Saturday, January 8, 2011

And Just When You Least Expect It...

A Revered Monk
Welcome to Vermont
How many of you ever submitted the same paper to different professors in different courses?  Come on, you can 'fess up now.  It’s too late to go on your permanent record card.  Well, even if you never did I’m sure you’ve figured out where I’m headed.  The delightful Beth and David Kanell of Kingdom Books in Waterford, Vermont kindly invited me (through Leighton’s introduction) to do a guest appearance on their blog.  They thought their readers would be interested in how real life experiences gave rise to fictional inspiration.  And, so, with Beth and David’s blessings, I’m sharing the same thoughts with you as originally appeared December 27, 2010 on

If you’re open to it, there’s no telling when or where an idea might just sneak up and bite you on your inspiration.  Especially if your writing is situational rather than character driven.  Stephen King, for instance, points to chance encounters as the trigger for many of his ideas—such as one with an abandoned car that led to Christine.  The plot idea for my first Greece-based, Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis novel, Murder in Mykonos, came at the funeral of a close friend in one of Mykonos’ more than a thousand churches, and the epiphany moment for my second, Assassins of Athens, was the passing mention of the ancient Greek practice of ostracism at an Athens theater’s virtual reality journey back in time to Classical Greece. 
Mykonos Harbor
This ain't Mykonos

And for my just published third book, PREY ON PATMOS, An Aegean Prophecy, inspiration came on a balmy early winter morning by the sea as I was having coffee in a harbor café at a table shared with three Mykonians.  The situation was not unusual, it was part of my daily routine, but the table wasn’t in Mykonos, nor by the Aegean Sea, or even in Europe, and I knew only one of the three men around it.  He was a friend on holiday in the U.S. and somehow learned that I was in Orlando visiting my son, so he called and said, “Come to Clearwater Beach for coffee with some Mykonians who moved to Florida.”  As Orlando is not within walking distance of the Gulf of Mexico, it took me a couple of hours to get there, but there I was, at the edge of the water, listening to my buddy bring a father and son pair of émigrés up to speed on all the news from “home.”  
Patmos' Monastery of Saint John the Divine
A Mount Athos Monk

At one point the father asked me what was my favorite island, aside from Mykonos.  I said Patmos, a place I’d been to many times and at one point knew almost as well as Mykonos. In fact, I’d been there for the 1900th anniversary of Saint John recording the Book of Revelation in a cave on Patmos.  When I mentioned the 1000-year-old monastery that dominated the mountain above Patmos’ harbor, the son said if monasteries were my interest there was no place on earth like Mount Athos, a rugged mountain wildness on a 130-square-mile peninsula about an eight-hour drive north of Athens.  Following a way of life virtually unchanged for 1500 years, hermits utterly withdrawn from secular life living in isolated huts and monks living within massive, fortified monastery walls shared a common commitment to God, prayer, contemplation, and protecting the cherished seclusion of their life in the world’s oldest surviving monastic community.  It was perhaps the last remaining place on earth still using the 2000-year-old Julian calendar.  In the 11th century, 180 monasteries existed there, but times had changed and today only twenty survived: seventeen Greek, one Russian, one Serbian, and one Bulgarian, each sovereign over their twenty respective self-governing territories.
Mount Athos

Construction cranes in Byzantium
The son spoke of his trips to a half-dozen of Mount Athos’ monasteries.  Access to the peninsula was only available by boat from one of two cities on the adjacent mainland.  He told of the “smelly, stinky bus” that took him from the port to the region’s little and only city.  To reach the monasteries he had to walk for hours along mountain paths.  He said it seemed strange to see so many construction cranes and trailers, but they were necessary.  Some of the monasteries were spending extraordinary sums on restorations; others were not.  All, though, had one thing in common: They were incredible, almost imaginary, castles overlooking the sea, embracing massive churches filled with extraordinary icons—some free-standing and others covering virtually every space on every wall.  There was no electricity, and those that did not have generators, lit their spaces by candlelight.
Gregoriou Monastery

Simonos Petras Monastery
A meal on Mount Athos

At each monastery he’d be greeted with mastiha liqueur, a sweet, and water by a monk assigned to that task.  Most monks would not speak to visitors.  There were two meals each day, generally at ten in the morning and six at night, served on stone tables for twenty to thirty people.  You ate from metal bowls and cups.  There was no meat and little dairy.  The staples of each meal were chick pea soup served in a large metal bowl for the table, olives, bread, apples, onions, red wine, and water, all from Mount Athos.  During dinner one priest would read stories on how life should be led, and another would preach.  The food was good, some exceptional, but the moment the head priest finished eating the room went eerily quiet; at that point dinner was over and it was time to return to prayer, the primary purpose for the lives of the 2000 men who lived on Mount Athos.  There were no women allowed on Mount Athos or men under eighteen years old, and, with rare exception, no female domestic animals.
Prayer on Mount Athos

Services could run for hours.  Mesmerizing chanting in candlelit spaces filled with gray-bearded men in black robes darting their eyes from icon to icon, crossing themselves as they did.  Then it was off to sleep for the visitors in tiny bedrooms filled with not much more than two single beds perpendicular to one another and a scent reminiscent of the bus ride.
Vatopedi Monastery
Putin on Mount Athos

Just about then, the father interrupted his son to make a point about a fraudulent land swap and money-laundering scandal growing out of the 2004 Olympics and involving Mount Athos.  It was the most talked-about subject in Greece and the focus of a nationwide media feeding frenzy dragging in high-ranking government ministers and the abbot of perhaps the most prominent of Mount Athos’ primary monasteries—this one, though, had accommodations equivalent to a five-star luxury hotel and played host to such prominent guests as Prince Charles and George H. W. Bush.
Bingo!  An inspirational fireworks moment, and I spent the next thirty minutes scribbling down ideas for what would become PREY ON PATMOS, An Aegean Prophecy. 

And yes, I picked up the check for the coffee.

Jeff — Saturday


  1. Lesson here is that one must always be open to possibilities, to have the imagination to extrapolate from one context to another.

    The pictures of the monasteries are stunning. How were the people able to build these enormous structures that appear to be hanging from a cliff?

    I haven't heard about the permanent record card since the nuns threatened us with it in grammar school. I lost touch with one guy in my class but I know he was doomed. He stole the pitch-pipe off the teacher's desk when we were in fifth grade and he tied a knot in another nun's veil when we were in the seventh grade. That one nearly got him excommunicated.


  2. Beth,

    I think the sly answer to your construction question is "with great difficulty." At one point there were 180 monasteries, but time, pirates, and invaders reduced the number to 20 today.

    The question on the whereabouts of your lost classmate is much easier to answer: check out the roster of current U.S. Senators (ala "Animal House.")


  3. Jeff

    Very interesting post. I'm looking forward to the book!