The natural world inspires the supernatural

Where do fantasy writers get their ideas?

By Scott Bury


For me, most of them come from the natural world. I know, it seems counterintuitive, but it’s true.

My popular horror story, Dark Clouds, was inspired by the wind, as well as the challenge: “What’s the scariest opening line for a story you can imagine?” I came up with this:

Matt always knew when his mother arrived in town: the wind would swirl from every direction at once, sending the neighbour’s weather-vane spinning clackety-clack and the yellow and brown leaves whirling along the road like a child’s top.

A year ago, I took a white-water canoeing trip for Last week, I went on a four-day white-water canoeing trip down the storied Mattawa River in Ontario. The Mattawa was a key part of the fur trade from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, and probably long before that, as well. Its source, Trout Lake, east of North Bay, Ontario, is only a couple of kilometres from the shore of Lake Nipissing, which flows westward into Georgian Bay and the Great Lakes, and links to all of western Canada as far as the Rocky Mountains.

If that’s not inspiration enough for several historical novel series, the Mattawa is typical of the Canadian Shield: pure water stained brown by tannins from evergreen trees, a forest broken only by bare Precambrian rock. Beaches are rare in Shield country. Instead of a sandy shore like you’d find along the ocean, the forest here reaches right down to the edge of the water, and often into it, as well.

The forest itself is dense; from outside it, it’s hard to see into it at all. Deciduous trees are covered in needles from forest floor to tip, and stubborn bushes grow between them. While there are some clearings and occasionally a clear area under the canopy, walking through the forest usually requires stepping carefully over bare rocks left by the last glaciers.

The forest has a dark, brooding quality to it, although in reality it’s quite gentle and accommodating—just considering the numbers of campers there every summer.

I find it hard not to think of stories when I travel there.

Elementalssetting off

The four elements—earth, water, air and fire—are the basis of many mythologies and fantasies. And sometimes, they seem to be trying to communicate with us humans. On the first day of our trip, we encountered driving rain and stiff winds that came directly from the direction we wanted to travel—and coincidentally, directly opposite to the prevailing winds. Think they were trying to tell us something?

mattawa 3Mist can evoke mystery (hah!), something hidden, menace, secrecy and even sleep. These images from the early mornings in August remind me of any number of stories, as well as some new ones in my mind. What do they make you think of?

Stepping stones

steppingstonesThis rock formation is called the Stepping Stones, located at the entrance to the Mattawa from Trout Lake. Actually, they only reach about halfway across the river, and if you wanted to step on them, you’d better get used to having bird shit on your shoes. But it’s hard to resist the idea of a ford abandoned halfway through its construction, or maybe a crossing that was destroyed by forces unknown.



Other species

On our first night on the trip, we were visited repeatedly by a group (I don’t want to say “flock”) of six female mallard ducks. They came up on shore right at our campsite and didn’t seem at all afraid of six humans.feathered friend

Six ducks, six humans, a random encounter in the wilderness. There’s got to be a story there.

I used human-animal encounters several times in my first novel, The Bones of the Earth. In one occasion, the hero, Javor, was aided by a griffin. I meant that to symbolize the hero’s alliance with solar or celestial forces.

In another section, though, Javor bumped into a bear, which scared him silly. What was the fantastical symbolism? To paraphrase Sigmund Freud, sometimes a bear is just a bear.


Scott Bury is a writer of fantasy and other genres, based in Ottawa, Canada. His first novel, The Bones of the Earth, is a historical fantasy set in Dark Age Eastern Europe.



3 comments on “The natural world inspires the supernatural

  1. I write fantasy and paranormal stories, and I completely agree. Nature is probably my strongest source of inspiration–the swirl of autumn leaves, the sound of rain on a tin roof, the comforting near-silence of the deep forest…All of these things are brimming with stories just waiting to be told. Great post!

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