist, was a young girl on a boat full of snacks and sodas.

She was, as I later learned, a Vietnamese boat child. These children live with their families on their junks and traditionally eke out a living by fishing, but now they’ve adapted to the hordes of tourists and add to their income by selling stuff. We were told that many of the children live out their entire lives on the boats. It’s only recently that the government has been making some changes to try and ensure these kids get some formal education.

That whole situation sent a spark flying through my imagination. I remember sitting with my wife afterwards and stopping halfway through a sentence to stare blankly into space (I do that a lot). When she asked what was going on, I replied with one of those countless “What-if” questions that every author asks his or her partner about a plot.

After I asked my question (which, of course, I can’t reveal) I immediately rejected the idea. I knew it would cause A LOT of problems overall to the series. In particular, it would flip something already established in Book 1 completely on its head. As soon as I realized THAT, I knew it was completely the right call to make for the series. Yes, it’s a problem for me to write, it’s a problem for the characters to deal with. So now I’ve got to go that way—it will make the rest story. That initial spark of inspiration has become a lightning bolt. And it would have never have happened if I hadn’t actually gone to Hạ Long Bay.

Inspiration accidentally discovered

There are times when I’m not seeking for inspiration AT ALL. When we went to Hawaii a couple of years ago, it was to seek true R&R, to take a break from our creative but consuming careers, and to switch off.

Yeah, right.

Thankfully I was clever enough to pack my brainstorming journals. Inspiration walloped me from every direction on that trip, not only in terms of the diverse landscape of the big island of Hawaii, but in terms of the wonderful wildlife.
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Time to deliver

So, now I’m in this fun (harrowing?) stage of combing through everything, trying to find some thread of a storyline from this tapestry of setting sketches, character and creature doodles, and ramblings scribbled across all these different notebooks.

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vietnam_inspiration

There’s not only drawings and words made while in Hawaii and Vietnam, but also Korea, Cambodia, Ireland, and England. I am now seeing a theme in my notebooks: I rarely wrote facts down about each of the places we visited. I was already creating new worlds in my sketches and notes. Those experiences went through my filter and instantly became alternate realities.

It’s still the roughest of brainstorming, but at least there is a lot of fuel for me to dwell upon and to—hopefully—turn into something concrete.

Well, there you have it. Time to do some plotting—and some pantsing.

 

Exploring Cambodia, Day 3 & 4: elephants, lions, and flying frogs

Exploring Cambodia, Day 3 & 4: elephants, lions, and flying frogs

My wife and I press forward on our “inspircation”—a holiday that is part vacation and part inspiration-finding for our 2018 projects. We spent Day 2 of our time in Cambodia trekking through some of the biggest temples in Angkor, but had preplanned to take Day 3 off from the temples and to hang around Siem Reap, explore the markets and the hotel pool.

We did this partly to rejuvenate physically, but also just mentally. Venturing through Angkor has been such an overwhelming experience—it’s hard to absorb everything. We felt that a day off in between would set us up to better appreciate a second day of exploration.

Poverty paparazzi

It’s not just the beauty here that is overwhelming, though. It’s also the poverty. Everywhere you go, whether it be temple or town, there are people trying to sell you something, people who are in desperate need. I’m not much of a shopper; I tend to buy one or two things every time I travel, and they’re rarely trinkets. And I’m not the kind of person who wears a T-shirt with the names of places I’ve been scrawled across the front. But here, every time you leave a temple, or, in the case of the town of Siem Reap, a restaurant, people scurry up to try and sell you their goods.

“Kind lady! Kind man? Something to buy? Something to buy? I have cheap price for you!” This is the common refrain we hear.

In many cases, those people are children. They are particularly hard to turn down. One thing that I have found particularly distressing is a penchant by tourists to photograph these children. In one case I saw an entire tour bus of people crowd around an infant boy, snapping shots at him like he was a celebrity and they were some sort of poverty paparazzi. It wasn’t that the boy was smiling, laughing, or doing something cute and precocious. He was stark naked, wandering around in the dust and dirt in his bare feet.

I guess the people found that . . . actually, I can’t even begin to imagine what was the mindset behind that episode. They clicked their photos then scurried off in a herd, leaving the boy exactly where he was, ambling around in the dust, his mother sitting nearby, slightly bewildered. Or perhaps she wasn’t bewildered at all. Perhaps she was just used to this sort of happening. But I can’t imagine she wanted it. It’s not like any o the herd gave her money for photographing her son. Her naked son.

It’s the norm here for the children in these “strip malls” of shops to be naked, at least from the bottom down. They might wear a T-shirt, and that’s it. Why someone would want to photograph a naked kid is beyond me. I find it disturbing on so many levels.

In another instance, a woman with a very expensive camera photographed a little girl trying to help her mom sell souvenirs outside a temple. She even clucked at her and tried to direct her pose, tried to make her smile. Then she sauntered off, pictures taken, without so much even looking at the girl’s wares, her mother, or even offering a dollar. It disgusted me, as if, somehow, this tourist felt the girl was just another part of the landscape for her to coax into her camera.

So, without bowing completely to western consumerism, which equally upsets me, Marcie and I have tried to buy what we truly need (hats, water) and what we truly want (a few items of clothing, a book, and odds and ends) from the locals, and we’ve endeavoured to tip well. Which, really isn’t hard to do when you can eat a meal for $5 and have a draught of beer for fifty cents.

The positive side I’ve tried to take from all of this is to admire the Cambodian people for their hard-working spirit and perseverance. It’s humbling. But, if you go to Cambodia, please just leave their kids alone!

That’s enough about my rant when it comes to how people treat other people. Time to talk more about temples . . .

Elephantine traffic

We had the same guide as the day before, Yam. He picked us up in his tuk-tuk at 9 am, which provided us with a much more leisurely start to our day compared to the 4:30 pick up two days previously, when we had set out to watch the sun rise at Angkor Wat.

This time, we got to whisk into the Angkor region in full daylight. In fact, our route took us past and through many of the temples we had already visited, including Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom.

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We had a “only-in-Asia” moment while passing through Angkor Thom. Yam had to pull out and pass an elephant!

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We just didn’t pass giant mammals, though; we also passed beautiful countryside. Here you can see farmers and their livestock, going about their daily lives.

I was able to snap this photo from our tuk-tuk:

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Notice how she is not naked. It’s called discretion, my dear poverty paparazzi. Oh, right. My rant was finished already.

Preah Khan

Even though our start was later, the weather was significantly cooler. The sky was clouded, so the sun wasn’t hammering at us as with our visit to the other temples. We hoped this would make our day a lot easier—and it did. The previous temple day had involved six bottles of water each, but on this day, we barely made it through one apiece!

Our first temple of the day was Preah Khan.

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Near the entrance, we happened upon two flanking figures, each grasping the tails of cobras in their hands. I recognized this figure as Garuda, having seen many depictions of this mythical creature on my visits to Thailand.

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Once we entered Preah Khan, we found it to be expansive, beautiful, and, in many sections, falling apart. There is a large crew installed there to conduct renovations, but part of the charm is to suddenly turn a corner and find rubble filling a doorway. To me, it just helps signify the passage of time, giving the place a sense of romance and adventure.

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There weren’t as many tourists here as we had seen at previous temples and, because the site is so vast, we had plenty of opportunity to take photos without having to worry about getting in any one else’s way.

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Inside the centre of the complex, we found an old monk providing blessings. Marcie was instantly attracted to her energy; despite her crooked frame and frail limbs, the monk was radiating positive energy, treating all passersby with her toothless grin.

Marcie received a blessing, which, now that I think about it, was a powerful moment for her that played out later in the day (more on that later). Suffice it to say for now, that part of this blessing involved the monk whisking away negative energy.

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There was plenty of time and space here for me to find a quiet spot, take out my notebook, and do some brainstorming and note taking. I’m trying to capture as much inspiration to help aid the world building I need to do for my new book series, Zoone. Marcie snapped this photo of me “at work”:

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And there is plenty of inspiration to be discovered here. Similar to other temples we have visited, there are many areas at Preah Khan where the trees have insinuated themselves into the stone walls and become permanent fixtures.

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Those are the big-picture views, but here a few photos of the details I captured at this temple:

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On the way out, we saw this solemn monkey. One of the guards was trying to coax him to take a banana, and the little fellow wouldn’t go for it. The guard finally tossed it to him and let him eat it at his leisure. Here’s my photo, taken from a distance. Thankfully, one of those poverty paparazzi weren’t around, or they might have tried to make him dance for their amusement. (Though I suppose I am guilty of photographing a naked monkey.)

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Neak Pean

We met Yam on the East side of the temple (so didn’t have to backtrack through the entire temple), and he carried us away to our next stop: Neak Pean. This is a unique site, constructed on a man-made island, which means taking a long walkway across the water to reach it.

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The views are stunning. The temple is in the middle of a pond on the island and while you can’t actually reach it, it offers some stunning perspectives.

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One such perspective came from Marcie. If you have ever met my wife, then you know that she pretty much lives in her own world (we call it “Marce”—you can pronounce it “Mars” with a longer “s” sound at the end).

Here is basically how our conversation went at a holy Buddhist temple:

Marcie: Maybe we’ll see flying frogs.

Me: Those don’t exist.

Marcie: Yes, they do. I’ve seen them.

Me: No, you haven’t.

Marcie: I’m pretty sure I have.

Me: There’s no such thing as flying frogs.

Marcie: Well, there are flying squirrels.

Me: Those are two different things! One’s a rodent and one’s an amphibian.

Marcie: Well, I still think we’ll see one.

Which, incidentally, is why you can’t win an argument with my wife. Because if she decides something’s true, then it is. Then, once we were back at the hotel, I looked up flying frogs and it turns out they do exist. Sigh. I hate being wrong.

We trekked back along the bridge to reconnect with Yam. By this time the bridge was busier and it’s really not that wide—especially when there are herds of tourists all stopping, posing, and turning with giant bags on their backs. I’m surprised I didn’t see anyone plunge into the water. I’m surprised it wasn’t one of us.

At the end of the bridge, we ran the same gauntlet as before—a long line of merchants trying to sell us anything and everything. We had already bought a guidebook to Angkor, so we settled on the response of “we already have it!”

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Ta Som

After Neak Pean, we headed to the beautiful temple Ta Som, sequestered in the jungle. The main entrance is capped by giant faces, similar to the ones we saw at Prasat Bayon.

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Once you enter through the gate, there are a few different corners to explore. We realized that we had started developing a system to our explorations; instead of going straight through, we immediately branch off at our first opportunity and venture through the outskirts, slowly moving inward. This seems to be the opposite of what most visitors do, so gives us a bit more privacy and room to meander and contemplate.

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I keep finding lonely brooms tucked away in different corners of the temples. I don’t know why they capture my attention . . . there’s just something whimsical and magical about an unused broom in such a location. (Hmm. Maybe there’s a story brewing here.)

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At one point, Marcie got “low”; anyone with diabetes will understand the term. It means she suspected having low blood sugar, and so had to check her levels. She has to do this throughout the day, then make adjustments accordingly, either by giving herself insulin through her pump-injector or by eating and drinking.

I just snapped this photograph while she was checking her blood; even though you might be in the most magical place in the world, diabetes stops for no one! But, on the other hand, Marcie doesn’t stop for anyone either. Having Type-1 (or juvenile) diabetes has never prevent her from exploring, or taking on, the world!

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Despite the fact that the temple is surrounded by walls, the trees are having their own say. This is no more apparent than at this gate, which has been oppressed by a giant strangler fig. We loved this image, and took (or had taken) many photos:

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Beyond the tree, on either side, was a long wall, and the jungle. I ventured along it, leaving Marcie to rest at the gate, and found more trees reaching onto the wall, as if they were attempting to pluck the stones from the ground and devour them whole.

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Then I came upon what looked like a gigantic (but, thankfully deserted) ant hill and decided I better whisk back into the temple before I got attacked by something. Like an ant. Or a monkey. Or maybe one of those trees!

East Mebon

After Ta Som, we took a short ride to the temple known as East Mebon. It was once surrounded by a moat, creating an artificial island, but now the surrounding area is dry. We ending up dubbing this the “elephant temple” for the statues of the magnificent creatures that are positioned on the four corners of the outer and inner walls.

As with Ta Som, we entered the main gate, climbed the stairs, then immediately veered to our left to explore the outskirts of the complex, thus avoiding the crowds and finding our own places of solitude. It was here where we found the first of our elephants.

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The outer walls are lined with trees now, creating shady and romantic walkways.

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Once again, there was time for me to sit, contemplate, and brainstorm. And what’s better than brainstorming next to an elephant? Marcie captured these photos of me—notice how I’m sitting out in the open, without even a hat. This is something I would have never been able to do when visiting the other temples, two days earlier. That’s how different the weather was. The temperature this day was perfect: warm and comfortable.

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Eventually, we made our way into the inner city, taking in the turrets, doorways, and stairways.

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Pre Rup

The next temple on our itinerary, Pre Rup, was similar to East Mebon in its architectural features, size, and layout—so much so, in fact, that I confess I’ve had trouble sorting out my photos between the two of them.

There are no elephants at Pre Rup (though many lions), which is one distinguishing feature. The other is that the jungle is not so close, offering a far more expansive view of the surrounding landscape.

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This temple not only offered us spectacular views, but, for Marcie, an epiphany. Standing up there, high above the world, she was suddenly overcome with emotion and experienced what she described as a significant moment of clarity. I’ve had a similar experience many years ago on the Great Wall of China. I haven’t pressed Marcie, yet, on exactly what became clear for her—but I’m pretty sure it’s no coincidence that she had been blessed by that old monk only a few hours earlier!

Prasat Kravan

Our final temple of the day was a small one, Prasat Kravan. In some way, it was an anti-climatic finish to our day. Not only is the temple small, it was being swarmed by workers who were setting up for an event. We assumed the hubbub was for a wedding, but Yam informed us it was for a corporate VIP event.

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Still, we found some interesting details, such as this inscription inside one of the door jambs, weathered by time:

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And here’s a final parting shot of Marcie, summing up how we’ve felt at the end of our tour:

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Our adventures aren’t quite done yet. We’re off to explore a floating village and then heading to the big city of Phnom Penh. More inspiration to come!

 

 

 

 

Exploring Cambodia, Day 1: Doctor Fish is in the house

Exploring Cambodia, Day 1: Doctor Fish is in the house

My wife Marcie and I are currently on an “inspircation” in Southeast Asia, in which we are exploring and finding inspiration for our 2018 projects. So far, we’ve been to Korea and Vietnam, and now we’ve moved on to Cambodia.

We arrived in the kingdom of Khmer yesterday after a short flight from Hanoi. We found the entry process to Cambodia much easier than that in Vietnam, and that probably had something to do with the fact that we flew directly to Siem Reap, rather than the big airport in Phnom Penh. We got off the plane, stood in a short line for customs, collected our luggage, then immediately met our driver.

Turns out the taxi that Marcie had arranged for us was a tuk-tuk. That was a surprise, but a pleasant one, as it immediately immersed us in the whole new world that is Cambodia. Soon, we were zipping along the roads and alleys of Siem Reap, spotting the locals going about their evening chores, selling their wares, transporting their goods, herding their kids. We had an embarrassingly amount of luggage with us (just because of all our travels), and it barely squeezed onto the tuk-tuk. We held onto it tight the whole way, especially on the corners.

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The ride really was a pleasant one—and, after the hubbub of Hanoi—really quite sedate.

We arrived at our hotel, settled in, then decided to set out into the town to get some grub. We are located only a few minutes’ walk from the market and the pub street. That’s it’s actual name, and it fits. The street is lined with all sorts of restaurants, bars, and taverns, offering all sorts of local cuisine, as well as other international fare. We settled on a restaurant that offered Khmer-Mexican, which is really just a restaurant with a menu that is half Khmer, half Mexican. Which suited us perfectly—I went for the former, and Marcie went for the latter.

On the way back home, I decided to stop at one of the many “fish-foot” massage places. Called “Dr. Fish,” this is a type of massage in which you put your feet in a pool or tank of fish and let them nibble away your dead skin.

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Marcie was horrified by the idea, but I had done it before in Korea, and decided to do it. (It was only three dollars for unlimited time!) The one thing about this Dr. Fish, though, was that it involved three different tanks. I started with the small fish, then moved up to progressively larger fish, until I had ones half the size of the foot sucking at my toes.

I will admit that I am slightly squeamish when it comes to fish. It seems so plague like when they are swarming around your ankles. In fact, my original experience with Dr. Fish in Korea was the inspiration for one of the characters in my forthcoming book, The Secret of Zoone. Fidget is plagued with a peculiar curse—as soon as she approaches water, slimy little tadpole-like and worm-like creatures appear and begin trying to gnaw at her flesh.

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Last night’s definitely experience allowed me to commiserate with poor Fidget!

Our next day in Siem Reap was spent touring the different temples of the massive complex of Angkor Wat. But that demands a future blog post all of it’s own . . .

 

Exploring Vietnam: Finding inspiration at Ha Long Bay

Exploring Vietnam: Finding inspiration at Ha Long Bay

Day 5 and 6 of our continuing trip in Vietnam brought my wife and I to H Long Bay. This was a part of the trip I had been particularly looking forward to, not only for the pure pleasure of seeing the famous islands, but because I knew they would help inspire me for a world I’m building for my upcoming Zoone book series.

About Hạ Long Bay

Hạ Long Bay is a world heritage site containing 1,969 islands (our guide informed us that we could easily remember the number because 1969 was the year that Ho Chi Minh died). The islands are limestone cliffs topped with tropical forests, and they jut out of the water in numerous shapes.

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The name Hạ Long means “Descending Dragon.” According to legend, in the early days of Vietnam, the people were invaded by an army from the north, via the sea. The people prayed for a miracle and a mother dragon, along with her children, descended to repel the attacking ships. The dragons gushed fire, but also jewels and jade, which became the islands that now sprinkle the emerald waters and form a natural barrier to protect Vietnam.

As the story goes, after defeating the invaders, the dragons fell in love with the realm and decided to settle in the bay. Where the mother dragon settled is now called Hạ Long, and where the children settled is Bái Tử Long Bay.

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Getting to Hạ Long Bay

You can find places to book tours to Hạ Long Bay (and many other sites in northern Vietnam) on almost every street corner in Hanoi. Prices and quality vary. Most hotels will also offer to book tours as well, which is the avenue we took. Our friend Shaughnessy, who was staying at a different hotel, decided to book the same tour as us throughout hotel. So, the next morning, he got up with the first honking scooters to trek across town and meet us at our hotel, where the tour bus was coming to fetch us.

It is about a four-hour ride to Hạ Long Bay. The first part is spent navigating the busy streets of Hanoi, and then it’s out to the countryside. However, the same principles of driving in the city apply to the country—our bus driver would eagerly slip in and out of lanes of traffic (one of those lanes being the shoulder of the road) and would often pass vehicles without the slightest concern for the oncoming trucks speeding directly towards us! Having been to enough countries where this is the norm, I didn’t find this part too concerning, but others on the bus were gripping their seats a little tightly!

Our guide was named Viet An, but recommended we just call him “Andy” as foreigners usually bungled the pronunciation of his name. Along the way, he told us a few stories about Hanoi and gave us some advice about crossing the street. According to Andy, the smallest is always right on the streets of Hanoi; scooter beats car, and pedestrian beats scooter. The pedestrian is always right and scooters and cars will do everything to avoid hitting them. Not exactly our experience in Hanoi!

Speaking of scooters, we saw a lot of them on the arteries leading in and out of Hanoi, and many of them seated entire families. I noticed a bit of a system in terms of how the family is ordered:

  • If only a mother and child, the child goes in the front.
  • If mother and two children, the order is mother, smallest child, oldest child.
  • If entire family, the order is smallest child, father, next child, mother.

I saw a few variations on the above, but this seemed to be the main approach. What was even more fascinating was the number of riders who were sitting behind the driver of the scooter, completely asleep. The way the scooters swerve in and out of traffic . . . I thought for sure someone would fall enough. But, of course, they didn’t. What seems completely mind-boggling to the Western mind is just a way of life here.

Our journey to Hạ Long Bay included the obligatory half-hour stop at a giant tourist mall. We didn’t really care much to buy anything (well, except Marcie), but it was good to stretch our legs after being on the cramped bus for an hour and a half.

Eventually, we arrived at our destination. Despite it being low season, there were countless buses unloading at the piers, and swarms of tourists clamouring to get on their boats.

Marcie, Shaughnessy, and I instantly regretted not packing warmer clothing. The wind was up, there was a chill in the air, and rain was threatening. Thankfully, in Vietnam, there is a store pretty much everywhere for tourists, so we bought some fleeces at the pier (mine only cost $20).

Setting out into Hạ Long Bay

I find the problem with any tour is the busy itinerary. We were loaded onto our boat, assigned rooms, and fed lunch, and by that time our vessel was speeding towards our first stop on the tour. There was not a lot of time to rest, relax, and dwell on the gorgeous landscape!

Our boat had three decks and sufficient space for all the passengers. Our cabins included a large bed and our own private bathroom.

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Of course, we didn’t intend to spend much time in our cabins anyway; as soon as we could, we set out onto the decks to gaze at the stunning rock formations.

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I had always wanted to come to Hạ Long Bay, partially because I had seen its beautiful landscape in advertisements and film. The James Bond films, The Man with the Golden Gun and Tomorrow Never Dies were partially filmed here, as were the more recent movies Pan and King Kong: Skull Island.

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So, between myths and movies, I feel there is a certain element of adventure invested in the island-cliffs of Hạ Long Bay. Shaughnessy and I kept an eye out for giant gorillas, but before long, the boat came to a stop: a place to go kayaking near a pearl farm harboured in a ring of islands. We were only given 40 minutes to kayak, so Marcie and I quickly hopped in our vessel and began fervently paddling to see as much as we could.

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We made it far enough to see one of the famous islands with the head of an eagle (you can see it in the photo below, in between the two other island clusters).

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The shacks you see on the left side of the photo are part of the pearl farm. A visit to the pearl farm is included in a three-day, two-night tour of Hạ Long Bay, but we had opted for a one-night tour, so did not get to visit the farm directly.

Then, back to our boat, and we were whisked off to Ti Top Island. The island got its name from Ghermann Titov, a Russian hero in the second World War. The beach has a crescent-shaped beach and series of steps that you can climb to the top.

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We had just enough time to either go swimming or climbing, and we opted for climbing. Most of the other tourists made the same decision. There were scores of them ascending the mountain—at least to begin with. The way is steep, with over 400 steps, and not everyone could make it.

But, if you can make it, the view is spectacular.

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We snapped many photos, but the sun soon started to set and I had noticed that there were no lights on the steep stairs coming up, so I urged Shaughnessy and Marcie to start heading down before it was pitch-dark. The stairs twist and turn, and there are railings, but the last thing we wanted was to go tumbling down and break something on an island too far from civilization.

At the bottom, we waited to be picked up by our taxi boat and watched visitors far braver than us go for a swim.

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Then our taxi arrived, and we all piled on. It was at this point that I remembered that we had been brought over in two separate boat loads, but now, we loaded everyone onto the same taxi. The boat was really struggling to leave the island and some of the passengers at the back even hopped out to push us. Then the pilot frantically began moving us about to balance the boat.

Well, it was only a ten-minute ride, and we ultimately made it without incident. We watched Ti Top island disappear into the mist then arrived back at our main boat.

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Fishing for squid

The night was free time, so while many people chatted or watched a movie on the main deck (unsurprisingly, they were showing King Kong: Skull Island), I decided to wander out and try my hand at squid fishing with our guide, Andy.

It was only he and I, and I quite enjoyed hanging with him and plying him with questions about Vietnam life.

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We directed a giant light from the boat into the water to try and trick the squid to rising to the surface and snap at our lures. We had no such luck that night, but I did find out a lot about Vietnamese cuisine by picking Andy’s brain about the various things I had seen being sold on the streets of Hanoi. He explained to me recipes for preparing eels and these types of river worms that I had seen an old lady selling. Apparently the worms are fried up with onions and spices and made into a sort of patty.

He also told me there were many islands in Hạ Long Bay inhabited by monkeys. He said sometimes you could hear them shriek—but, though I kept my eyes and ears open, I found no hint of them during our tour, just like that elusive King Kong.

The boat children

The next morning, Marcie got up at 6 am to go do tae chi with Andy on the upper deck of the ship.

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I wasn’t quite that earnest, so I wandered out to the bow of the ship and watched the islands in the mist. It was while I was lingering here, amidst the mist, that I heard a plaintive voice call out, “Something to buy? Something to buy?”

I peered over the edge of the ship and noticed a girl right below me, piloting a flat-bed boat full of snacks and drinks. It was a floating corner store! She was moving from cruiser to cruiser, offering her wares. It was a little to early for me to entertain a warm soda pop, so I thanked her and she set off to find custom at the next ship.

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Afterwards, Andy explained to Marcie that this girl was one of the boat children. They live with their families on their junks. Traditionally, they make a living by fishing, but now they are clearly trying to adapt to the tourist industry. Andy said many of the children live their whole lives on the boats and receive no formal education, never learning to read or write. The government is now trying to instil regulations to make sure the children go to school. I found the situation fascinating and my mind began percolating with ideas for a story . . .

Hang Sửng Sốt Cave

After a hasty breakfast, we set out on another mini-tour, this time of Hang Sửng Sốt cave, a UNESCO world heritage site. Hang Sửng Sốt, which means “surprising” or “amazing”, is a giant network of caverns on Bo Hon Island. It was originally discovered by the French during their colonial rule, but then forgotten about and rediscovered in recent years by a Vietnamese fisherman trying to find haven from a storm.

Nowadays, it’s a busy tourist site! Andy got us there ahead of the morning rush, but even so, the place was still teeming with people.

The caves are huge, and photos don’t really do them any justice, but if you examine the two photos below, you will spot people in amidst the stalactites, and that might give you a sense of scale.

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A path has been constructed through the caverns and everything is safe and well-lit, affording clear views of the alien-like rock formations. The guides eagerly point out the many shapes to be seen—this one looks like the mother dragon, this one looks like King Kong, and so forth.

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The caves were unexpected inspiration for me. I had not really researched them beforehand, but I found them overwhelming in scope and scale and was instantly put into world-building mode. I kept kicking myself for having left my sketchbook on the boat. I consoled myself by snapping as many pictures as I could and then making a promise to myself to sketch as soon as I got back to my book.

It takes a good hour or so to go through the caves. There are many outcroppings that allow visitors to view the water. And, of course, on those outcroppings there are also souvenir stores! At the largest outcropping, you can see a pair of giant stone “feet” dangling off the edge. Perhaps some troll got caught daydreaming here at sunrise.

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Here is a view of the bay from the outcropping, showing the pier where the water taxis dock after ferrying tourists from the larger ships.

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Some time to brainstorm

After leaving the caves and returning to our main boat, I snatched up my sketchbook, flew to the top deck of the ship and began jotting down my thoughts and inspirations. I had the entire deck to myself and, to be honest, this was my favourite part of the entire tour. The boat was on the move, the islands were sailing solemnly past, and I had time to just be.

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Well, that was it for our tour. The boat headed back to dock and it was back on the bus towards Hanoi. It was our last full day in this country.

I have loved my time in Vietnam. The people are inventive, hard-working, and earnest, carving existences for themselves in what would be impossible circumstances for most of us hailing from a western sentiment.

Farewell to Vietnam . . . and, now, on to Cambodia!

 

 

Exploring Vietnam ~ Day 2: how to avoid scooters, buses, taxis, and tuk tuks

Exploring Vietnam ~ Day 2: how to avoid scooters, buses, taxis, and tuk tuks

My wife and I continue to explore the city of Hanoi as part of our “inspircation”—a vacation that involves research and world-building inspiration.

In particular, I’ve come to Vietnam to gather ideas for an upcoming book in my writing schedule (part of the new Zoone series that I’m working on with HarperCollins).

The day did not disappoint, as I found plenty of inspiration . . .

We began our itinerary by venturing out into the spiderweb of streets radiating out from our hotel. Nothing makes you feel as alive as navigating the whirling, buzzing, roaring streets of Hanoi. Back home, I see people crossing the busiest of intersections with their noses firmly planted in their phones, but such habits would lead to certain injury here!

The sidewalks are a maze of people socializing, cooking, selling wares, entreating you for your custom. It’s also not uncommon to suddenly hear a scooter humming from behind you! The paving stones are often uneven and broken. At one point, a car turned into an alley and struck a block of stone fallen away from the sidewalk. The driver did not discern what was going on, so kept pressing the accelerator—only to have the wedge-shaped stone suddenly spit out across the alley like the payload of some ancient catapult. This created quite a stir amongst the onlookers!

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There is always something different to see here. At one moment, you happen upon the most derelict door . . . the next a French Colonial building, painted in bright colours and sharp trim. Then, suddenly, a beautiful tree has insinuated itself into the architecture, its roots and vines twisting upwards through electrical cables.

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The collision of past and present is very apparent here. The scooters weave in and out, but it’s not uncommon to see the riders wearing nón lá (traditional Vietnamese hats), or to suddenly espy a woman wandering along, carrying a quang ganh (two baskets on either end of a bamboo stick).

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So many sights, smells and sounds. Especially sounds. The cacophony of the traffic noise is relentless. Honking is a way of life here. I have fantasies of discovering a shop that specializes entirely in installing, enhancing, and fixing car horns.

Yet . . . these are all things I love about this city. You certainly feel alive. Some people like to go for a beach holiday, but to me, nothing makes me feel more present and clear than exploring a city like this.

In just one day, we’ve become pretty adept at crossing the streets here, drawing on our previous practice in Bangkok. The trick is timing the scooters, cars, tuk tuks, and buses—all coming straight at you at different speeds and angles, and often swerving as they approach.

I should add that most intersections don’t have lights. The ones that do are a bit more manageable, but the ones that don’t—there’s some mystery at play here as to how the drivers and riders on the different intersecting routes sort themselves out. As a pedestrian, there is no opportune moment to cross—you just have to go for it. The key, is never stop moving. You stop, you juke, you jag . . . you’re probably done for.

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Eventually, we did require a break from the din, so we ducked inside the palatial gardens of the National Library of Vietnam. The library was originally founded by the French Colonial government, and it shows in the very European layout of the place. It was amazing to take a few steps off the street and suddenly find ourselves in a place where the traffic was muted and the birds were squawking.

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The library itself featured many old texts and newspapers, many of them in French.

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After the library, we found our way to the Museum of History. We purchased our tickets for a humble fee of 40,000 dong (less than 2 US dollars) and began exploring the gardens. There were many statues here, interspersed with beautiful bonsai-type trees.

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The trees gave me unexpected inspiration for a different world I’m building for Zoone, but I was most intrigued by the statues . . .

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That last one is a mythical tiger. Mythical, I suppose, because of that mischievous grin!

After we had our fill of the gardens, we went inside the museum itself. The museum covers the history of Vietnam from the prehistoric age, through the middle ages of repelling Chinese incursions, to French Colonization.

A couple pieces in particular caught our eye . . .

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This pair of whips jumped out at me (once again, for world-building purposes):

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One is made of bones, the other a manta ray tail.

After a quick lunch, we back-tracked through the city to the Women’s Museum. This is a unique exhibit chronicling the contribution of women in all aspects of Vietnamese society—from child-rearing, textiles, food preparation, agriculture, and even war.  There’s a different floor to cover each aspect.

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The museum is designed around a central installation of these beautifully decorated nón lá:

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I found a lot of unexpected inspiration here—unexpected because so many of the traditions and customs had been previously unfamiliar to me and they really helped me consider some angles for the world I’m building. In particular, I was quite interested to learn that many of the ethnic groups within Vietnam employed a matriarchal approach. So, instead of the woman going to live with the husband’s family, the reverse was the case.

Marcie and I were very captivated by the floor dedicated to women’s involvement in the Vietnam War. They were truly instrumental in that conflict; their strength, determination, and zeal really comes across in the exhibit.

The museum is very modern, incorporating a lot of multimedia, but, for me, I’m always the most attracted to the physical items. Here are some of my favourites that caught my eye . . .

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After the museums, we were pretty tuckered out, so we slogged back to our hotel and arranged traditional Vietnamese massages.

We’ve made arrangements for a tour of Halong Bay towards the end of the week—as for tomorrow, we’ve left it wide open for more exploration and discovery.

 

A boy in an inside-out shirt, a flying tiger, and a thousand doorways: My new book series!

A boy in an inside-out shirt, a flying tiger, and a thousand doorways: My new book series!

I’m very excited to announce that I’ve signed with HarperCollins Children’s Books for a three-book middle-grade series. Book 1, The Secret of Zoone, is about a boy who stumbles through a secret door and into a magical station at a crossroad between worlds (so, as you can guess, a lot happens there).

I can’t wait to introduce readers to my cast of characters, including . . .

Ozzie, the boy in the inside-out shirt . . .

Tug, the skyger with failed wings . . .

Salamanda Smink, the inept wizard’s apprentice . . .

and Fidget of Quoxx, the princess with inappropriately purple hair.

I’ve been working on this world (worlds!) in one way or the other for ten years. It’s involved not only writing, but a lot of doodling, drawing, brainstorming, prop-building, and traveling the world.

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I’m so thrilled that the series has finally found a home. It combines many of the things I absolutely adore: doorways, keys, talking (and flying) animals, magic, and steampunk.

I want to thank my agent Rachel Letofsky with CookeMcDermid for all of her support, but in helping me get the manuscript in shape and, of course, in finding a dream publisher for it.

I also want to thank all those people who helped by preceding the book: the one and only Marcie Nestman, Paige Mitchell, Kallie George, Sarah Bagshaw, Renuka Baron, and a cast of young readers, including Nadia and Rachel.

I’m currently hard at work with my wonderful editor, Stephanie Stein, to complete final edits on Book 1 for its release in 2019.