Deconstructing Damsport: a round the world tour of the research and inspiration behind the creation of the city

bloodless Assassin EbookPicasso famously said: “Good artists borrow; great artists steal.” I won’t go as far as to say that I’m a great artist, but one of the things I love to do is to steal — and I steal a great deal, from all over the place. So I thought it would be fun to take you through a tour of all the influences and steals that went into creating Damsport, the city in which The Bloodless Assassin takes place.

It’ll come as no surprise that I stole from Victorian London, and I purposefully gave a little nod to Dickens in creating Pip, a cheeky chappy urchin. I won’t discuss the Victorian influences though, as I think they’re quite obvious.

The less obvious steals come from all over the world: Hong Kong, Istanbul, Constantinople, Mumbai, Japan, Cambodia, general 17th century Europe, sort of from Colorado, and Macau, at the current count. Often what I stole is utterly random and I doubt you’d be able to spot the inspirations on your own (if you can, bravo!)

Let’s start with the biggest influence: Hong Kong. I live in Hong Kong and grew up in London, so the first thing I did in creating Damsport was to take Victorian London and push it through a Hong Kong sieve. Hong Kong is the banyan trees that grow everywhere, the humidity, the storms, the crookback streets, the smells, the food, the crush of people in the streets. Regarding the banyan trees, the photos below are taken in central Hong Kong. The top one in particular is in Mid-Levels, one of the most modern and built up parts of Hong Kong. Banyan trees can grow anywhere — including out of walls it seems — and the top photo was the inspiration for the rundown house Rory and Jake lived on top of.



Hong Kong is also part of the inspiration for the Wet Market. Fruit/veg/meat/fish markets in Hong Kong are called Wet Markets, partly because the produce for sale is fresh, partly because the floor is always wet, and it’s best not to think too much about what is in the murk on the ground. Especially when you see the gusto with which fish are eviscerated!

(I have a particular walk when wearing flip flops — apparently — which means that with my heels I flick up any mud/sludge/dirt/etc up the backs of my legs. Yes, I’m that ladylike. My many visits to wet markets over the years have made me far more familiar with the wet filth of the ground than I would have liked. It’s grim. Which was why when I had to describe a market I immediately thought of how wet the floor would be.)

We also went to a Wet Market in Cambodia (in Kampot to be precise) that was covered with a hodgepodge of tarps and bits of plastic stretched overhead. It caught most of the rain (it was summer and rainy season) but the water still dripped through the gaps, so that the entire market seemed to be dripping — you could hear the water drip above the chatter of voices. That gave birth to the ‘dripping’ description of the Damsian Wet Market.




The woman sleeping in a hammock among her cuts of meat in the Damsian Wet Market is real — I stole her wholesale:


The book maze at the edge of the Great Bazaar was stolen from Mumbai book sellers, and I still regret that so little of The Viper and the Urchin takes place among the maze of books — stay tuned, this might be the scene of part of a future story! We discover Damsport’s library in The Black Orchid, and I have a bit of an idea for a story featuring scheming librarians, so it’s very much a possibility.

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I stole the Old Cistern from Istanbul, and of course I bastardised the Grand Bazaar name, although the Damsian Great Bazaar is nothing like the Istanbul version. I also stole Istanbul’s Blue Mosque to make the baths in Spirepass, and while I was at it, used that kind of architecture to inspire the entire area of Spirepass including its name.

From Wikipedia – the Old Cistern

From Wikipedia – Blue Mosque — inspiration for the Damsian baths.

I purposefully made Damsport a port city so that it could justifiably have a real melting post of influences in terms of its architecture and culture. But in working out its political situation, I turned to Constantinople, another port city. And while there’s nothing actually recognisable from Constantinople in Damsport’s architecture, I used it as inspiration to work out how Damsport would be defended. This led to the creation of the Bottleneck Wall, which led me to the Three Day Battle and to Damsport’s current political situation.

Two very random steals came from Japan. I very much doubt anyone will be able to guess where the Japanese influence is, though. The first is the cats in the Damsian cemetery. I was in Tokyo, wandering about on my own, and I chanced across a cemetery. Now I love cemeteries — I find them fascinating. I went walking around the tombs, and I kept coming across these fat cats, most of them white, bathing in the sun and regarding me with that hostility particular to cats. And I thought there was something delightfully creepy about a hostile cat lounging across a tomb and glaring at me as if telling me to leave.

The fun thing about Fantasy is the ability to take something real and twist it into something fantastical — so these cats became the cats in the Damsian cemetery who are voiceless and who appear only at night.

I also stole an old street sweep from Tokyo. I came across an old man with a broomstick that had to be 2 meters long that he wielded in a semi-circle around him to push dead leaves away. Sadly I didn’t take a photo of him but I thought he was too perfect not to steal. I added the vapour lamps hanging from a pole stuck down the back of his shirt to create the Damsian street sweeps. The sweeps are actually one one of my favourite little details of Damsport.

Closer to home — at least digitally — I stole from a fellow blogger’s blog post: from Sammy over at Bemuzin, which technically means I stole from Colorado, I guess. Back in 2014 she wrote about an exhibition she went to see: the stunning Chihuly Garden Cycle show featuring incredible glass sculptures. I thought glass sculptures was such a wonderful concept that I decided to feature glass sculptures as part of the Revels towards the end of the book.

Speaking of the Revels, another act comes from The House of Dancing Water, an incredible show that I saw in Macau. I stole the masts rising from the water from that show (I won’t say anymore to keep the post spoiler-free). If you’re ever in this part of the world, this is one of the most amazing shows I have ever seen.

I also stole and embellished on 17th century European currency. There was a real problem back then of people shaving or clipping the edges of coins, and then melting all the shavings and clippings and making new coins. This problem is what led to our modern coins having edges with writing or patterns on them, so that if the coins were clipped, it would immediately be obvious. I thought that was a fun detail to steal and I decided that Damsport would have the same problem but would deal with it differently. Since the city has both clipped coins and a quantity of foreign currency flowing through it, the logical thing to do seemed to have them deal in coin weights rather than coin values. The expression ‘making change’ then became a fun literal interpretation: Damsians go to smiths to make change by cutting coins up into smaller pieces.

That said I don’t always realise when I’m stealing, and some steals I can’t identify even now. Crazy Willy and his steamcoach, for example: I have no idea where that came from. Likewise for Susie’s coffeehouse and the butterscotch coffee. I detest coffee, so who knows why that idea popped into my head!

Not all steals are successful, either. My most extensive piece of research came to absolutely nothing. I read a large biography of Isaac Newton’s life when I was thinking about how to develop the science of alchemy for Longinus. Newton didn’t just discover gravity, he was an incredible polymath, but he sadly wasted a lot of his time looking into alchemy and I thought I’d find useful inspiration in his life’s work. Turns out Longinus’ alchemy has nothing to do with Newton’s (not a shocker, in hindsight). Not wanting the time I spent reading Newton’s biography to be a complete waste, I put a little nod to him in the form of the prism found in Dr Corian’s place. It has absolutely no bearing on the story, I doubt anyone noticed or remembered it, but it was a nod from me to me, referring to the research I’d done so I could tell myself that I got at least something out of that book.

I don’t actually think reading that book came to nothing — I got some other stuff from it which might be useful some day. Maybe one day I’ll write a new post like this and tell you one of my characters is partly stolen from Newton’s life. Who knows.

So there you have it, all the steals that went into creating Damsport — at least the ones I can remember. There’s bound to be a great many steals that I’ve forgotten about, and a great many more that I can’t figure out. If you’re curious about any other part of Damsport feel free to ask me in the comments and I’ll see if I can figure out where the inspiration for it came from.


The sequel to The Bloodless AssassinThe Black Orchid also takes place in Damsport, and I’ve added a few more steals — more from Hong Kong (I’m milking the place dry!) a very obvious one from Morocco, and I stole from one of my uncles.

Book 3 in the series is already in the works, but it will take place in a new city and I’m currently creating it (oh such fun!). So far I have influences from Indonesia, more from Hong Kong and Cambodia, a very random steal from Beijing, and an unexpected one from Brittany of all places (a place in France. Papa et Maman — it is indeed from Perros-Guirec). I’ve also taken inspiration from the eyebrows of a singer I really like. I’m hoping to have the third book ready and out by the end of the year, so keep your eyes peeled! In the mean time, if you want to check out The Black Orchid, you can find it here on Amazon. I hope those of you who read it will enjoy it!

PS: I know not everyone reads on Kindle. If you have another kind of e-reader but you want to read The Black Orchid, you can buy it on Amazon, email me the receipt, and I’ll send you an epub instead 🙂 you can find me at celine (at)

Pollution in Beijing, The Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven

I know what you were thinking after the last post — ‘the pollution in Beijing is nowhere near as bad as the media make it out to be!’

Not true. That part of the wall was 2 hours drive out of Beijing, and on a day when pollution was low and the weather was good.

Here we are in Beijing, on a bad pollution day — try and guess which one I am. Don’t we look like something out of a post-apocalyptic movie with our anti-pollution masks? (which one do you think I am, by the way?)


We’re in front of the Temple of Heaven there. Not as heavenly as you might wish with the smog, but still a beautiful building.



Here I am with our lovely guide Lee (now you can check if you got it right in guessing who I am in the top photo — did you get it right? Virtual gold star and pat on the back for you if you did)


It was proper smog — like stepping back in time to the Victorian London pea soup. To give you an idea, the World Health Organisation’s guideline for maximum healthy exposure to pollutant particles is 25 micrograms per cubic meter. Beijing gets up to 500. Ouch….

We were only there for five days and yet by the end we all had picked up a bit of a cough and our clothes stunk of coal smoke. For those of you who have long hair and who smoke or have been around smokers, you know that horrible moment when you take a shower and all the smoke trapped in your hair is released once the water hits it? That was a daily occurrence in Beijing.

It was gross.

These photos, by the way, were taken on a sunny day. This was the sun:

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What was even bleaker was when we were on the train travelling from Xi’An to Beijing. Then the landscape really became ghostly and incredibly depressing:

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Especially because a lot of these sky scrapers were in desolate areas, and empty. Look at them — they look like they’re appearing out of the fog.


During the day it was less obvious, but at night, when we drove past the outskirts of Xi’An, we drove through a forest of skyscrapers, and all of them dark and empty. There’s this weird problem of ghost towns in China, where the government builds entire cities in the expectation of the enormous influx of population from the rural areas — except that once the construction is done, the builders all leave, and the cities remain empty.

We didn’t drive through these ghost cities, but we definitely drove through a weirdly deserted part of Xi’An. The cities themselves are a bizarre concept, based on the expectation that one day people will just move in. These are cities without a mayor, without a culture, an identity, or a history — without anyone actually there (at the moment) to run and organise it. Just a collection of roads and buildings and general infrastructure. As if it had all sprouted up like mushrooms under the rain.

Seeing these empty skyscrapers shrouded in smog was rather disquieting — it also gave me a renewed appreciation of how clean and bright Hong Kong is by comparison!!

On this (delightful) polluted day, we also visited the Summer Palace — winter edition, of course.


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It fronted a lake that was completely frozen over, and it had these lovely long promenades that must be very pleasant in the summer. As it was, it was so cold that I hopped and skipped and generally walked like a bit of weirdo in an attempt to get the blood flowing into my frozen toes.





The Summer Palace comes complete with marble pleasure barge, should you wish to be on a boat, without the risk of getting seasick (or would that be lakesick?) It was odd, but very beautiful. Behind it — and we didn’t get a photo of this sadly — were hundreds of yellow plastic pedalos, all marooned in the ice, waiting for the summer heat and tourist hordes. It was a pretty perfect metaphor for ‘low season’.


Alright – next up — the Forbidden City.

The Great Wall of China and an update

Well happy 2016 everyone! I hope the year has treated you well so far.

I’m back at the blog after a bit of an extended hiatus — I was actually brought back by a fellow blogger, Sarah Zama over at The Old Shelter. I’m interviewing her ahead of her new book Give Into The Feeling coming out. I’ve been wanting to interview her for a while, so I’m really looking forward to sharing the interview with you all! Stay tuned for that one.

For now though a quick update on things with me. Firstly, The Black Orchid, the sequel to The Viper and the Urchin is now in the very capable hands of Sue Archer (my editor), so it’s well on track to come out in a couple of months. Very exciting stuff. And while Sue works her magic, I’m starting on a new project that I’ve been wanting to get to for a long time: a Victorian Gothic story set in London. More staying tuned there 🙂

I also had an amazing, if slightly crazy December, with some pretty cool travelling. For Christmas my family came over to this part of the world (Hong Kong and China) and we travelled to Guiling, Yangshuo, Xi’An, and Beijing. While it wasn’t the traditional Christmas (no roast turkey and stuffing for us — not that I mind, I’m not a massive fan of turkey), it was a lot of fun, and we got some pretty stunning photos out of it (by ‘we’, I mean my father. Kind of the reverse of the ‘royal we’)

Now, if I was David Copperfield, I would begin at the beginning of our trip. But being neither Copperfield, nor Dickens (a shame — it would be lovely to be a literary genius), I shall begin by the end of the trip, with what was, by far, the highlight. It’s also probably the most amazing thing I’ve seen in all my travels:

The Great Wall of China.


Prepare yourselves for a glut of photos. It was absolutely stunning:


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It literally stretched out as far as the eye could see:


I was reminded of a line from Game of Thrones, when Tyrion Lannister said he wanted to see The Wall so he could piss off the edge of the world (for anyone living under a rock and not aware of Game of Thrones, The Wall is based on Adrian’s Wall in Scotland, separating Westeros — the world — from the wilderness and monsters beyond.) It was so easy to imagine how for the men who manned the Great Wall, that must have been like standing at the end of their world, watching out and waiting for an attack by (what they likely considered) barbarians. It makes you wonder what kind of a life they must have led, waiting in the most remote part of their world for an attack.

The Wall is dotted with watch towers. They’re little more than small, square building, providing only minimal cover against the cold and wind. If the guards spotted anyone approaching, they could signal one another and gather up the troops as needed.

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Amazingly, despite how large it is, the Great Wall has never been breached. There have actually been several Great Walls, and the relics we visit these days belong to the Ming Dinasty Great Wall – which is a mere 8,800km long. The official length of the entire Great Wall is 21,200km, and it’s over 2,300 years old.

Parts of it are very well preserved, but of course the vast majority of it is in disrepair, with chunks missing.


We hiked for a good few hours, and because it was the middle of winter (and therefore low season), and also because we went for the part of the wall furthest away from Beijing, we were alone for the duration — which as you can imagine was incredibly special. We could actually stand and look out of the wall, and imagine what it must have been like back then for the soldiers on the wall.


Parts of the wall are seriously steep, mind you – not for the faint of feet! But very much worth it.

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It was truly spectacular. A real once in a life time, awe-inspiring visit — and something I definitely plan to use one day as inspiration for a story.

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Alright, next up — Beijing.

A Day in the South of France – photo challenge

Eileen over at In My Playroom took part in a wonderful challenge a few weeks (or possibly even a few months) ago. The challenge was to take a photo every hour or so throughout the day and post them on the blog. Now I didn’t get tagged in that challenge, but I thought it seemed like a really fun way to be a bit more aware of my surroundings and to look for pretty things in the day to day, so I took part anyway.

I am cheating a little a lot, mind you, because this post — sadly — doesn’t reflect a normal day in my life. It was a day while I was back in the South of France, visiting my grandfather — and it was a lovely day! I’ll do a post of a normal day in Hong Kong soon though.

5.30am: Unable to sleep because of jet lag (there’s 7 hours between HK and France), I make the most of the early morning fresh air, and go sit out on the balcony to read my book (I’m re-reading The Phantom of the Opera)IMG_3950

7am: Heading out to buy the morning’s baguette. I am very excited.

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7.15: ok that’s not an hour later, but I have to post a photo of what is my favourite meal of the day. Petit déjeuner is ready — this time I had acacia honey rather than jam. For those who read my A to Z post, you’ll notice that the ceramic bowl is colourful, slightly cracked, and the baguette is nearly ready for dunking. My mother remains, as ever, unimpressed with my breakfast eating methods.

IMG_40029am: We head out to meander in the market

Photo a Day10am: We buy some figs and a cabas (Kelli, I’m tagging you here after we talked about figs a little while back for one of your A to Z posts. These were delicious!!)


11 am: pop into a second-hand furniture auction house and spy a pretty painting.

IMG_3970-00112pm: On the walk back we pass a pretty terracota couple


1pm: Lunch!! On the balcony, bien sur. Fresh ravioli a la daube (which is like slow cooked beef)

IMG_40302.30pm: We drive out to Gourdon, a village at the edge of the world. Or at least at the edge of a very precipitous cliff.


Here I am with my grandfather at the very edge of the village — the wall behind us is the one you can see at the rightmost edge of the village above.


3.30pm: A pretty candle shop and another shop selling perfume and eau de toilette.

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4.30pm: We spot a fig tree growing out a wall (sadly the figs weren’t ripe). And since no trip to the South of France would be complete without some calissons and nougat, we make a pit stop at a little confiserie where they make it all by hand. They were delicious.

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6pm: on the way home we stop by an old olive oil mill. When she was younger, my mother used to bring olives here from my grandparents’ olive trees. The old mill no longer works, but there’s a modern mill round back. Sadly it was already closed by the time we got there.


8pm: The table post dinner. I’m totally pooped after a long day and still completely jet lagged, so it’s an hour of reading for me before falling asleep.

IMG_3948So there you have, it a day in the South of France. I’ll do another post on Hong Kong soon — although not quite of a typical day or you’ll get lots of photos of my computer screen. Which, trust me, is even less entertaining than it sounds.

I’m tagging a few others bloggers who I think might enjoy this challenge. No obligation to take part if you don’t want to. And obviously if I didn’t tag you but you want to take part, do it anyway!

Sabina over at Victim to Charm.

Sammy at Bemuzin (I’m being selfish there Sammy. I want to see more of those beautiful landscape photos of yours!)

Sarah at The Old Shelter. Sarah, you may consider this the latest instalment in our challenge-off 😉

Kelli at Forty and Fantastique.

L. Marie at The Blog of L.Marie

Sara Snider

Emily from A Keyboard and An Open Mind

Denise Young

Anabel from Anabel’s Travel Blog

A Battle of Persistence

It’s a little known fact that spiders are the most persistent animal out there. This fact is little known because I just made it up, but it should be true because my god are those critters stubborn.

At this time of year Hong Kong is already hot and humid (gravity might as well not exist as far as my frizz is concerned), and that means spiders are appearing from whatever place they have been hiding all winter. Said spiders are still small at this point but they have a predilection for weaving their webs across hiking trails at face height. Yep.

I go hiking daily, and at the moment this is how it goes:

1. Celine and Poppy arrive at hiking trails stupidly early so no one has been yet. Celine clears the spiderwebs with a stick as she walks. Poppy finds a spot of wet mud and rolls around in it (the latter is unrelated but is a frequent enough occurrence to warrant a mention) Continue reading

Long Time No See!!

I’ve been a very naughty blogger and have completely neglected the blogging world for the last month or so. Sorry. *hangs head in shame*

In my defence, we moved apartments (see last fascinating post about wall scrubbing) and a few days later left to go back home for a few weeks.

Now I know some people are very good when it comes to keeping social media up to date with what’s going on in their life, as and when it’s happening. Instant updates, after all, are the whole point of social media. And there were a few times whilst we were away when I thought: “Oh, I could tweet/blog about that”. Continue reading

Shanghai, puzzles, and bladder pressure.

The husband and I went to Shanghai for a long weekend just recently. I know it sounds pretty exotic, but for us it’s actually only two and a half hours by plane, so kind of like going from New York to – I don’t know, Boston? Philly? I have no concept really. Suffice to say it’s just around the corner.

So anyway – you know when you’re on holiday with your significant other, and it’s a Saturday night, and you decide to go to a bar together for a drink, and you just walk in through the door?

Well, let me tell you, that is SO passé. So 2013. It’s boring. It’s mundane. It’s banal.We westerners are way behind the times.  Continue reading

Q is for Quantum Leap in Follows (and an invitation to promote your blog/book/art/whatever as a thank you)

This is a bit of a tenuous link to the letter Q, but I’m going with it.

This weekend marks the 1month anniversary of this blog (yay!), and after writing yesterday’s post I decided to pop over and check out my blog stats. I’ve purposefully kept away, because there is nothing more depressing than looking at a big fat zero under the “follower” heading. So, imagine my surprise to find that I had broken the 60 followers mark (Quantum Leap! There’s the tenuous Q link 😉 ) So a big, BIG thank you to all of you who follow and take the time to stop by and read/comment. I love hearing from you, and it’s been a fantastic way to discover new people and new blogs too.

To celebrate my one month blogiversary (is that a thing?), I wanted to give something back to you all as a little thank you for sticking with me for my first month. Continue reading

On India (Ok Mumbai. But I have another M post ready so am playing it fast and loose with the rules)

I visited Mumbai recently, which was an incredible experience, I got some great photos (I hope you agree, or this could be quite awkward….)

The Dhobi Ghat in particular was fascinating and I’m actually planning on using something like it in a story I’m working on.

The Dhobi Ghat is like Mumbai’s washing machine, the people there wash everything by hand, from hospital scrubs (not sure how sterile that is) to garnments just out of the factory, to private individuals’ clothes. The water is heated in these big metal drumbs balanced over little fire pits. It was hot, cavernous, smokey – and incredibly atmospheric. It was late in the day so the sun was low and the light was golden…. Continue reading