The most pressing inspiration for the novel I'm publishing next year--happily it has found its new title, The Explosionist, after a rather anxiety-provoking spell of namelessness--came from a couple of trips I took to northern European landscapes. There's an uncanny similarity (despite evident and dramatic differences) to St. Petersburg and Tallinn and Stockholm and Copenhagen and Edinburgh, and it made me think about an alternate universe in which the northern Europe of the Enlightenment had sustained itself as a politically independent entity throughout the vagaries of nineteenth- and twentieth-century European politics. The quality of the light in summer, the feeling of being on the water, the verticalness of building and the calm neoclassical aesthetic that barely puts a lid on the Dosteoevsky/Jekyll-and-Hyde life of squalid urban landscapes--all of that just captivated me and had me in mental thrall.
Some time afterwards, I came across this extraordinary collection of pictures that captured the feeling I wanted to get across in the novel. The Prokudin-Gorskii photographs of Imperial Russia documented all sorts of aspects of life across a huge geographic expanse, and by means of an unusual color process that gives the alternate-reality feeling (like a higher-quality version of the nonetheless appealing planetscapes of the most recent Star Wars movies) that's very much what I prize. We're not used to seeing color images from this time period, and the quality of the color is also very distinctive and rather non-naturalistic.
Here's a good one:
Another visual inspiration--I'm hoping that some of this feel might be picked up in the book's cover design, but as a hopelessly unvisual person I certainly couldn't tell you what I actually want it to look like!--was the packaging for the kind of wireless radio known as a "crystal set" (my main character Sophie builds one to capture the voices of the dead). Here's a quite wonderful site with pictures of the tins in which one obtained the components (these desperately remind me of the little plastic bicycle-patching case in which I kept my oboe reeds as a teenager!).
The names are wonderfully evocative also, and it's hard to pick a favorite example since they're all so appealing, but this one gives a good sense of the aesthetic (the term "magical" has been on my mind a lot recently--more about this anon):