Welcome to my weekly series, Designing from Bones, where we use archaeology, mythology and the artifacts of human history to find and design stories. Join me today as we take a look at a series of Semaphore Towers built along the western coast of Ireland during the early 1800’s for ideas on how to use historical settings and communications.
Come, friends and follow me through the misty portal to the emerald hills of Ireland where await the towers that long guarded the shores of that fay land.
The distracting smells of rabbit stew drift up from the lower recesses of a squat stone tower as you stand guard atop, leaning against the corner bartizan. The sun descends, turning wave into fluid fire, your half-conscious mind lulled by swell and ebb. A dark blot encroaches horizons’ flame, then another and another. Ships. Spyglass! Blue flags! The French are coming! In an instant only a single thought remains. Screaming for your compatriots you grab the ropes to the towers semaphore pole and begin to adjust its flags sending out a signal that will be carried all the way to Dublin within hours. “To arms! French fleet approaching Lough Swilly!”
Along the southern and western coasts of Ireland lie the ruins of 81 such semaphore towers commissioned in 1803 by Ireland’s Lord Lieutenant Harwick after two unsuccessful invasions by the French showed a weakness in the islands defenses. While the towers offered no true military defense, the semaphore poles and flags on top of them could be seen for miles, sending word of danger rapidly along the coast to Dublin. Most of these towers have now fallen into disrepair, but their legacy lives on for the alert writer.
Everything has a story to tell. What can we learn from these small defensive structures and the purpose they once held? Let’s explore!
Consider for a moment the power of Tolkien’s hobbit hole. A simple round door set in a hill containing what amounted to a fancifully decorated rabbit warren.
Simple structures used as powerful backdrops.
A few minutes of research brought me full details on the towers as they originally existed, as well as photos, GPS images and the fact that they were modeled after late Medieval tower houses. With this information in hand, writing a descriptive of the tower becomes an easy matter. Square and simple, the towers can be used as guard stations, the home of a remote farmer or hermit, the meeting place of a cult or a quiet sanctuary for secret lovers.
Float one in space and it becomes a difficult to detect watch station warning of incursions by pesky alien neighbors, filled with tension if your hero happens to be on the base when the alien invasion fleet passes by. Hope he turned the lights out before they noticed him.
Story ideas flow best when a we allow our imaginations to freely wonder and theorize all possibilities.
Did you hear what happened at the tower?
What if a serial killer made one of these remote, and oft overlooked towers his home, turning the cellar into a house macabre? Or perhaps a cult instead? Two agents in a thriller, might see this as a safe place to meet only to be ambushed, or maybe only one is an agent and the other a journalist hunting the truth, unaware of the agents complicity as he heads to the remote location. Feel the tension?.
In a romance, the towers transform into a haven for clandestine meetings, leading to a climax where the jilted spouse or betrothed finds his beloved in the arms of his best friend or worst enemy. Building a fantasy, the towers become the remote home of an eccentric hermit magi who holds the key/cure/only hope, but beware or his pet bear, or basilisk, or man-eating bunnies might snack on the hero. Heroes are tasty I’ve heard. Wine with that?
When we consider any location, the possibilities available to us become endless. When viewed through the lens of genre they often show us their highest value.
Fiber-optics, any time, any place.
In 1803, when the watch towers were built, semaphore signaling was state-of-the-art, the fiber-optics of its day. While there is nothing wrong with using an existing technology to accomplish a story goal, there is also nothing wrong with conceiving new variants to add flavor to an overused trope.
How about a romance where lovers use the color of their handkerchiefs to signal each other? “Ah, Yellow today. Noon at the old tower!”
Perhaps a thriller where secret messages are sent through blog headlines, or posts, or comments (don’t analyze this post or black helicopters may visit you! Just kidding. Kinda. No really, I’m just kidding…).
Spin into fantasy a magical communication where the message is whispered into a sparkling hummingbird or finch that explodes out of existence in a burst of confetti after delivery. Okay, that might be a bit comical but the power of the concept still shows through.
Science fiction is famous for using current technologies . . . two thousand years in the future. Sure, variants of some technologies may still be in use, but before simply choosing to upgrade something consider all the possibilities. Is it not possible that the aliens will figure out how to listen in on wireless or even light-based communications?
Clever wins the day in any genre, thrill your readers and they will love you for it.
I now return you back through the misty portal, the signals flash ahead of you, but only you can decide their true meaning.
What comes to mind when you consider the towers? Any ideas on alternate communication? Just the basics, save the full concept for your own story. Give the same seed to a thousand writers and watch a thousand different stories bloom. We are all wonderfully unique like that.
The article on the Guard Towers of County Mayo (Ireland) can be found on Past Horizons.
If you’re interested in more great information and ideas on writing, check out my previous Designing from Bones entries found in “Categories” on the side bar.