I do words, not pictures. I cannot draw anything but the roughest cartoons to amuse small and uncritical children and don’t imagine that a map I might sketch for you for directions will be remotely to scale, even if I manage to get it all on one side of the paper. Unsurprisingly, I am an author not an artist.

What might surprise you is the regular and extensive use I make of visual references while I’m writing. My shelves hold textbooks on historical dress, furniture, jewellery, armour, weapons building techniques and styles, all of which I refer to regularly. I visit galleries and museums in Oxford, close to my home, and in London when business takes me there. I’ll make special trips for things like the British Museum and the V&A’s exhibitions on Gothic, Japanese and Islamic Art in recent years. There’s currently a display of Visions of Mughal India at the Ashmolean in Oxford, on which I plan on seeing over the Easter school holidays.

I’m not just making sure I get the physical details right. I’m constantly looking for visual inspiration. Time and again, I see something I could never have imagined that’s perfectly suited to the story I’m writing. There’s an Egyptian princess’s dress in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, made from a lattice of beads over linen. That features in my Aldabreshin Compass series. Such things often contribute directly to the plot. Jacobean ladies’ fans made of exotic birds’ feathers in the Ashmolean gave me exactly what I needed to get two key characters into the same room for a vital meeting in The Warrior’s Bond.

I’m not just looking for objects. I spend hours looking at portraits and I buy handfuls of postcards from galleries as well as special exhibition catalogues. This baffles the people on the gift shop till almost as much as my explanation does. You see, I keep all these portraits in a box and when I’m creating a new character, I’ll often sort through all the pictures until I find the face that fits. Time and again, someone’s expression, their stance, the way they are portrayed, will tell me things which I hadn’t yet imagined about that character.

Naturally, I’m always intrigued to see the covers for my books, from first concepts to finished art. I have been fantastically fortunate to have my novels graced by the work of Geoff Taylor, David Palumbo and Clint Langley. Each of these artists has helped share my personal vision of each series, to draw in potential readers. In The Warrior’s Bond, I described the city of Toremal working from a collection of postcards sent by pals living and travelling in central and northern Europe. An acquaintance looking at that cover, knowing nothing about the book, was reminded of a holiday in Salzburg. I’d turned pictures of Austro-Hungarian architecture into words. Geoff Taylor turned those words into art which conveyed the feel of that imaginary city exactly to someone who hadn’t read a sentence of the book.

Artwork by Geoff Taylor

When I described the banners for the dukes and the rebels in the Lescari Revolution trilogy, David Palumbo turned my descriptions into designs that gave those banners vivid reality. The same is true of the people standing before the banners on those covers. I describe the characters in my books in detail but I don’t visualise them precisely. When an artist draws someone for me though, I’ll almost always nod with recognition. I hadn’t known it until that moment, but yes, that’s what that person looks like.

Artwork by David Palumbo

This current series, The Hadrumal Crisis, is no different and yet, in some ways, it’s very different. Because this time, I got all three of Clint Langley’s pictures while I was still writing the first book. I’ve never had all the finished artwork so early. Consequently these pictures have become part of my visual inspiration while I’ve been writing. Detail from the artwork has become an integral part of each book. That broken manacle on Corrain’s hand isn’t just described in Dangerous Waters; it has a vital role to play. I already knew that something was going to happen to the magewoman, Jilseth. When I saw the art for Darkening Skies, I realised what that was going to be. The implications for her and for those around her helped shape that book’s plot.

Now I’m writing Defiant Peaks, and I’m looking at that picture of the Archmage Planir working his magic. What’s he doing? I can’t tell you as yet. Not for fear of spoilers for the final novel or the end of the trilogy. Because I don’t yet know myself. I just know that the picture fits wonderfully with the concepts of wizardly magic developing as I’ve written the first two books. I know what’s going to lead up to whatever Planir is doing there. As soon as I realise what his spell is, the end of that book will fall into place. Then the fate of Hadrumal’s wizards will be decided, one way or the other…

The Hadrumal Crisis – artist Clint Langley

A guest post for Forbidden Planet International from 2012