My new fantasy novella, The Sand Scuttler, is set in a desert. The action takes place in Parchad, capital city of the desolate, desert country of Drome, as well as on Jhabia Ridge, a snaking length of rock that juts out of the sand not far from the city.
The inspiration for this setting has come from my travels around the world, and my time living and working in the Middle East in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Below I round up some of the specific locations and experiences that have helped me bring my world to life in The Sand Scuttler.
Drome also features heavily in my novel Melokai, my novella The Fall of Vaasar and is mentioned in my short story The Tunnel Runner.
Me about to drive a dune buggy in the Dubai desert (my pic)
Desert country of Drome: UAE
I lived in Dubai, UAE, for three years and whilst there travelled to Jordan and Oman. On my regular trips out into the orange-yellow desert I went sandboarding and dune bashing, drove a dune buggy, stayed in traditional Bedouin tents, learnt about falconry as well as gave camel riding a go. One incredible experience was a hot air balloon journey over the desert to watch the sunrise and spot sprinting Arabian oryx and gazelles.
The desert is a frighteningly enormous, never-ending space. And at night, it is endless black. Ibin comments to Jakira that: “The first time I did this was during the day and the desert is vast. Sand for as far as you can see in every direction. You won’t see it now it’s dark, there’s nothing out there.”
The stifling summer heat in Dubai reaches up to 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) and sometimes more. It feels as if a wall of heat smacks into you when you step from an air-conditioned building or car into the humid, claustrophobic air. The heat takes your breath away. Jakira comments that there are “two seasons in Drome, hot and hotter” which is very true of Dubai.
I also experienced dramatic dust storms and sandstorms whilst living there. Dust storms are windy, blowing about fine grit that scratches at your skin and covers everything in a whitish-grey layer of dust. Sandstorms, however, turned the world yellow. You can barely see in front of you, and the wind is powerful enough to knock you off your feet.
The view at Wadi al Helo, UAE (my pic)
Jhabia Ridge: Wadi al Helo, UAE
Hiking with friends in the UAE took us into the rocky mountains that rise up out of the desert. There are dry riverbeds called wadis that are perfect for exploring. There’s also big boulders, ancient and abandoned settlements and superb views. One area we went to regularly is Hatta, and another called Wadi al Helo.
We climbed quite high at Wadi al Helo and found ourselves on a ridge of peaks in a snaking line that went on into the distance. Beyond, there was desert. This place was the inspiration for Jhabia Ridge, where the creature, the Sand Scuttler, has its nest.
Crazy busy Kathmandu streets (pic credit)
Parchad city: Kathmandu, Nepal
In 2016, I spent a few days in the crazy capital of Nepal before hiking in the Annapurna Sanctuary (which was the inspiration for the country of Peqkya in Melokai). The year before, Kathmandu suffered a terrible earthquake and the city and its people were still reeling.
The chaotic streets in the Thamel district where I stayed had crumbling temples and listing walls propped up with wood, piles of rubble where buildings had collapsed, flapping canvas and plastic sheets covering holes in walls and roofs, colourful signage and narrow roadways with cars, mopeds, pushbikes, hawkers, beggars and pedestrians all jostling for a tiny bit of space.
The overwhelming noise, intense street hustle and bustle, powerful smells and sheer volume of people I experienced in Kathmandu inspired the Drome capital of Parchad.
Parchad has limited space as it is in the centre of a crater and as Jakira describes:
“Every possible piece of sandy dirt was lived on, the wealthy living near the lake or up the sides of the crater wall, where the stench was more bearable, and the poor lived in slums erected wherever the wealthy rejected. When there was no more space, the slums moved outside the crater wall.”
Meteor Crater in Arizona (pic credit)
Parchad crater: Ngorongoro crater, Tanzania
One of the most picturesque places I have visited was the Ngorongoro crater in Tanzania. I went on a one-day safari there and was awestruck by the animals and the crater itself. Driving up and over the walls and down into the crater was an unforgettable experience. There are only a few ways down, and once inside, the walls loom large around you.
The crater is like heaven for the animals and birds who find their way in, it has a natural water source, plenty of food and relative shelter from strong winds. This place inspired Parchad. I wanted a city to be thriving in the middle of the desert and placing it within a crater that has a natural water source made perfect sense.
After a bit of online searching, I found Meteor Crater in the North Arizona Desert, US that looked more like the Parchad I was imagining. Less green and lush and starker, with blasted rock, rubble and dust.
The stunning Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi (my pic)
Holy Temple: Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, UAE
The Holy Temple in Parchad is inspired by the stunning Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. I visited this temple only once but saw it quite a few times when passing by. And each time it awed me! It’s a white building with gold accents, archways and tall pillars with rounded domes. It has a serene, peaceful atmosphere when you walk inside and the courtyard’s white marble with intricate floral design is breathtakingly beautiful.
Here is Jakira’s description of the Holy Temple:
“At the top of a slight hill was a magnificent building. Three or four times as high as the Rasheed villa and perhaps ten times as big. The walls were made of polished rock bricks with elaborate carvings and coloured white, not pale yellow like the sandy mud brick walls of the villa. Intricate repeated patterns were painted in gold, blue and green. A row of tall arches held up by carved, golden pillars marked the entrance and a great golden dome rose from the walls to the sky surrounded by lower, smaller white domes. Huge windows were filled with great panes of coloured glass that glittered in the blazing sun. Each depicted something different, camels or the flowers that grew in the palace gardens.”
The back streets of the old quarter in Dubai (my pic)
Mudbrick villas: Al Bastakiya old quarter in Dubai, UAE
The Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood, otherwise known as the Al Bastakiya quarter, is an old part of Dubai that has been preserved from the early days and restored into a district with museums, cafes and art galleries. It is a complete contrast from the skyscrapers and modern architecture of Downtown and the rest of the city.
The old buildings were made from mudbrick and other materials, and are a pale, sandy colour. The wealthy in Parchad live in one or two-storey villas similar in style to these. Jakira’s owners, the Rasheed family, live in a villa with their slaves living in tents erected around the outside.
The Hand of God sand sculpture in Chile (pic credit)
The Hand of God sand sculpture: Hand sculpture in the Atacama Desert, Chile
Unfortunately, I’ve not yet got around to visiting Chile – I happened to see a picture of this sand sculpture in the Atacama Desert whilst browsing on Twitter. I thought it looked super cool, took a screenshot and then forgot about it.
That was until I was considering what could mark the way into the city of Parchad, something that sits outside the crater walls and is recognised as a religious place. And the idea of a huge sand sculpture of a hand reaching to the sky pinged into my brain and I dug out this screenshot!
There are other elements of The Sand Scuttler inspired by Arab culture. For example, the strong incense, the low floor cushions and low tables, the hookah pipes, the brass tables with elaborate tea serving sets, as well as the plush carpets and obsession with racing camels.
I love to draw on my memories and experiences to write about non-western fantasy worlds and I hope it’s refreshing for you, my readers, to immerse yourselves in rich worldbuilding that isn’t based solely on medieval Europe.
The Sand Scuttler is available in ebook from Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, iBooks, Google Play Books and Smashwords. You can read more about my books here.
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