Kevin Hearne: Five Things I Learned Writing Ink & Sigil

Al MacBharrais is both blessed and cursed. He is blessed with an extraordinary white moustache, an appreciation for craft cocktails—and a most unique magical talent. He can cast spells with magically enchanted ink and he uses his gifts to protect our world from rogue minions of various pantheons, especially the Fae.

But he is also cursed. Anyone who hears his voice will begin to feel an inexplicable hatred for Al, so he can only communicate through the written word or speech apps. And his apprentices keep dying in peculiar freak accidents. As his personal life crumbles around him, he devotes his life to his work, all the while trying to crack the secret of his curse.

But when his latest apprentice, Gordie, turns up dead in his Glasgow flat, Al discovers evidence that Gordie was living a secret life of crime. Now Al is forced to play detective—while avoiding actual detectives who are wondering why death seems to always follow Al. Investigating his apprentice’s death will take him through Scotland’s magical underworld, and he’ll need the help of a mischievous hobgoblin if he’s to survive.

Glasgow is a remarkable city

Edinburgh and the Highlands get a lot of attention when folks think of visiting Scotland—and for good reason—but Glasgow has layers, like ogres and onions and parfaits. It’s the third-largest city in the UK behind London and Birmingham, but far more affordable. It has universities, plural; a 37-acre Necropolis full of spooky Victorian-era gravesites and mausoleums for all the goth vibes you need; multiple football teams to cheer (and fight) for; an eldritch organ in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum; master distillers of whisky and gin that are the envy of the world; and it used to be that all the New World’s tobacco was shipped to Glasgow first and from there to the rest of the European continent. That was a whole lot of money and cancer. It was quite the industrial hub in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the shipbuilding industry was huge for a long time, but when it collapsed a few decades ago, the city population basically halved from 1.2 million to 600k—part of what makes housing more reasonable there. Now there’s a lot of finance and tech stuff happening in Glasgow, and the city has this wonderful richness of varied architecture and community owing to its long history coexisting alongside modern buildings. Basically it’s a fantastic city in which to set an urban fantasy, because pretty much anything can happen there.

There are thousands of recipes for ink and lots of them are flammable

Accidental fires and property damage were so common in the old days that inkmakers had to do their thing outside city walls on a calm day in case shit went bad. The main culprit behind the ruckus was boiling linseed oil, which smells really terrible, produces toxic vapors, and can explode at any time. Without heating the oil sufficiently beforehand, the ink would dry too slowly, absorb oxygen, and polymerize like rubber. The industrial process now is much safer, but doing it the old-fashioned way is flirting with spontaneously combustible doom.

I learned a lot about the history of inkmaking from Ink by Ted Bishop, which I highly recommend as a good start, and it has an extensive bibliography for further reading. The widespread use of bugs (like cochineal) and squishy ocean creatures for pigments was especially surprising to me. (If you’ve ever eaten food that’s red or worn lipstick, you’ve probably been consuming or smearing uponst thy lips the colorful guts of bugs who like prickly pear cacti.) A tiny fraction of the research I did wound up being used in the book; it was a gigantic lovely rabbit hole that operates as deep background for everything Al does, and some of it that I didn’t use for the first book will likely find a place later in the series.

Public transport is pretty rad

I’ve lived in places without a decent public transport system most all my life, so whenever I’m in a city that has it, I’m easily impressed. Glasgow has a small subway that circles around the city core, but also has a rail and bus system that allows people to get around pretty well without a car—which is what we did as tourists. Most impressively, regular routes get you out of the city to charming wee villages that typically offer an old stone church, a pub, lots of sheep, and a claim that either William Wallace or Rob Roy MacGregor had been there once, which is probably true since it’s not a gigantic country and those dudes got around. The relative ease of getting around both rural and urban areas without owning a vehicle showed me that my protagonist didn’t need a car. Taxis and hitchhiking would pick up the slack whenever public transport and a stretch of the legs couldn’t handle the journey.

Haggis is freaking delicious

For reals. And I love neeps and tatties too. It gets portrayed as this stuff you only eat on a dare, and yeah, I admit I winced the first time I tried it because it had been built up in my head as A Gross Thing You Will Only Try Once, but damn, I liked it. A lot. Had it as often as I could while I was there, because it is not widely available outside of Scotland.

Now, as a counterpoint: I am not a fan of black pudding, because I tried that too and it did unkind things to my palate. Super happy for everyone who likes it, though! You can have mine. I’ll trade you for your haggis. Dang, I really need to find some where I’m at now. I miss it.

The accents are pure brilliant

Most Americans’ familiarity with the Scottish accent comes from Shrek and other entertainment, but spend some time in Scotland and you’ll recognize that there are a wide range of accents throughout the country. The Glaswegian (or Weegie) accent is its own thing, but fifty miles away in Edinburgh you get a completely different sound. Since the Weegie accent and dialect is distinct from other areas of Scotland, I needed an expert reader from Glasgow to take a look at the manuscript ahead of time and make corrections. One word that had to go that people often associate with Scotland: Laddie. I was told that word might get used in the country here and there, but was not really a thing that Weegies say. Also, calling someone a jammy bastard has absolutely nothing to do with jam or even pajamas.

I didn’t try to reproduce everything you hear—that would be a gargantuan task—but I did settle on a few words and phrases to consistently render the way a Weegie might say them to provide the flavor of the language while (hopefully) keeping it easy to read. Of course, you can listen to the audiobook narrated by Luke Daniels and appreciate the accents that way.


Kevin Hearne hugs trees, pets doggies, and rocks out to heavy metal. He also thinks tacos are a pretty nifty idea. He is the author of A Plague of Giants and the New York Times bestselling The Iron Druid Chronicles series.

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