Unlikely Influences: What Sylvia Spruck Wrigley learned about stories from a spontaneous trip to Scotland

Unlikely Influences is a series of occasional blog posts about how writers can learn the tricks of their trade in odd places. Most are from guest authors, but I’ll pop in from time to time too.

This installment is by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley.


What I learned about stories from Scotland

by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley

When I was 21 and living in Germany, I dreamt that I had gone to Ireland. It was beautiful and green. I didn’t really know anything else about the country but I awoke feeling wistful.

The next morning, I walked past a travel agent on the way to work. There was a big poster on their front window. It was beautiful and green and said SCOTLAND in very large white letters.

My sense of the British isles was not good. Scotland, Ireland, same thing, I thought. I had six weeks of holiday/overtime accrued and desperately needed a break. The holiday was a package coach tour. It was a full day’s journey by bus to Zeebrugge to cross the channel to Hull and then through windy roads to the Highlands. The coach remained on site and took the guests on day-trips all over the country, accompanied by a tourguide knowledgeable about the local area. The evenings included live music and dancing.

It would be just right for me, I decided. Mainly because it was stupidly cheap, with transport, accomodation and meals all included. I didn’t know it at the time but it was their first attempt to expand into Germany. I booked it, ignoring all the social aspects. It seemed simple enough to take the coach to the hotel and then ignore the daily trips and just do whatever I wanted.

Except that on the way there, the coach driver realised that I was the only person on the coach who spoke English. And when we arrived at the hotel, the hotel manager realised I was the only English-speaker in a twenty-mile radius who spoke German. She offered me the week for free if I would act as translator for the other forty guests, including accompanying the coach on its daily trips and translating Scottish history and local information into German.

I hesitated for about half a second, my plans of walking the highlands for a week disappearing in the Scottish mist. She  begged and threw in an extra week free accommodation and meals. Of course I did it; I would have plenty of time to go walking later and honestly, there was no other option.

At the end of the week, the manager spoke to me again. They had another three coaches full of German tourists booked within the next couple of weeks. Could I possibly stay and manage them? I was already crushing pretty hard on Scotland and the chance to spend more time there was a great temptation. I negotiated the time off with the office and threw myself into being the best German-speaking tour guide that the Trossachs had ever seen. Competition was not fierce.

Still, I threw myself into it. Pre-internet, it wasn’t that easy to broadly research a subject quickly and I was in the middle of nowhere with no libraries. However, every village shop had a display of little pamphlets — paper folded in half and “bound” with staples, written by the residents. The quality varied wildly, of course, but for a pound each, I gathered a huge collection which covered local history, ecology, clans and myths and legends. I had a box full of them, like some kind of Pokemon addiction, I had to collect them all. I had fallen deeply and violently in love with the country and I wanted to know everything.

By the time the last coach tour arrived, I was only just getting the hang of it. I decided to follow my heart. I quit my job in Germany and took on the role full time, working from four hotels in the area. I spent the season travelling around the country in coaches telling stories non-stop. I was so happy if we got stuck in traffic, it gave me more time to tell them about the highland clans and monstrous kelpies and the deliciousness of haggis and the brown-eyed selkies and Rob Roy MacGregor.

I went back to “real life” soon enough; an office job with plenty of paperwork and admin. But I never really got over my crush on Scotland and my fiction was infused with the lore and legends that I’d learned there. Domnall and the Borrowed Child is the culmination of this. In the US and the UK, the Irish versions of the Celtic myths are predominant, so I spent a lot of time trying to keep my fairies unapologetically Scottish. I’m still writing in the world of Domnall; I hope to keep on doing so for quite some time.

Sylvia Spruck Wrigley is the author of, among other things. the novella Domnall and the Borrowed Child, from Tor.com.