Designing from Bones – Signalling Viewpoints

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!”

Semaphore or flag signalling is still in use today.

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.

An Irish Semaphore Guard Tower: Original, Deteriorating, place with many views

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.

Traffic, Railroads, Airports, Ships and one day Starcraft all use Semaphore signals

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.

Peaceful Journeys!

About Gene Lempp

Gene Lempp is a writer blending elements of alternate history, the paranormal, fantasy, science fiction and horror for dark and delicious fun. He unearths stories by digging into history, archeology, myth and fable in his Designing from Bones blog series. “Only the moment is eternal and in a moment, everything will change,” sums the heart of his philosophy. You can find Gene at his Blog, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, WANATribe, Google+, Pinterest and StumbleUpon.
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16 Responses to Designing from Bones – Signalling Viewpoints

  1. Ahhh… but dragons in a post apocalyptic world can’t read the signals. Sometimes low tech is good tech. Hmmmmm….

  2. Man you make archeology exciting. Er, scratch that. You show us how exciting it is. 😉 Love what you say about thrilling readers, regardless of the genre. I believe all stories to have some suspense. Thanks for another great one, Gene!

  3. Jenny Hansen says:

    I’m with August on this one, Gene! Great post. 🙂

  4. Catie Rhodes says:

    Very interesting. Of course, the serial killer in the basement appealed most to me. However, I liked the idea of wearing certain colors as a signal. Romance would be a good genre for that, but what about an Orwellian novel? I read This Perfect Day by Ira Levin many years ago. Wearing yellow to signal the day to start the attack (or whatever) would have been perfect there. 😀

  5. lynnkelleyauthor says:

    Great post, Gene. You offer something for everyone in here, and this gave me some ideas for my NaNo novel (which is going at a snail’s pace, but at least it’s going). Haha, I love the idea of a thriller where secret messages are sent through blog headlines, posts, or comments!

  6. Catherine Johnson says:

    Super interesting post Gene. I loved going in the tunnels at Dover Castle, where a lot of the plans for war were made. They show you where Winston Churchill used to stand and everything. I love the fantasy element to the post too. Great stuff!

  7. Gene, I am loving your posts!

    Funny that you picked Ireland today. I’ve had the privilege to visit that beautiful country and have seen first hand these archaic castles. There is a distinct feeling you get as your walk amongst the ruins. It still gives me chills up my spine.

    When on our last day there before we embarked on our next destination which was Scotland, we met a nice fellow who graciously said, “Ah, in Scotland you see they finish their Castles.” He was joking of course, but the Brits had the money to restore their castles.

    But I must say that there is something about meandering through those historic Irish Castles. It interests me that I really enjoyed Ireland more. Hummm. 🙂

  8. Thanks for another fascinating post.

  9. Patricia says:

    What an interesting post, Gene. I shall have to examine my imagination a bit deeper me thinks. Thanks for sharing a totally unique perspective.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

  10. Pingback: Mind Sieve 11/21/11 « Gloria Oliver

  11. Marcia says:

    I’d love to visit Ireland to just that sort of historic structure. My first novel in my trilogy centers on the Irish family who emmigrated to America. When I do short stories based on some of my characters, I think I’ll use one of these buildings, or whatever else I can find, as the location of the short story. Thanks for doing so much great research and offering it up to all of us.

  12. As stated before, this is a great post. . since I write romance I love the idea of different colored flags representing different meeting places, or times or…

    well done

  13. J Holmes says:

    Thanks for another unique and useful post Gene. I enjoyed it.

    I’m now examining the possibilities for a dark plot involving fast food outlets. They are not all that fast and that’s certainly not food that they are dispensing so certainly something big is going on under their greasy surfaces. Their connection to al qaeda seems obvious.

  14. J Holmes says:

    “I liked the idea of wearing certain colors as a signal. Romance would be a good genre for that,”

    Too late for that Catie. When women dress in certain colors (colors between infrared and ultraviolet) It causes men over the age of nine to think about romantic activity.

  15. Jess Witkins says:

    Loved the photos of the towers, made me nostalgic for walking the great castles and towers of Ireland. Great setting for a story for sure!

    P.S. Here’s a bit of legend for you. I heard the Irish school boys pee on the Blarney stone cause they know the tourists come to kiss it. LOL. Ew.

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