Today I am so pleased to welcome Mason Thomas to Joyfully Jay. Mason has come to talk to us about his latest release, The Shadow Mark. He has also brought along a great giveaway. Please join me in giving Mason a big welcome!

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Real Places that Inspire Fantasy Worlds

What I’ve always loved about writing fantasy is that you are not bound by the constraints of reality. And unlike other forms of speculative fiction, namely science fiction, fantasy doesn’t even need to adhere to the laws of the universe. The laws, in fact, can be rewritten to suit my whim and the story I feel needs to be told. Obviously, I can’t break my own laws once established. But I love that blank page where anything is possible.

In filling that blank page, and in creating an entire world from scratch—with a culture, religion, architecture, government, and a history of its own—it is often necessary to borrow from the real world. Inspiration can come from anywhere. The smallest observation can stimulate the creative juices, and end up playing a tremendous role in the story. For me, one of the most influential idea generators is travel.

My husband and I have been fortunate to spend time abroad over the years, and there have been several places that have supplied me with the raw materials to construct a whole other world. Here are just a few of the places that have fueled my muse.

  • Florence, Italy
    Strolling through the narrow streets of Florence, feeling the ancient cobbles under your feet, is a magical experience. There is a timeless quality of the city. Although all modern conveniences are available, it has defended its history from the slow march of progress and kept it alive. It is so easy to imagine yourself walking among the Medici and the famed artists of the Renaissance—without the fear of getting the plague, of course. I need only to imagine the twisting streets around the Duomo to craft a scene of wandering about a fantasy city. The Ponto Vecchio, the oldest bridge in Florence, is lined with shops and buildings that dangle over the Arno River. Bards will position themselves at the center and play instruments or sing. Strolling across the bridge, especially as sunset, feels otherworldly and transportive, and the memory of that has served as inspiration a number of times.




  • Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, Rome, Italy (Crypt of Capuchins)
    Photos are forbidden in here, so I unfortunately have none to share with you, but they would not do it justice anyway. (There are images online that you can search for.) This strange little church and museum is one of the most striking places I’ve ever visited. It is as beautiful artistically as it is macabre. The crypts below the church are unique in that the Cappuchin monks have created dramatic and elaborate chapels displaying scenes from the bible using the actual skeletal remains of former monks—over four-thousand of them. The vaulted ceilings and archways are lined with vertebrae. Alters are made entirely of skulls. Bone cherubs, with scapulae for their wings, hover over skeletal saints. For me, as a writer, it was a great lesson in that even death can be beautiful, and different cultures can embrace art and death in unexpected ways.
  • Prague, Czech Republic
    The astounding city of Prague is a fountain of inspiration for a fantasy writer. Having survived the Great War without being bombed, it has an historic authenticity that is unmatched with other European cities. It feels like a fairy kingdom, a place that cannot actually exist in this world. Although it is a modern city, signs of its tumultuous past are everywhere, and they provide rich fodder for settings in a fantasy realm. The architecture is in some respects familiar, but also distinct from other cities in Europe. The sprawling castle complex with its astonishing cathedral sits on a grand hill, overlooking the city like something found in Middle Earth or Skyrim. Within the castle complex is a row of small colored houses called the Golden Lane—occupied today with shops and museums—but it is a paragon of a quaint backstreet in a bustling medieval-style city. For my latest project, I wrote a scene where my protagonist crossed a great bridge to reach the castle, and the extraordinary St. Charles Bridge was the inspiration and alive in my mind the entire time.




  • The Papal Palace, Avignon, France
    Leading up to the Great Schism in the Catholic church, there was a period of nearly 70 years that the pope kept his residence, not in the Vatican in Rome, but in France. The abandoned palace of the pope in Avignon, France is an astounding place if you want to get unfettered access to what the life of the nobility must have been like. This incredible monument is unique in that very little is closed off to the public. You are free to roam the entire palace—from great halls, to the kitchens, to charming gardens in a courtyard. For someone that is trying to envision the nuances of life inside the walls of a massive castle, this place is research gold.


  • Gorges, France
    There are far too many quaint little villages throughout southern France to visit in a single trip. Each one is more stunningly beautiful than the last, and each is worthy of an afternoon visit. (If only for the shopping opportunities) Yet, this ancient village in Provence is as inspiring as it is charming. It is perched up on the crest of a steep hill, precariously it would seem, but there it has existed for centuries. Gorges exists in another world, another time. With its twisting narrow roads and walkways, stone walls, and staircases that lead to hidden balconies with breathtaking vistas, it is a magical place to spend a day. It has a primal simplicity about it. I was enthralled as I wandered about the village, witnessing firsthand how people more than a millennium ago literally carved out a safe and secure life atop of a rocky hill. Gorges was the primary inspiration for the city of Har Orentega in my first novel, Lord Mouse.


  • The Catacombs of Paris
    Again, no pictures I’m afraid. From the surface, in this quaint neighbor in southern part of Paris, you wouldn’t think there is anything remarkable about the place. But once you descend through the dark hole in the rock, you are transported into what seems like the set of a ghastly horror movie. Throughout the labyrinthine tunnels that were once a limestone mine are the stacked bones of more than six million people. The arrangement is artful—not like the dramatic dioramas of the Cappuchin chapel in Rome—but more decorative. They bones are stacked very neatly on either side to form a dense bone wall, and the skulls are positioned in tidy rows that appear architectural. The tour winds you through the tunnels, and what is so striking is the sheer volume of bones that exist down there. The place has an undeniable weight to it. Whenever I’m writing a scene that takes place somewhere dark and gruesome, I find myself closing my eyes to recapture that feeling of grim isolation and despair.

These are just a few of the places that I’ve had the good fortune to visit that have contributed in building new worlds. There are many others, of course—everywhere you go in the world has something to offer as inspiration if you’re looking, but these are some of my favorites and ones that I use frequently. Having these tangible experiences to draw from makes for richer and more believable backdrop for scenes. If anyone wants to point me towards places they’ve visited that would tickle my muse, I’d love to hear about them!


shadow markAuraq Greystone, once a military officer with a promising future, exists on the fringe of society. Accused of murder, Auraq is on the run from the ax—until two fugitives crash into his solitary life. One is a young man named Kane. The glowing marks on his arm pulse with an otherworldly power, and they have made him the target of a sinister organization called the Order of the Jackal. When the old man protecting Kane dies in an ambush, Auraq swears an oath to take his place.

But the runes are far more significant than they realize. They are a message from the shadow realm, a dark memory of the past—one holding evidence of a bloody massacre and its savage architect; one that will shake the kingdom to its foundation.

Risking arrest and execution, Auraq fights to get Kane to the capital city where the cryptic marking can be unlocked. And with assassins close on their trail, Auraq might never get the chance to show Kane what’s in his heart—or the way their journey together has changed him.

The Shadow Mark is an epic tale of magic, murder, conspiracy, betrayal, and—for the two men tasked with unraveling the mystery—love and redemption.

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Mason Thomas began his writing journey at the age of thirteen when his personal hero, Isaac Asimov, took the time to respond to a letter he wrote him. He’s been writing stories ever since. Today he is ecstatic and grateful that there is a place at the speculative table for stories with strong gay protagonists.

Mason, by all accounts, is still a nerdy teenager, although his hairline and waistline indicate otherwise. When his fingers are not pounding furiously at a keyboard, they can usually be found holding a video-game controller, plucking away at an electric guitar, or shaking a twenty-sided die during a role-playing game. Mason will take any opportunity to play dress-up, whether through cosplay, Halloween, or a visit to a Renaissance Faire. He pays the bills by daring middle school students to actually like school and encouraging them to make a mess in his science classroom. He lives in Chicago with his endlessly patient husband, who has tolerated his geeky nonsense for nearly two decades, and two unruly cats who graciously allow Mason and his husband to share the same space with them.

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Mason has brought a signed paperback copy of Lord Mouse, the first book in the series, to give away to one lucky reader (US or international). Just leave a comment at the end of the post to enter. The contest ends on Wednesday, February 22nd at 11:59 pm EST.

  • By entering the giveaway, you’re confirming that you are at least 18 years old.
  • Winners will be selected by random number. No purchase necessary to win.  The number of eligible entries received determines the odds of winning.
  • If you win, you must respond to my email within 48 hours or another winner may be chosen. Please make sure that your spam filter allows email from Joyfully Jay.
  • Winners may be announced on the blog following the contest. By entering the contest you are agreeing to allow your name to be posted and promoted as the contest winner by Joyfully Jay.
  • Prizes will be distributed following the giveaway either by Joyfully Jay or the person/organization donating the prize.
  • All book prizes are in electronic format unless otherwise specified.
  • By entering you are agreeing to hold Joyfully Jay harmless if the prize or giveaway in some way negatively impacts the winner.
  • Readers may only enter once for each contest.  Duplicate entries for the same giveaway will be ignored. In the event of technical problems with the blog during the contest, every effort will be made to extend the contest deadline to allow for additional entries.
  • Void where prohibited by law.
FILED UNDER: Giveaway, Guest Post
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