Friday, August 22, 2014

If you anchor in Anchorage, do you catch up in Ketchikan?

Here's a question?
If Capetown has 20, Glasgow has 49. Reykjavik 31 and New York 35. Beijing 22 and Paris 25. Poor Jeff out in Mykonos gets only 6.
Ok, so I am talking about rainfall (average in inches per year ) so maybe we should not feel so sorry for Jeff and spare a thought for those hardy but sodden folks who live in Ketchikan, Alaska. A massive 160 inches of rain per year.
It is the rainfall capital of the world.
This week here is a soggy flaneur of Ketchikan. Next week I will tell you the story of the famous murders that took place here, because as we know......murder is everywhere!!!

Famous statue on the pier to those frontiersmen who made the town as it is today. 

Beautiful detail . The statue is called the Rock.

And very welcoming it was. This was about 10.30 AM. light drizzle only.

The pavements are slightly grooved to let the rain drain away

The very famous Dolly's house, a place for working ladies...

The guide to Creek Street. It says 'where fish and fisherman come up the creek to spawn!'

Famous Chilli cafe. Couldn't work out if chilli was a euphemism. Either way, the ladies of Creek Street were hot stuff!

Transport is amphibian.

Diamonds are forever and a girls best friend. And a huge industry here.

We saw this chair sitting on a hill above the creek. Nobody was about.
This type of scene is what gets a crime writers brain whirring.
It's about 12 noon now, rain getting a bit serious.

The stairs up the creek, note non slip matting on the wooden stairs

Rain getting heavy now. Even in our hillwalking gear, we were soaked.

View across the bay.

Creek street

Chatting to a local. He was waiting for his dinner, in the dry.

The famous Creek Street
Water everywhere. Houses on stilts

Dolly's home to world's oldest profession.

Totems and mist.
Deadly quiet.
Just the sound of the rain.

Oh greased lightening, burning up the quarter mile...

The view from the top!
Note the cruise boats lined up. The biggest industry in Alaska is Government. The second biggest
is now tourism. They have it well managed and very controlled. All of Alaska is a rainforest and they work hard to preserve it and it's natural, wild beauty. There was no sense, to quote Charlie Brown, of us 'getting jam on it.' 
Long may that last.
Today it is 22 degrees in Ketchikan. 15 in Glasgow. Raining in both.

Caro Ramsay 22nd Aug 2014 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Role Models

I am in Edinburgh at the moment, enjoying the offerings of the Festival and the Fringe Festival, as well as a few of the local pubs.  Time flies when you're having fun, so I've decided to rerun a blog I wrote in October 2010.  I was reminded of it because of all the Scottish accents around me - some of which are broad enough that I need a translator!  My grandfather lived with us when I was young - he was from Glasgow - and was very influential in instilling in me a love of reading.

Last night I went to that great Edinburgh event - the Tattoo.

The very impressive Edinburgh Castle

Finale with all the performers from around the world - including Zulu dancers who must have been freezing in the cold wind.

Later today I will sup with that great Glasgow institution - Krimi writer, Caro Ramsey!

Stan - Thursday

Neither of my parents did well at school.  Both failed their Matriculation exams (the national examination taken when a senior).  My mother was a warm, generous person but not inclined to study.  My father was extremely smart, but a lousy linguist and failed Afrikaans, which meant he failed Matric overall.  I suspect his standing at home improved when he came second in the British Commonwealth Accountancy Exams a few years later.

Neither of them went to university.

But both of them were dedicated to providing their kids the best educational opportunities possible.  So I and my two brothers were sent to a parochial school in Johannesburg, not for the religious training (my family were not good churchgoers) but because it had the reputation of being the best school in town.

But more than providing that opportunity, about which I’ll say more later, they also made home a place to learn – not in any mandated way (other than homework, of course) – but by surrounding us with the opportunity to learn.  For example, although neither of my parents really enjoyed classical music, they bought several Readers Digest sets of LPs (that’s long-playing records for the younger set!) of famous symphonies, concerti, etc.  They bought The Hardy Boys books and Teddy Lester’s Schooldays, and encourage us to read the ‘one and thrups’ (comic books that cost one shilling and three pence), many of which were graphic versions of the classics.  And they were always willing to fork out for new books.

While my parents provided the opportunity, my grandfather provided the passion.  Hugh Scott MacGregor was gentle Scottish mining engineer from Glasgow.  He and his wife, Francis Meta Watt (from Edinburgh and a relative of the steam man), came to South Africa shortly after the Anglo-Boer War in the early 1900s.  He came to work on the fabulously rich gold mines around Johannesburg.  With him he brought a beautiful, but simple bookcase, which I still have, and a collection of classical books – Walter Scott, George Meredith, Charles Dickens, John Ruskin, Robbie Burns, and so on, which I also still have.

Hugh LOVED to read.  But more than that, he knew a lot – about a lot.  So I have very fond memories of general knowledge contests around the dining room table.  My mother wasn’t so good, nor were my brothers, but Hugh and Bill (my dad) were good – my father surprisingly so since he never seemed to read anything other than the newspaper.  Being mildly competitive, I found that these competitions were an incentive for me to read more so I could stump the others.

Gramps's bookcase
But it was Gramps’s bookcase that hooked me.  Actually the books inside.  I can imagine me as a young boy taking out a leather book and opening it.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….”

How could one put the book down?

Or in another leather book – it was deep red, I remember - :

‘When chapman billies leave the street,
And drouthy neibors, neibors, meet;
As market days are wearing late,
And folk begin to tak the gate,
While we sit bousing at the nappy,
An' getting fou and unco happy,
We think na on the lang Scots miles,
The mosses, waters, slaps and stiles,
That lie between us and our hame,
Where sits our sulky, sullen dame,
Gathering her brows like gathering storm,
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm."

How could I not love poetry?  Especially when Gramps read it with his soft brogue.

St. John's College, Johannesburg
My schooling was at an Anglican school in Johannesburg: St. John’s Preparatory School, and for high school, St. John’s College.  Not only was it a beautiful environment, built in the early 1900s from stone, sitting on top of a koppie (small hill) in the middle of Johannesburg, but it was focused on producing rounded young gentlemen (very much in the English public school tradition).  So everyone was required to play sport.  In primary school, because I have such awful foot-eye coordination, I was relegated to being goalkeeper on every football (soccer) team.  I was actually quite good in that position because I am blessed with excellent hand-eye coordination.

 I also played cricket (a lot), rugby (a lot), tennis (a lot), and swam (a lot).  In fact (he said blushing), I still hold the Under 9 25-yard backstroke record!  That is the truth.  But perhaps not the whole truth!  It behooves me to disclose that the year after I broke the record, the school built a new pool that was 25 metres long.

But I digress.

What was wonderful about St. John’s was the emphasis on reading and the enjoyment of literature.  For example, in my senior year, I studied (and I mean studied) Merchant of VenicePygmalionPride and Prejudice, as well as an anthology of poems ranging from Tam o’ Shanter to Young Ethelred.  And I repeated the exercise with books in Afrikaans and Latin.  (There’s a thought:  translating Tam o’ Shanter into Latin.)

Stan as Goneril's gorgeous handmaiden
My English teacher would often have a group of boys to his house on a Sunday evening to talk about literature or to read One-Act plays.  Furthermore, in high school the school produced a different Shakespeare play every other year, and on the intervening years produced a Gilbert and Sullivan.  I was banned from the latter because of my lack of singing ability.  So I was a gorgeous handmaiden to Goneril in King Lear, and Salerio in Merchant of Venice.  In primary school, I was the March Hare in Alice in Wonderland.  I also produced a very funny One-Act play called The Rehearsal, which is worth reading.

So, as I look back on my life, I can see how greatly I have been influenced by those around me – the role models within my family and those they surrounded me with, and many stimulating, dedicated teachers.

When I think of how fortunate I have been, I naturally think of the many kids out there without role models.  Whose lives will be poorer because of it.

Stan - Thursday

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Rude Awakening

One cannot always be gracious and correct. Sometimes bad thoughts make their way through the mental barriers erected in order to maintain a civilized persona.
Main volcanoes in Iceland - including Bárðarbunga
Here in Iceland we are now at the edge of our seats due to an impending volcanic eruption that has all the makings of a disaster of Eyjafjallajöll proportions. This time around the volcano is Bárðarbunga and since last week hundreds of earthquakes per day in its vicinity imply that magma is on the move. If it blows it will mark the 49th eruption in Iceland in the last 100 years.
A screen shot of the earthquake web site - a cluster of quakes can be seen in the vicinity of Bárðarbunga. The largest so far has been around 4 on the Richter scale.
The country is now on alert and in preparation the highlands north of Dyngjukjökull have been evacuated. No one lives in the highlands but the area is very popular in the summertime for those that enjoy the harsh Icelandic nature, both locals and tourists. The Icelandic surveillance plane equipped with eruption monitoring equipment has been called home from the Mediterranean where it was temporarily leased out for border patrol and the National Crisis Coordination Centre has been fully activated. Everyone here constantly check for updates and I am would not be surprised to read that the earthquake web page has jumped to the top of the most popular internet sites.
The worry is that the eruption will do either of two things. A) cause a sub-glacial flood from Vatnajökull or B) result in an ash cloud into the atmosphere akin to or worse than the one from Eyjafjallajökull. Both scenarios could be quite catastrophic.   

Which brings me to my bad thoughts. On Monday I had guests over for dinner. This did not give cause for any bad thoughts – far from it. These related to a job related meeting that was scheduled after the dinner party was decided and was to take place at Þeistareykir in the north of Iceland, the day after the party. This required taking a flight that departed at seven in the morning and to wake up at six. I am not an A person – or maybe I am. I never remember if it is A or B that don’t like to wake up early. Anyway. Enter bad thoughts. All during the dinner party I kept wishing that the eruption would just go ahead and start. That way there would have been no flight and no meeting.
The touristic eruption at Fimmvörðuháls - oen of the cute ones
But my prayers were not answered and the volcano is still considering its options. Having taken my flight and while in the north I did worry that because I had been so selfish the eruption was sure to start while I was still there, grounding me on the opposite side of the country from where I wanted to be, namely at home. However, the gods decided to be merciful and I got there as planned.
Unless this mercy was a temporary reprieve. Next Wednesday I am supposed to by flying to New Zealand for WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival and then on to Australia to participate in the Brisbane Writers Festival. To get there I have to fly through Europe. So now I am doing the exact opposite of what I did during the dinner party. I am now praying for the volcano to stuff itself.
The wretched ash cloud no one ones to be reminded of
I cannot leave this topic without presenting you with some facts about the Bárðarbunga volcano. For one it is responsible for producing the world’s largest lava field in modern times when it spouted the Þjórsárhraun lava field 8500 years ago. It is around 950 square kilometers or 370 square miles. Bárðarbunga is contained within the Vatnajökull glacier so its impressive 10 km (6 miles) wide and 700 m (0.5 miles) deep caldera (crater) is not visible to the naked eye. The Icelandic volcano site lists Bárðabunga as being one of the most powerful and dangerous Icelandic volcanoes.
With regards to the meeting at Þeistareykir, it went as well as could be expected. Aside from the part when I fell asleep in the middle of it. I have seen project owners more impressed than when I was shaken back into consciousness.
Yrsa - Wednesday


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Battle of Paris begins

On August 19, 1944, 70 years ago  the battle for Paris began. After four years of German Occupation the Allies had landed and were approaching. Seizing the time, Parisians staged strikes that erupted all over Paris and the battle to re-claim the city began.

On June 14, 1940 the Wehrmacht had marched into Paris and millions of Parisians fled. Only to return and suffer four years of Occupation.

The Battle for Paris lasted eight days.

The first shots fired in the Battle for Paris were Tuesday, August 19. On that day Paris’s police, (then and now photo)
having sought what safety there could be in the police headquarters – the Préfecture de police began to fire at German soldiers and tanks down below on Boulevard Saint Michel and on the square in front of Notre Dame Cathedral.

Cara - Tuesday 

Monday, August 18, 2014

Veracity in Historical Fiction

In a few weeks I will be attending the Historical Novel Society 
Conference in London.  Without a doubt, the conferees will take up the question of how strictly the historical novelist must cleave to the truth of a story’s historical background.  There will be next to no agreement on this point.

Some people at the conference will say that a novelist must never stray from the truth; not even, for instance, to write a scene under the full moon, if there was only a half-moon on the specified date 1567.  I was once on a panel with a woman who began her story with a fourteen-page explanation of just how the story she was about to tell departed from even the minutest facts of the case.  These purists look down their noses upon any writer who takes any liberties whatsoever with what the history books say.

On the other end of the spectrum, are those who take whatever liberties they like.  Some even write alternate histories from the ones we all know.  Books and movies that posit a world where the Nazis won World War II or the South won the American Civil War.  Writers like these, as you can imagine, also feel no compunction whatsoever about completely changing the characters and deeds of historical figures.


I fall somewhere in between on this continuum.  Actually, I don’t see myself as a historical novelist, per se.  I am a mystery writer who sets her stories in historical backgrounds.  I know this because I feel at home, among my own tribe, when I am with mystery writers.   This is not necessarily the case when I am with historical novelists.   At HNS conferences, people walk up and ask, “What period do you write?”  “Tudor England” or “Regency England” or “Renaissance Florence” would all be good answers.  My truthful answer: “I don’t write only one time and place” draws frowns, at best, usually annoyance—both from other writers and from readers.

Being a mystery writer at heart, what is most important to me is the story.  If the story requires a night scene under a full moon, it gets it regardless of the planetary alignments at that moment, shocking as that may be to some.

History’s enigmas are what most appeal to me.   No one actually knows what happened to the Alcalde of Potosi’s vast fortune in silver that he stashed away during the King’s investigation of counterfeiting, in 1649.  Nor what happened to the national treasure of Paraguay during the War of the Triple Alliance in 1868.   City of Silver and Invisible Country offer plausible answers to both, but the stories are whodunit’s.  I knew full well while writing them that the average American would have no idea that those treasures were ever lost, much less never found.

Historians are still arguing over what role Evita played in Peron’s return to power during the most dramatic week in Argentine history.   Some say she did nothing because she was powerless until that time.  Others say she did everything, and offer as proof all the power she wielded after the fact.  I love this sort of thing and made a sideline to my story portraying her as a powerless woman who nevertheless found a way to turn the tide in Peron’s favor.

Which brings us to what people think are the rules for introducing real people into historical novels.  There are no real rules, of course.  The writer decides.  But some critics and readers will reject a work if it does not conform to what “history says” about the person.  My problem is whose history are we reading and when?  If you are over forty, you have seen the assessment of historical figures change in your lifetime.  Jimmy Carter.  Richard Nixon.  Need I say more?

I will give the last word on this to the great writer I quoted at length here a couple of weeks ago—John Fowles.  Here is a paragraph that comes a little after what I quoted then.  It answers the question about how novelists should deal with historical figures:

From The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Chapter Thirteen

“But this is preposterous?  A character is either “real” or “imaginary”?  If you think that, hypocrite lecteur, I can only smile.  You do not even think of your own past as quite real; you dress sit up, you gild it or blacken it, censor it, tinker with it. . . fictionalize it, in a word, and put it away on a shelf—your book, your romanced autobiography.  We are in flight from the real reality.  That is a basic definition of Homo sapiens.”

  The defense rests.

Annamaria – Monday

PS: I will be traveling over the next three Mondays, much of it in areas where I may not have reliable Internet access.  I will do my best to keep up with postings here. 

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Wrongs and Rights

RIP Jeremiah Healy

My words this week are fragmented, but that’s the kind of week it’s been. To begin with, I was stunned to learn the devastating news that fellow author Jeremiah Healy took his own life a few days ago. Jerry was one of the good guys, one who made me feel most welcome when I attended my first US convention in Florida.

Severe depression is a terrible illness for all affected – and by that I mean those closest to the person as well as the one suffering. A bad way to put it, I know, but if someone you love is depressed, everybody around them suffers the agonies of knowing there is nothing they can do to make it right. My every sympathy goes to Jerry’s wife, fellow author Sandra Balzo. To quote her on the late Robin Williams earlier this week: “Severe depression is as far away from ‘the blues’ as Ebola is from a cold.”

We remember people by the size and shape of the hole they leave behind them in the world. Dammit, Jerry, you’ve left a big hole.

Jeremiah Healy and Sandy Balzo

Something For Nothing

It seems a minor point, after that, to move on to the subject I was intending to bring up this week – the subject of torrent sites and illegal free downloads. It bugs me, but not enough to go stalking those responsible, wearing a ghillie suit and camouflage cream. If a site offering freebie downloads of my books comes to my attention, I’ll do something, but I don’t go trawling the Tinterweb looking for them.

Likewise, I don’t add DRM (Digital Rights Management) to most of my ebooks. DRM is supposed to prevent the user from making copies of the work, but I’ve always gone on the theory that for those people tech-savvy enough to want to do it, bypassing DRM is no barrier, and for the rest of us it’s simply annoying. I recognize that this is a similar argument to not locking your doors at night, on the grounds that professional thieves will know how to break in anyway.

So, is it time I rethought the whole DRM thing and added it to my backlist titles? What is everyone else’s view on this?

Signing It All Away

And finally, months ago I was asked to contribute to an anthology for the benefit of a particular writers’ organization. I’d contributed to a similar type of book here in the UK, and when I received my invite I asked the editor if the same piece would be acceptable, even though it had been published previously. I received assurances that this was just fine.

But when the contract arrived from the publisher the organization was using, it demanded that I sign away exclusive rights for the entire term of copyright. Not only that, but also that I agree to indemnify the publisher against any legal action taken over the piece (the content of which was entirely non-controversial, by the way). I baulked at this, and eventually – as publication loomed – was told by the editor to re-word the contract to something I was happy with and they would run it by the publisher. I did this, adding ‘non’ to the exclusive part, and striking through the indemnity clause.

To cut a long story short, the publisher rejected my changes and my piece was pulled from the anthology. Disappointing, but preferable, in my view, to setting a dangerous precedent by signing away all rights to my work.

Again, what are your views? Should I stop being so precious and accept that sometimes you have to let go of work forever and set it adrift in the hopes that it does some good because someone else happens across it, or stick to my guns? Or should I look at it as good advertising?

That’s all from me, except for my Word of the Week, which is tristifical, an adjective meaning to cause to be sad or mournful.