Did you/do you write letters?

A thank-you letter from Katharine Hepburn to Alan Light thanking him for his condolences in regards of Cary Grant’s death – By from the Alan Light collection – https://www.flickr.com/photos/alan-light/2399093848/sizes/m/in/photostream/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=102737701

You may find this paradoxical, but I’ve never been a good letter-writer. I just didn’t like the medium, which was in vogue when I was a child and teenager; once I sat down with pen and paper, my mind invariably went blank.

In those days, there didn’t seem to be much in my life that was interesting enough to put into a letter.  On the phone with someone, you could riff off each other’s tidbits of information, and in my email correspondence with my brother there’s always something to chat about. There’s a give-and-take with both of those methods of communication that feels a lot more natural to me.

I even loved the process of writing by hand, in a nice cursive script that I developed from first grade onward. In Grade One I was the first student allowed to write in ink rather than pencil-lead because of my careful penmanship (that’s what teachers did in those days, as odd as that likely seems today). But as a way of sharing emotions with someone, or the trivia of day-to-day life, letters didn’t do it for me.

My mother was a long-time letter writer. She emigrated to Canada not long after the Second World War, and most of her family and friends were still in Europe, so she didn’t have a lot of choice if she wanted to keep in touch. Her oldest friend, a fellow nurse during the war, kept up a faithful correspondence with her for fifty years! After my dad passed away, my mom decided she wanted to take my hubby and me to Europe to show us places she’d lived, and we made a point of finding her friend’s home in a small village about half an hour outside Vienna, Austria so that they could see each other in person one more time. It was a remarkable journey.

What brought all this to mind was an article called Friday essay: a lament for the lost art of letter-writing – a radical art form reflecting ‘the full catastrophe of life’ in Conversation online magazine. The author lists very good reasons for why she loves the art of letter-writing, including the historical value of extant letters from history, although some of those missives are intimately personal, like those of James Joyce describing (for some reason) his wife’s farting.

He would have fit right into today’s era of far Too Much Information. Apparently the publication of Joyce’s letters were upsetting for his grandson, and I would have felt the same under the circumstances. And maybe that was the heart of why I never took to writing letters, apart from a handful my hubby and I. when we were still just dating, poured out to each other when he was out of town working for several  months and we missed each other intensely. But I wouldn’t want to share them with anyone – they were something only for the eyes of the two of us.

I can’t imagine what inspired Joyce to wax explicit about how his wife passed gas – that’s not something that would ever occur to me for the subject of a letter. Perhaps with 10 siblings he became used to knowing the most intimate daily details of his large family. I’ve never read any of his writings and don’t have a good sense of his personality. But I assume that if one’s willing to commit something to paper (or email/text message), one’s comfortable with putting it out into the world.

On the other hand, people have gotten themselves into a great deal of trouble for just that, such as King Charles’ infamous letters to Camilla when he was still Prince of Wales and still married to Diana.

But I enjoyed reading the article and thought I’d pass it along. If you’re interested, you can read more about historically-famous letters here.

Were or are you a letter-writer? If so, what have you loved about it?

International Women’s Day and Nellie Bly

A publicity photograph taken by the New York World newspaper to promote Bly’s around-the-world voyage; by Historical and Public Figures Collection – New York Public Library Archives, http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/id?1121847, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16259964

My laptop has been fixed (problem with the charging port) and I though I’d post what I’d planned for last week, in celebration of the many great women throughout history – and in this case, a writer.

In the late 1800s, at a time when the majority of women had few options other than marriage while they were still young enough to be considered ‘marketable’, a gal named Nellie Bly made a name for herself as an intrepid journalist.

Along the way she not only arranged to have herself committed to an insane asylum for ten days to expose the appalling way that the poor patients were treated, but travelled by herself around the world in 72 days – not by the comforts of airplane, but by boat, horse, burro, rickshaw and an assortment of other methods few of us today will ever combine into a single journey.

(Just fyi, I myself have been on all of the above, but on very separate occasions. The burro is a long story.)

Elizabeth Cochran was born in 1864 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She studied to become a teacher, but had to drop out because of her family’s financial difficulties. She and her mother ran a boarding house together, until at the age of 18 she wrote a fiery anonymous rebuttal to a newspaper article she saw in the Pittsburgh Dispatch, wherein the writer asserted that women were only good for domestic duties and that working women were ‘monstrosities’. It’s sadly ironic that more than 150 years later the same opinion still exists in parts of the world.

The Dispatch’s publisher was impressed by what Elizabeth had written, and hired her to write for the paper.  The tradition of the time was to write under a pen name, and she chose ‘Nellie Bly’, after a character in a popular 1850 song by Stephen Foster. She went on to make history under that name.

As a reporter for the Dispatch, Bly earned $5/week. She worked on exposing the poor treatment of women in society, and even posed as a sweatshop worker at one point. The factory owners began to complain about her articles, and the paper reassigned her to the ‘women’s pages’. But Nellie was determined “to do something no girl has done before”.

She went to Mexico to as a foreign correspondent, reporting on the lives of the people there, but once again her pioneering work brought her trouble. After protesting the imprisonment of a local journalist for criticizing the Mexican government, the Mexican authorities threatened her with arrest. She fled the country and published a book called Six Months in Mexico.

In 1887, looking for meatier assignments, she relocated to New York City and began working for the New York World.

One of her earliest assignments was to write an article about the experiences that inmates endured at an infamous mental institution on Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island) in New York. Bly pretended to be a mental patient in order to be committed to the facility. In the 10 days she stayed there, she discovered the horrors of the treatment of patients who, just by not fitting the accepted mold, were conveniently relegated to the asylum.

Blackwell’s was overcrowded, and so understaffed that there were only 16 doctors to see to over 1,600 patients. The doctors and other staff had little training and even less compassion, brutally taking their own character flaws out on their patients – ‘treatments’ that included forcing them to sit shivering in ice baths, or immobile for hours on a bench. Their food and living conditions were appalling, and any complaints were met with beatings and sexual abuse.

Asylums in general at the time were treated like entertainment venues, where the curious could go to observe the ‘mad’. Even worse, a lot of the inmates weren’t insane at all, just poor people with no family to turn to, or immigrants who couldn’t speak English. They suffered intense trauma from the ghastly things they went through at the hands of the staff.

Bly’s exposé became a sensation and had speedy results. Within a month, a grand-jury panel visited the asylum to investigate, and even though the hospital had been tipped off in advance and cleaned things up, the jury sided with Nellie and implemented important changes. Some of those changes included improvements to the assessment system so that people who didn’t have mental illness were no longer committed, the hiring of translators for different languages, and more funding for proper staffing.

In 1888 the newspaper gave Nellie the green light to attempt to recreate the scenario in Jules Verne’s famous novel, Around the World in 80 Days. She turned her experiences into another book, Around the World in Seventy-Two Days (1890).

Chapter One, titled “A Proposal to Girdle the Earth”, described how the idea for her adventure was generated:

WHAT gave me the idea?

It is sometimes difficult to tell exactly what gives birth to an idea. Ideas are the chief stock in trade of newspaper writers and generally they are the scarcest stock in market, but they do come occasionally,

This idea came to me one Sunday. I had spent a greater part of the day and half the night vainly trying to fasten on some idea for a newspaper article. It was my custom to think up ideas on Sunday and lay them before my editor for his approval or disapproval on Monday. But ideas did not come that day and three o’clock in the morning found me weary and with an aching head tossing about in my bed. At last tired and provoked at my slowness in finding a subject, something for the week’s work, I thought fretfully:

“I wish I was at the other end of the earth!”

“And why not?” the thought came: “I need a vacation; why not take a trip around the world?”

It is easy to see how one thought followed another. The idea of a trip around the world pleased me and I added: “If I could do it as quickly as Phileas Fogg did, I should go.”

On November 14, 1889, she boarded the Augusta Victoria, a steamer of the Hamburg America Line, and began a 40,070 kilometer journey that took her through England, France, Brindisi, the Suez Canal, Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka), Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan.

To sustain interest in the story, the paper organized a “Nellie Bly Guessing Match”, inviting readers to estimate Bly’s arrival time to the second. The Grand Prize was a trip to Europe with spending money.

If you have the time to read her resulting book, you’ll discover that Bly, although courageous enough for the undertaking, was as nervous as any other human in her shoes.

But when the whistle blew and they were on the pier, and I was on the Augusta Victoria, which was slowly but surely moving away from all I knew, taking me to strange lands and strange people, I felt lost. My head felt dizzy and my heart felt as if it would burst. Only seventy-five days! Yes, but it seemed an age and the world lost its roundness and seemed a long distance with no end, and–well, I never turn back.

Nellie also had a wry and deprecating sense of humour, especially when describing some of her preparations for the journey. Her recountings provide a fascinating insight into travel in the Victorian era.

One never knows the capacity of an ordinary hand-satchel until dire necessity compels the exercise of all one’s ingenuity to reduce every thing to the smallest possible compass. In mine I was able to pack two traveling caps, three veils, a pair of slippers, a complete outfit of toilet articles, ink-stand, pens, pencils, and copy-paper, pins, needles and thread, a dressing gown, a tennis blazer, a small flask and a drinking cup, several complete changes of underwear, a liberal supply of handkerchiefs and fresh ruchings and most bulky and uncompromising of all, a jar of cold cream to keep my face from chapping in the varied climates I should encounter…That jar of cold cream was the bane of my existence. It seemed to take up more room than everything else in the bag and was always getting into just the place that would keep me from closing the satchel.

Her description of intense sea-sickness on her first boat ride is delightful, and one many of us can empathize with:

I felt cold, I felt warm; I felt that I should not get hungry if I did not see food for seven days; in fact, I had a great, longing desire not to see it, nor to smell it, nor to eat of it, until I could reach land or a better understanding with myself.

Fish was served, and Captain Albers was in the midst of a good story when I felt I had more than I could endure.

“Excuse me,” I whispered faintly, and then rushed, madly, blindly out.

…After some fresh air she returned to the dining table twice, but eventually gave up and crashed in bed for the night, where:

I had a dim recollection afterwards of waking up enough to drink some tea, but beyond this and the remembrance of some dreadful dreams, I knew nothing until I heard an honest, jolly voice at the door calling to me.

Opening my eyes I found the stewardess and a lady passenger in my cabin and saw the Captain standing at the door.

“We were afraid that you were dead,” the Captain said when he saw that I was awake.

While some of her writing may not thoroughly conform to our modern ideas of political correctness, bear in mind that she was writing under the attitudes at the time, and she was pretty open-minded on the whole.

Bly completed her journey with days to spare, and even met Verne and his wife in France along the way. After the publicity of her trip around the world, she quit reporting and took a lucrative job writing serial novels for the weekly New York Family Story Paper. She wrote eleven of them, which were thought lost until 2021.

In 1893, though still writing novels, she returned to reporting for the World, and two years later married millionaire manufacturer Robert Seaman, who was 73 years old. With her husband’s failing health, she left journalism and took over as head of his company, Iron Clad Manufacturing, which made steel containers such as milk cans and boilers. She wasn’t a great businesswoman, and the company unfortunately went bankrupt, but Bly was also an inventor and received a patent for an improved milk can as well as a stacking garbage can.

Returning to her first, and best, career – reporting – she covered the Woman Suffrage Procession of 1913 for the New York Evening Journal. When World War I began, she was the first woman and one of the first foreigners to visit the war zone between Serbia and Austria, writing stories on Europe’s Eastern Front. She was arrested at one point when she was mistaken for a British spy.

In 1922, after a life that would be considered remarkable even by today’s standards, Nellie Bly died of pneumonia at St. Mark’s Hospital, New York City, aged 57. She was interred at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York City.

But although she isn’t mentioned as much in the media today, her exploits have left a lasting legacy. A board game, Round the World with Nellie Bly, was created in 1890.

Round the World with Nellie Bly game board; by Unknown author – https://emuseum.nyhistory.org/objects/43963/round-the-world-with-nellie-bly, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=115495736

A fire boat named Nellie Bly operated in Toronto in the early 1900s, and the Pennsylvania Railroad ran an express train named the Nellie Bly between New York and Atlantic City until 1961.

Bly became the subject of several plays, films and television shows, as well as a number of novels. In 1998, she was inducted into the U.S. National Women’s Hall of Fame, and in 2002 she was one of four journalists honoured with a U.S. postage stamp regarding “Women in Journalism”. The New York Press Club confers an annual Nellie Bly Cub Reporter journalism award. Just last year arachnologists even named a species of tarantula from Ecuador Pamphobeteus nellieblyae in her honour.

Her book Around the World in 72 Days is featured on Goodreads, and you can read a free version in the digital library of the University of Pennsylvania.

Screenshot of the book posting on Goodreads

As a journalist and writer ahead of her time, and an amazing adventurer, Nellie Bly continues to be an inspiration to all writers, travellers and people who passionately support human rights.

As Cold as Ice

Screenshot, today’s weather forecast in Ontario

Tip of the iceberg. Skating on thin ice. As cold as ice. Ice in your veins. For the most part, the form of water or precipitation known as “ice” doesn’t connote good things.

Some people, and some animals, feel differently. Bartenders, for example. Ice-cream manufacturers. And as famous marine biologist Sylvia Earle so eloquently put it,

“For humans, the Arctic is a harshly inhospitable place, but the conditions there are precisely what polar bears require to survive – and thrive. ‘Harsh’ to us is ‘home’ for them. Take away the ice and snow, increase the temperature by even a little, and the realm that makes their lives possible literally melts away.”

Star-like patterns on a frozen pond – photo by E. Jurus

Here in Ontario we see ice quite often. It makes lovely patterns on ponds and rivers, and is the essential ingredient for skating rinks. But today many of us are waiting to see what happens when a ‘Colorado low’ sweeps across our province tomorrow, beginning with snow and changing into ice pellets as the night wears on. Hubby and I live in an area that’s expected to get four cm of ice, quite a thick coating, and is at high risk for power outages.

We’re not overly worried. If we do lose power, we have lots of candles, a wood-burning fireplace in our rec room with a Heatilator fan system that can heat our entire house if needed, and a gas cook-top in our kitchen that can be lit with a match.

Winter’s ice coats late-hanging leaves on a Japanese maple – photo by E. Jurus

Personally, I love storms. I grew up in Northern Ontario where they’re very common, and I think that’s where I developed an appreciation for being cozily inside while watching Mother Nature wreak havoc outside. My hubby isn’t as big a fan, but we’ve been in so many weather events on our travels that we’ve become experts, to some extent, at riding them out.

While we wait to see what happens with this one, I thought we’d take a look at ice, the paradox of its beauty vs its dangers, and how it’s been used so effectively in storytelling.

“When the wires are all down and your heart is covered with the snows of pessimism and the ice of cynicism, then, and only then, have you grown old.” Samuel Ullman

There are different classifications of ice-form precipitation, from ice pellets (also called sleet), that are basically frozen raindrops, all the way up to hail, which forms when ice pellets keep getting swept upward during a thunderstorm by air flow and accumulate more ice until they’re too heavy to stay aloft. There one state above hail that sounds terrifying: a megacryometeor. It’s a large chunk of ice, different from hail. Some have weighed up to 110 pounds! Their formation isn’t well understood, more known by where they haven’t come from than where they have (things like not chunks falling from airplanes, for example). If you’re interested in them, check out this article, The Peculiar Phenomenon of Megacryometeors.

Animal tracks on a frozen creek – photo by E. Jurus

When meteorologists forecast a winter storm, they look at the temperature of the air masses in the storm and how they’re moving. If a warm air mass pushes above a cold mass that contains freezing temperatures, the raindrops may change form as they fall.

If the cold mass moves out of the way in time, the rain will fall mainly on the plain. (snicker)

If the warm air mass moves, but it’s cold below, snowflakes may fall.

A thin cold mass will produce freezing rain, and the result will be what our corner of the world is facing tomorrow.

A single storm can produce several types of precipitation, as ours is forecast to do. Meteorologists and pilots use a special code system called METAR to classify precipitation There are eleven designations for wintery stuff, from FZDZ for freezing drizzle to MC for the nasty Megacryometeor.

“The Arctic has huge glaciers, frozen waterfalls and floating ice. This is scenery on which man has left no mark, which has stayed unchanged for centuries, wild, bleak, hauntingly beautiful; it is a part of God’s creation we have made no effort to tame.” Ann Widdecombe

Ice ‘beard’ on the shaded underside of a cliff – photo by E. Jurus

When my family lived in northern Ontario, the main road to the community where our farm was located crossed a small river with a rocky bottom. In the summer my dad would often take us to swim in it, in a spot just below the bridge, as the river was shallow enough. In the long and cold wintertime, though, accretions of ice and logs could take out the bridge, which meant that my dad couldn’t get home from the logging camp he was a medic for at the end of the day. He’d phone us from the house of someone who lived just on the other side of the bridge to say he’d be spending the night with them.

In the spring, when all the ice and snow would begin melting, we had to be wary of unexpected flooding. Dips I in the gravel road to the nearest town for groceries could become ponds by the time we returned home.

Ice can be both beautiful and deadly. The worst disaster in maritime history, the sinking of the Titanic, was caused in main part by an iceberg.

As such, it can represent a lot of things when it’s written about or filmed. For instance, we might call someone ‘as cool as ice’, which could either mean very composed, or having a façade that hides duplicity. A slight variation, ‘cold as ice’, might signify emotionless, frigid, or inhuman. Sometimes it becomes part of an oxymoron, ice-cold anger, that means someone who’s livid but very in control, and therefore not to be taken lightly.

Ice-storm decor on my car several winters ago – photo by E. Jurus

Landscapes of ice and snow can look enchanting, or forbidding. Ice creates stunning sculptures as it coats our everyday surroundings, but too much of it, such as on a house’s roof, can cause a lot of damage. Christmas stores usually sell pretty artificial icicles to hang on our holiday trees, but we’re not so fond of the real thing when it’s encrusting our cars.

Rudolf Koivun kuvitusta H. C. Andersenin satuun Lumikuningatar. Julkaistiin vuonna 1992 osana kokoelmaa Rudolf Koivun satuja ja tarinoita, jossa tämä oli myös kansikuvana. By Rudolf Koivu – https://kirikirjastot.verkkokirjasto.fi/web/arena/rudolf-koivu, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61444318

Writers and film makers have used ice to fantastic effect.

Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen described the Snow Queen in his famous fairy tale like this:

“A few snowflakes were falling, and the largest flake of all alighted on the edge of one of the flower boxes. This flake grew bigger and bigger, until at last it turned into a woman, who was dressed in the finest white gauze which looked as if it had been made from millions of star-shaped flakes. She was beautiful and she was graceful, but she was ice-shining, glittering ice. She was alive, for all that, and her eyes sparkled like two bright stars, but in them there was neither rest nor peace. She nodded toward the window and beckoned with her hand.”

Andersen’s story about the evil frozen queen who kidnaps a young boy has, like all great stories, inspired numerous iterations on paper and on screen, including one of Disney Studios most successful animated films, Frozen, musicals and dance productions, and one of my favourite science fiction novels, The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge.  

Fourteenth century writer Dante Alighieri, in Inferno, the first book of his trilogy titled Divine Comedy, described Hell as nine concentric circles of torments appropriate to each person’s sin. Those who’ve committed Treachery are consigned to the Ninth Circle, where they’re trapped in a lake of ice, within four concentric rings, the first of which is called Caina, after Cain, who symbolizes Traitors to their Kindred. In that ring, the sinners’ necks and heads are protruding from the ice, so they can at least bow their heads out of the freezing wind. But by the fourth ring, reserved for Traitors to their Lords and named for Judas Iscariot, the sinners are completely encased in the ice, immobilized and silent.

In Fort Erie, Ontario, in February 2019 a huge amount of ice on the Niagara River forced its way over the stone wall on the banks and onto land. – photo by E. Jurus

A real-life portrayal of the perils of icy landscapes appeared in Jon Krakauer’s recounting of the ill-fated party of people trying to summit Mount Everest in 1996. He was a journalist, working for the adventure magazine Outside, on the expedition originally to just reach Base Camp. However, he decided to make the full climb, delayed his visit for a year to train, and then joined the climb that turned into a disaster. There’s a very short window each year during which, if the weather cooperates, climbers can make their attempt, and an even shorter window to progress from the fourth and final camp 26,000 feet. There, they’re already in the Death Zone, where there’s simply not enough available oxygen to continue to live, so they must ascend and come back down quickly. A sudden blizzard, which is what happened in 1996, is a terrible danger, both because it slows things down dramatically as well as the extra cold and blinding snow, and eight of the climbers never made it home again. If you’d like to find out more about climbing Mount Everest, you can check out How Climbing Mount Everest Works.

Niagara Falls when it decides to freeze – photo by E. Jurus

Snow and ice often feature in a category of fiction called Climate fiction, or cli-fi. It’s speculative fiction that assumes that something goes seriously wrong with the environmental balance of our planet, typically from something stupid that we humans have done.

Although the term is modern, one of the earliest writers to explore the subject was Jules Verne, in his novel The Purchase of the North Pole (also called Topsy-Turvy). Published in 1889, it takes place in an undefined future date in the 1890s. A group of men, members of the Baltimore Gun Club, decide they want to end the change of seasons by using the recoil from firing off an enormous cannon, set deeply into the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, to remove the tilt of the Earth’s axis. This would then make the lands around the North Pole accessible for mining. It doesn’t work, due to a miscalculation, but Verne’s message was really about the idiocy and greed of the people who wanted to try it.

A close-up of different pieces of ice on a river bank – photo by E. Jurus

We fiction writers get to play with all kinds of fantastic landscapes and scenarios, which highlight the action in our story, or convey a mood or a message. Translating our scenarios to screen can be extremely challenging; it took decades for technology to progress far enough to bring superheroes like Spiderman to life on the big screen, although several attempts were made on television. But when done well, the results can be spectacular.

“The world seemed spellbound in icy purity, its earthly blemishes veiled; it lay fixed in a deathlike, enchanted trance.”
― Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain

Canada geese explore a snowy and icy shoreline – photo by E. Jurus

The movie Snowpiercer took a lot of work to bring a French graphic novel to life for viewers. But director Bong Joon-ho came across a story that fascinated him in a comic book store: what might happen if an attempt to halt global warming went horribly wrong, and the only survivable place to live was a long train, 1001 cars, that continually circled the Earth on a track through an entire planet encased in ice.

Bong Joon-ho said about the story,

“When I first came across Transperceneige, the first thing that grabbed my attention was the unique cinematic space of a train. Hundreds of metal pieces moving like a snake carrying people squirming inside gripped my heart. And the people were fighting against each other. They were not equal in this Noah’s ark that held the last survivors as they were divided into cars.”

But he realized the difficulties of effectively portraying the massive train and its conditions in movie form. He scouted for a film studio that could house four train cars, and ended up choosing the Czech Republic. The story had to be rewritten to fit a two-hour movie format as well as for what special effects could allow. It took four years to develop the project, and another three to produce the film.

Around ninety percent of the movie was shot on set, but some outdoor scenes were shot in the Austrian Alps on the Hintertux Glacier. A 328-foot replica of the train was constructed, weighing almost 100 tons, and was moved around to convey curves, vibrations and swaying with a giant gimbal, a supporting structure that pivots, allowing rotational movements. A team of over 70 artists worked on visual effects, with quite a few shots incorporating CGI. To create the Aquarium Car, a team in Vancouver spent time at the Vancouver Aquarium to study the lighting, refracting through water and glass, the way the fish moved, and the interplay of all of it.

When we’re telling a story, every aspect has to make sense, from the look of where different kinds of people live, to how they dress. That’s a lot easier on film, where viewers can just see the costumes as compared to reading a lengthy and probably boring description. In Snowpiercer, the character of Minister Mason, played by Tilda Swinton, was a crazed and somewhat monstrous figurehead. She was costumed as an older-style conservative politician who’d likely, in better days, have worn furs and sneered at the less-fortunate. By contrast, the passengers in the low-class tail section of the train had to scrounge whatever worn, dirty piece of material they could to make their clothes. The designers went to Swinton’s home in Scotland, apparently, to pay with various outfits, glasses, wigs and teeth to achieve the final look that was so effective on screen.

So the ice-bound world became a vehicle to tell the story of what happens when society aboard the last refuge becomes as stratified as any culture that preceded it, and like the French Revolution, with a similar consequence. The ice is a symbol of man’s destruction of the environment, as well as the humanity of the privileged class who have no compassion for the people living (if one could call it that) further back.

Next time you see a piece of ice, really look at it, and appreciate everything it encompasses, even if you’re not trying to write something dramatic around it 😉

“Europe was a horrible place. There was nothing on TV. The food was terrible. And they don’t even have ice. Who doesn’t have ice?” Johnny Ramone

Ice makes artwork on a flowing pond – photo by E. Jurus

“When we encounter tiny groups of atoms, interesting questions and special rules come into play. Take water, for instance: what is the smallest possible ice cube? It has been discovered that you need at least 275 water molecules in a cluster before it can show ice-like properties, with about 475 molecules before it becomes truly ice. That is a cube with about eight H2O molecules along each edge. The importance of this kind of knowledge is that it helps us model the process of cloud formation in the atmosphere as well as understand how liquids freeze.”  Peter Atkins, Chemistry: A Very Short Introduction

A great representation of ice in silk at the Chinese Lantern Festival 2022, Nashville Zoo – photo by E. Jurus

All photos taken by me may not be used without my express permission. E. Jurus

Tea and a Mystery – Mystery! on PBS

Mystery! title card – By Captured, cropped, and reduced from video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RvGKpWhbRIk, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=55124134

The idea for this blog post arose from a very dreary, blustery day last week, full of rain and chill – the kind of day where the best thing to do is make a steaming cup of tea and curl up with a good mystery, whether in book form or its filmed version.

I think the WGBH series Mystery! may have been my introduction to the genre, and I’ve been a fan ever since. Even though I’ve never had a desire to write mystery novels, I enjoy trying to solve each one’s puzzle, and I’m a particular fan of novels that have great settings, either geographic or period. As you might imagine, then, the Sherlock Holmes stories, anything by Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, or Rex Stout, and the Father Brown tales and Murdoch Mysteries on television are all some of my favourites.

Accordingly, on that dismal evening, I put on my wellies (metaphorically; I don’t actually own a pair) and headed out to get fish and chips while my hubby, temporarily laid up due to knee surgery, put on the kettle.

A cold, unforgiving rain fell in sheets as I drove through the night. The traffic lights created glistening rivers of red on the asphalt disappearing beneath my tires…But I digress. (I’m also a fan of noir 😉)

Who doesn’t love trying to solve a good mystery? There’s probably someone out there, but it’s hard to imagine. All animals are inveterately curious, humans included. I used to play hide-and-seek with our (late) male dog, Ramses – I’d hide somewhere, call his name, and he’d run around the house until he found me, wagging happily. He was a very clever dog who loved to play games like that.

The mystery genre is hugely popular, with an amazing variety of very different stories being told. There are several sub-genres within ‘mystery’, often with overlap between them: the Classic style of Agatha Christie and Ruth Rendell, Crime, Police Procedurals (sometimes called Hardboiled if the detective is cynical and street-smart), Noir (I love Dashiell Hammett, personally), Private Detective, Capers. and a more recently-defined category called Cozy.

But mysteries can also creep into other unrelated genres, like Romance, Science Fiction and even Fantasy. No matter their own genre, I’d recommend that any budding novelist pay a lot of attention to how mystery stories build suspense and drop clues.

The Mystery! series has spent many years featuring many of the greatest tales in the genre’s history. A spinoff of Masterpiece Theatre, it debuted in 1980, and partnered with the BBC and ITV (a competitor to BBC in Great Britain) for the shows it aired.

Each episode began with a subtly creepy animated opening sequence, in black and white with startling spots of red, drawn by the late, great artist Edward Gorey, famous for his darkly-humorously gothic artwork. It showed an old country house, a formal ball, then people attending a funeral, investigators, and a moaning woman doing various things like lying across a crypt. For me it was one of the highlights of the series, setting the tone for the shadowy whodunnits to follow.

The other brilliant touch was the succession of interesting hosts that introduced each episode, beginning with film critic Gene Shalit. He opened the very first broadcast with these delightful words:

“Good evening. We’re about to set out on a series of entertaining mysteries – 15 weeks of suspenseful, sophisticated, crafty conundrums that are darkly diabolical, or amusing adventures with introductions that suddenly seem alarmingly alliterative.”

Shalit left the show the next season, to be replaced by the inimitable Vincent Price, who brought all of his horror chops and sardonic humour to the role. Just the sound of his voice was enough to give viewers the chills, apart from the various haunted house gags he performed. He went to Boston twice a year for eight years to tape his opening and closing segments, only stepping down due to ill health.

Diana Rigg took over in 1989 and did a wonderful job, with the elegance and wryness she’d shown in her role as Emma Peel in the 1960s British television series The Avengers.  

My hubby and I watched Mystery! regularly for many years, but it suffered from bouncing around between various public-television stations and eventually we lost track of it. Nevertheless, several of our favourite shows ever became that way through the series – The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes with the wonderful Jeremy Brett as the titular protagonist, Agatha Christie’s Poirot (with our favourite Poirot ever, David Suchet), Dalgleish with Roy Marsden as the taciturn detective, Foyle’s War (another great period mystery, set during WW2 in Britain), Zen with Rufus Sewell, and more. All of them were extremely well-produced and made for many great evenings of watching in front of a crackling fire.

So how does a good mystery novel, or script, get written?

First there’s the mystery itself. You as the writer are all-knowing, deciding who did it, how they did it, and how you’re going to reveal that slowly to your readers using suspense to hook them until the big reveal at the end.

Of course, talented writers have turned the tables and revealed the murderer at the outset, building suspense either in how the criminal tries to get away with it or the investigator either cleverly or doggedly hunts them down. One of the best novels I’ve ever seen do this, although it’s technically a thriller, was Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett, wherein you know early on who the bad guy is and watch in fascination as a history professor and an ex-policeman try to find him.

I’d do a ton of research if I were to attempt writing a mystery novel. There’s so much subsidiary information that needs to be accurate: police involvement and legal procedures, the details of the murder at the heart of the story (especially the plausibility of the method used to commit it), how the detective (amateur or professional) conducts the investigation, and period authenticity for whatever era the mystery takes place in. Sometimes these can be played with, and only on purpose – The Murdoch Mysteries feature a detective who’s so brilliant he invents inquiry techniques before their time, often with names that are cheeky wordplays on their actual modern counterparts.

Then there are the elements specific to your choice of genre. Police procedurals need great accuracy about the segments, from the discovery of the crime to forensics, and these will change depending on the country, county or even specific city/town. Modern police novels tend to include gritty and often gruesome details, very different from Cozy Mysteries, which, just as their name suggests, provide more gentle reads and charming settings.

A terrific blog post on Reedsy, How to Write a Mystery: The 6 Secret Steps Revealed, talks about crafting a memorable sleuth. Every great investigator in novel or movie history has had interesting quirks that make them so accomplished, and that makes their investigation both authentic and compelling to watch. Sherlock Holmes was brilliant, impatient with stupidity or anything boring, and between cases needed to challenge his over-active mind with infusions of cocaine. He often thought best while playing his violin, which could drive his doughty assistant Dr. Watson crazy on occasion. Inspector Lestrade was the Scotland Yard ‘copper’ who tolerated Holmes’ interference.

And therein lies another critical ingredient: a well-rounded cast of secondary characters, because no main character exists in a vacuum.

One of my hubby’s and my favourite shows was the series Castle, which we continue to watch in syndication. We love it largely because, although each episode’s mystery was intriguing, it was the milieu that made it special. The plot revolved around Richard Castle, a handsome and spoiled multiple-bestselling mystery novelist, who ran into hardboiled NYPD detective Kate Beckett through a case she was investigating. He enjoyed his involvement so much that he decided to use her as inspiration for his new book series, which meant that through his friendship with the mayor he arranged to follow her around and annoy the crap out of her.

Their dynamic, and slow-growing romance, formed the main engine for the series, but it was all the other characters that gave the show its life. Castle’s interactions with his dramatic actress mom and straightforward teen-aged daughter showed his more thoughtful side, while the various other detectives, police chief, uniformed officers, coroners and technical consultants fleshed out the unraveling of each crime being solved.

Usually there was a great deal of humour, but the shows could also get very serious from time to time. The other distinguishing feature of the series was Castle’s persistent promotion of theories involving the strange and unusual, from aliens to time travel to zombies, a hilarious contrast to Beckett’s no-nonsense realism. (The series aired on our Canadian sci-fi channel based on that alone.)

If you have a great idea for a mystery/crime novel, I recommend starting with the Reedsy blog to get a feel for the mechanics of the genre. And some time well-spent absorbing techniques from the best, whether aired on Mystery! or between the pages of a book, couldn’t hurt either 😉 Put the kettle on and investigate!

Aromas that move us: Cinnamon

roadside tea and cinnamon bun in Northern Ireland – E. Jurus

When I was little and feeling unwell, my mother would make me a bowl of porridge sprinkled with brown sugar and cinnamon. To this day, I make it for myself when I’m under the weather – healthy, comforting and evocative of a time when I didn’t have to worry about myself, when my parents would make anything bad go away.

Our emotional reaction to things we see, taste and smell governs a lot of the way we live. The limbic system in our brain, which processes scents, is also tied in with memories and emotions, which is why aromas are such a powerful trigger.

A few years ago my hubby and I were on a British Airways airplane across the Atlantic, not far from the galley where the meals were prepared by the attendants. Abruptly there was a smell so was so repulsive and toxic that it immediately triggered my flight response – I frantically wanted to escape from the plane. Digging around in my purse for anything I could find, I tried to block the smell while my hubby called over the nearest attendant. It turned out to be some kind of food packaging that, when heated up, gave off an aroma so noxious (to me at least) that it actually made me panic, something that never happens to me.

I’m very sensitive to scents and I’m not sure anyone else on the plane reacted the way I did – my hubby certainly didn’t – but the attendant apologized and said they’d make sure it didn’t happen again. Completely seriously, I said to hubby that I never wanted to smell that aroma again. I’ve never experienced anything like that since, thank goodness.

It seems the emotional pathway in our brains can process large amounts of information more quickly than the rational part. Houses that smell good when we enter them make us feel relaxed and cozy – if something tasty is cooking, the place must be welcoming and safe. Other smells serve as a warning, of harmfulness and danger.

One of my favourite memories from our trip to Ireland is a small one – a roadside stop for tea and a cinnamon bun. Hubby and I were driving from Belfast on the east coast of Northern Ireland all the way across to the west coast, a leg of several hours’ duration. The weather was fine and the drive pleasant, but there wasn’t much around apart from lots of pretty scenery. Suddenly, in the middle of nowhere, we came across a small roadside food truck, offering tea and coffee along with the buns and chocolate brownies. There was a picnic table handy, so we took a short time-out to enjoy cups of steaming-hot tea and possibly the best cinnamon buns we’ve ever had – pillowy soft, not too sweet and just the right amount of spice – in the warm sunlight and fresh air of the Irish countryside, with a great view to boot.

Marketers have found that a multi-sensory experience is one of the most effective tools they have to create an ‘unforgettable’ customer experience, and canny bricks-and-mortar shops generally use it. My favourite grocery stores are smaller, have dark ceilings and lots of wood to induce a cozy atmosphere, have hot prepared food near the entrance where it smells really good, and make displays of fresh produce, baked goods, cheeses and meats look very enticing.

So what is it about cinnamon that makes it so appealing? And it has been, for thousands of years. It was imported to Egypt as early as 2000 BC, where it was used to embalm mummies and to make kyphi, an aromatic incense burned for both religious and medical purposes. It’s mentioned in the Bible for perfuming clothes, bedding and anointing oil.

In ancient Rome, a pound of cinnamon was worth from 125 denarii and higher; to put that in perspective, the average agricultural labourer at the time earned 25 denarii per day. Fortunately it’s more affordable to we ‘plebeians’ today 😉 However, the infamously out-of-control emperor Nero apparently burned a year’s worth of the city’s supply of cinnamon at his wife’s funeral, establishing himself firmly as a forerunner of today’s one-percenters.

Its source was kept a secret for centuries by those in the spice trade to protect their monopoly, but it was believed to come from Arabia, along with myrrh and labdanum (a sticky brown resin from a species of rock rose), where it was supposedly guarded by winged serpents and harvested by ‘cinnamon birds’ who collected the quills to build their nests with. Even in the Middle Ages the source of cinnamon remained a mystery to the Western world. Ferdinand Magellan was searching for spices on behalf of Spain in the 1500s and found a variety of cinnamon in the Philippines, and the race to acquire and control spices was on.

What’s called true cinnamon is native to India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. Another variety, Cinnamomum cassia (cassia) is native to parts of Asia with warm climates, including Vietnam, China and Indonesia and Vietnam. For the average baker, it’s very similar in taste and works well when heated, although apparently it should properly be sold as Cassia.

Cinnamon is obtained from the thick bark of an evergreen tree. Cut stems are processed immediately after harvesting while the inner bark is still wet. The outer bark is scraped off and the branch is beaten with a hammer to loosen the inner bark, which is then stripped off in long pieces that curl as they dry into the tight rolls we end up buying.

The aroma and flavour of cinnamon derives from the principal component, an essential oil that contains the chemical cinnamaldehyde. Like tea, cinnamon is graded by the size of the final pieces.

The oil has antiseptic, antimicrobial, antioxidant and healing properties. It’s been used medicinally for thousands of years, and recent research backs up what the early healers knew.

Cinnamon is loaded with powerful antioxidants, including polyphenols, so much so that it can even be used as a natural food preservative. Studies are also showing that it has anti-inflammatory properties, can reduce blood pressure when consumed consistently for at least 8 weeks (much more fun than the medication so many of us take), can lower blood sugar levels and may even be able to reduce insulin resistance to help with diabetes. There are numerous other promising health benefits for humans, just as the bark of the willow tree gave us one of our earliest analgesics, aspirin.

Psychologically, the aroma of cinnamon has a calming and soothing effect, inducing feelings of warmth and comfort. It’s been used in Ayurvedic medicine for centuries. A brain imaging expert studied reactions to cinnamon smells on an fMRI scanner, and found that cinnamon scents stimulated the region in her volunteers’ brains responsible for emotional engagement. Aromatherapists believe that smelling cinnamon can help improve mood, energy level and concentration.

As a writer trying to invoke those feelings through words, I might refer to a warm, cinnamon-scented kitchen, or a tray with a pot of tea and lushly-frosted cinnamon rolls.

One massively-successful food purveyor has built its entire business around the popularity and emotional appeal of cinnamon: Cinnabon. There used to be one of their kiosks at our local mall, and you couldn’t miss its location as it wafted the smell throughout its adjacent concourse.

That wasn’t by accident. Cinnabon goes out of its way to make sure that you can smell their product as you walk by. It even uses a specific type of cinnamon, narrowed down by extensive testing, which grows only in one region of Indonesia at high elevation. The Korintjie region produces a particularly strong version of cinnamon, less sweet than other kinds, that also works in savory foods. They use it to create a proprietary blend called Makara, which is very strong. To increase the potency, Cinnabon doesn’t grind the spice until it reaches U.S. soil.

In addition, the Cinnabon shops place the oven towards the front, bake more rolls at least every 30 minutes to keep the aroma ever-present, and even use the weakest fume hoods legally possible to allow more of the smell to escape into the air.

Our local Cinnabon left the mall a number of years ago. I’m not sure why, but for myself I found the heavy aromas somewhat overpowering. But I believe the company is still doing very well. Today my hubby and I were out getting some shopping done, and I picked up a huge frosted cinnamon roll at our local Farm Boy grocery; it’s a new produce so I thought we’d share one to see how we liked it. A quick 15 seconds in the microwave gave the big bun just enough warmth to soften it and turn the frosting into a molten cream. With a hot tea, it was quite delicious, if perhaps a bit on the sweet side for our tastes. I’m certain we’ll have more whenever we need a little energy boost after a busy afternoon.

Cinnamon is one of those intense, highly atmospheric aromas and tastes that we’ve all grown up with and still love. Whether it makes us think of soothing rice pudding, a redolent apple pie on a cold day, a spicy and savory Moroccan tagine, or Christmas baking, it’s a spice that makes us feel good (when not overdone).

Stay tuned for more posts looking at different aromas, the memories they bring up and the emotions they generate.

Any photos taken by me may not be used without my express permission.

Science fiction could become real-life

Volcanic Mt Ruapehu in New Zealand – E. Jurus

Sci-fi and fantasy writers get to use our imaginations and inflict strange scenarios on the inhabitants of the worlds we create. After all, what’s an interesting story without some chaos or conflict? We might imagine distant planets that are constantly storm-tossed, or vast deserts strewn with enormous skeletons of unidentified beasts (like Tatooine in the Star Wars series of movies). Readers and viewers get the thrill of watching what happens without the real danger of living through such tempests.

But here on Earth we’re not immune at all. Even a decade ago, who’d have imagined that we’d now be in the fourth year of an ongoing pandemic? I remember going to a big local arena for our first vaccination – it felt so surreal, with staff in full protective gear and row upon row of chairs waiting for occupants, as if we were in some bizarre dystopian movie of the future.

Massive natural disasters have occurred in our planet’s past, like the Ice Age, the great Flood event that enshrined itself in almost every global culture’s religious lore, and volcanic eruptions like Krakatoa and Mount Tambora.

You may not be as familiar with Mount Tambora. No Hollywood movies were ever made about its mammoth eruption. But you’re certainly familiar with a horror novel that was written during the eruption’s aftermath, called the ‘year without a summer’.

Volcanoes are difficult to classify in terms of magnitude. Earthquake magnitude is determined from the amount of energy released, as measured by a seismograph. But volcanic eruptions express themselves in so many different ways that there’s no single instrument to use, and it’s taken scientists a while to come up with a reasonably representative scale, called the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI).

VEI and ejecta volume correlation – By chris 論 – Originally from http://volcanoes.usgs.gov/Products/Pglossary/vei.htmlAccessed September 29, 2005, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3935253

The criteria include the size of the explosion, from non-explosive to very large; the volume of material ejected; the height that the column of ejecta reaches; a rating of how severe the eruption was (i.e. “cataclysmic, paroxysmal and colossal” rank at the extreme end); the duration of the blast; and how much of the blast material reaches either the troposphere, the level where our clouds float around, or the stratosphere, where jet airliners cruise in the lower levels.

The VEI index goes as high as 8. Like the earthquake scale, each level of the volcanic scale is 10 times more powerful than the lower one. No one in recorded history has ever experienced a Category 8. Most of us alive today can remember the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington State. Its eruption column rose 80,000 feet (well up into the stratosphere), and its superheated pyroclastic flow (a searing mix of gas, ash and pumice) reached 670 mph. Anyone within about 23 miles of the front of the blast had no chance of escape. The Mount St. Helens eruption was VEI category 5, as was the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 79 AD that destroyed Pompeii.

What’s the strongest eruption in recorded history? Well, that was Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815 – a category 7. You can imagine how like the end of the world that must have seemed like. But it started off softly, surreptitiously.

In this screenshot from Google Maps, the red dot shows the location of Mt Tambora within the Indonesian archipelago, only 1180 km from the mouth of the Malacca Strait

Tambora had been dormant for centuries – at least on the surface. Underneath, though, fluid magma under pressure had been cooling, and when that happens, it becomes unstable, separating into its different components. Pressure began to build.

In 1812, the volcano began to rumble, and sent out a dark cloud. That was it for three years, until suddenly on April 5th in 1815 a giant eruption occurred. The sound was heard over 800 miles away. The next day, volcanic ash began to fall for 3 days, and detonations were heard in Sumatra, over 1,200 miles away. That would be like hearing an explosion in Regina 2 provinces away in Toronto.

Tambora wasn’t done yet. On April 10th three plumes rose up and merged, and the entire mountain was described as ‘turning into a flowing mass of liquid fire’. Pumice stones the size of bowling balls were flung out the mountain, and pyroclastic flows wiped out surrounding villages all the way to the sea. The eruption lifted almost 5,000 ft off the top of the mountain, and left a caldera up to 4.5 miles across and over 2,000 feet deep. Its energy release was believed to be equivalent to 33 gigatons of TNT. By comparison, the Hiroshima atomic bomb released 16 megatons, or .016 gigatons.

Panorama of the caldera of Mount Tambora, July 2017
By Tisquesusa – Own work, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69724625

The eruption of Tambora had a profound effect on civilization for several years. The thick ash in the fallout zone destroyed all vegetation, including crops, and poisoned the water, which affected people and their livestock. The ash that reached the stratosphere released huge quantities of sulfur dioxide, which changed the world’s climate dramatically.

Even parts of Canada and the United States experienced a Year without a Summer, with snow falling in the eastern states and provinces into June, which meant that crops didn’t have time to ripen. Famine was widespread throughout Europe. Strange red fogs blanketed the northeaster U.S., and neither rain nor wind could break the fog up. Lurid sunsets were seen in Europe, tsunamis crashed into various islands in the Indonesian archipelago, and the eruption caused the greatest loss of life of all volcanoes in recorded history (between sickness, starvation, and direct impact).

And so, in the ‘summerless’ summer of 1816, conditions were universally cold, wet and dreary. As was the custom during the time period, a group of friends were having a vacation, such as it was, at a villa overlooking Lake Geneva in Switzerland.

The Villa Diodati; By Robertgrassi – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4463463

They were Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Mary Godwin, Claire Clairmont and Dr. John William Polidori. With their supposedly idyllic setting shrouded in gloom, one day Lord Byron suggested that they each write a ghost story to tell each other. Mary Godwin, who’d go on to marry Percy Shelley, had what she called a “waking dream”, which became the story of Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.

Mary Shelley’s manuscript draft of Frankenstein begun at the Villa Diodati, with marginal notes by Percy Bysshe Shelley
By Mary Shelley (1797-1851) – http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/dept/scwmss/frank2.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3235272

Since that time, the population of Indonesia has increased well into the millions, and Tambora isn’t the only active volcano in the area. Mt Merapi on the island of Java has been a busy little beaver for the past few decades. My hubby and I could see the volcano from our hotel room, staying at the Ambarrukmo Palace hotel in Jogjakarta in 1994 (now called the Royal Ambarrukmo). The hotel had given us a large suite with wide sliding windows overlooking the plains below Merapi. The sight was lovely, and we both noticed the clouds that seemed to float around the top of the mountain every day. Well, they weren’t clouds at all, and just a month after we returned home Merapi had a temper tantrum, sending a pyroclastic flow almost to the edge of where our hotel sat, and killing 27 people.

As most of us know, Indonesia sits in the famous Ring of Fire, which stretches from roughly New Zealand, curving around Australia to encompass Indonesia and all the coastal zones of southeast Asia, across the Aleutian Trench to run down the western coasts of North and South America.

By Gringer (talk) 23:52, 10 February 2009 (UTC) – vector data from [1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5919729

The South Island of New Zealand is prone to earthquakes, while the North Island is a bubbling and steaming powder keg where thermal vents continually shoot puffs of steam up from under the surface. The photo below, which I took just outside Rotorua, gives you some idea of the activity. We were told that residents have to keep a sharp eye on their children and pets, as a vent could shoot through their floor without warning.

Very active geothermal landscape around Rotorua, New Zealand – E. Jurus

There are several active volcanoes on the North Island, including Ruapehu (the almost perfect cone used to represent Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies), and Tongariro, not far from the Chateau Tongariro Hotel, where we had a very genteel afternoon tea accompanied by constant rumblings from the volcano. It was a unique experience, to say the least.

So you can understand why an article titled Malacca Strait: How one volcano could trigger world chaos caught my eye this week in the BBC News.

The Malacca Strait runs between the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian island of Sumatra. It’s the main shipping channel between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Around 90,000 ships pass through it annually, transporting around 40% of all global trade. Flying over them is one of the busiest air routes in the world, and along the bottom of the Strait runs an array of internet cables that transmits trillions of dollars of data daily. And it sits right in the middle of the Ring of Fire.  

The business world is concerned. The impact of another strong volcanic event could collapse our global economy. The level 4 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, in Iceland in 2010, caused an estimated $5 billion dollar loss, massively disrupting air travel and air freight. I was leading a trip to Botswana at that time, and formed a contingency plan in case we couldn’t fly through Heathrow in London as originally scheduled (we would have flown a different airline non-stop from New York to Johannesburg while everyone’s insurance claims went through for the original flight). As it happened, we were able to keep our original route, but while we were in Botswana Eyjafjallajökull erupted again and it looked like we might not be able to get out of South Africa for a few days to fly home. We did make that flight, while the volcanic clouded drifted east of our flight path, but from Heathrow back to Canada our pilot had to swing farther north than usual across the Atlantic, adding an hour to our flying time.

Projections show that a level 6 eruption from somewhere in Indonesia would have a $2.5 trillion dollar impact on the economy. So scientists and governments are looking very closely at the geological data of the volatile landscape surrounding the Malacca strait and making their own contingency plans.

What would a Category 8 explosion be like, you might now be wondering? One happened most recently 26,500 years ago at Lake Taupo on the North Island of New Zealand, which wasn’t formerly a lake at all. It’s believed that around 40 Level 8 eruptions have happened in the last 132 million years. One of those may have been the enormous volcanic system at Yellowstone. The area continues to have ongoing geothermal activity, and lots of speculation has arisen about how prone we might be to another such catastrophe.

Hydrothermal explosion at Biscuit Basin in Yellowstone National Park. These types of events are the most likely explosive hazard from the Yellowstone Volcano. (Public domain.) Visit Media to see details.

Well, the folks at the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory (YVO) are prepared to set your mind at ease. According to their monitoring project, here’s why a super-eruption isn’t in our future:

  • The most likely type of eruption at Yellowstone will by hydrothermal or a lava flow, which would have minimal impact outside the Park itself. According to their studies, previous Yellowstone super-eruptions didn’t cause any extinctions, and there’s not enough historical data pointing to it being ‘overdue’ for a super-eruption.
  • No evidence has been found that the magma chamber at Yellowstone is growing, or uplifting the surface. There are tremors regularly, and over years of study no-one has found evidence of moving magma.

As writers, our rampant imaginations play what-if scenarios with danger in various forms. Geological events like volcanic eruptions and earthquakes give us lots of visuals to roll around in our heads. My hubby and I have been in the middle of or on the fringe of enough crazy things on our travels to have an eloquent taste of the power of nature (to date, six hurricanes, two tropical storms, an earthquake, two tornadoes, two volcanic eruptions, several blizzards, a bush fire, chased by an angry hippo, riding on a runaway camel, and much more). That’s enough material for me to work with for a long time, frankly 😉

Over a millennium’s worth of influence

Screenshot of Twinings English Breakfast tea, one of my go-to brands, on Amazon, with a close-up view of the Royal Warrant

The British monarchy just can’t seem to stay out of the news lately, between tell-all books, rumours about Prince William’s sexual preferences and elaborate ‘cabinet’ shuffling.

For 70 years, Queen Elizabeth II epitomized the power and subtle glamour of an institution that’s been around for about 1200 years. The entire system was founded on the idea that a certain person was chosen by God to rule. That affirmation from the figure who held the highest clout possible, over the universe itself, invested kings and queens with a mystical authority that was extraordinarily powerful in the minds of their subjects. And even though monarchs have been great and awful, fought amongst each other, been deposed and beheaded, the mystique still holds to this day. How many foreign heads of state have stated how awed and intimidated they’d been to meet QE II?

Her death in September was a major quake in global history, and she left enormous shoes to fill for her children and grandchildren. Whether they’ll be able to without collapsing the institution remains to be seen.

Although there have been regular calls for a dissolution of the British monarchy, a decision to do so would create profound ripples through not only the fabric of Britain but around the world. And it would be much easier said than done. The British government would have to call for a referendum among the British public, and assuming the public endorsed eliminating the monarchy (which polls from several months ago suggest won’t be happening any time soon), Parliament would then have to pass legislation. After that, Britain would need to designate a new head of state, which is not the Prime Minister (at least not in the current split system).

Beyond that, the economy would take quite a hit. Royal events have brought enormous profits to all kinds of businesses. Hubby and I were in London briefly in February 2011, just a couple of months before the wedding of William and Kate, and commemorative items were already in shop windows all over the city. The Queen’s Jubilees were celebrated both in England and abroad, by fans who held their own parties and bought the supplies to do so. Thousands of people travelled to England just for Queen Elizabeth’s funeral.

The influence of the British monarchy is pervasive, from the little crowns topping signposts in parks to the many officially-approved official suppliers to the royal household. And those aren’t just in Britain itself – companies like Heinz, Quaker, Kellogg’s and Bacardi have also been royal favourites.

All in all, 686 businesses held Royal Warrants, i.e. brands officially endorsed by Her Majesty. With her death, all of those have become obsolete. So now what?

It turns out that all of those businesses, from small shops to massive corporations, have to reapply for their warrants. They’ll be allowed to use the Royal Arms in their marketing for up to two years, but if they don’t have a successful bid to get new warrants, all that enormous free publicity from the royal seal of approval will disappear. It’s been estimated that, in total, the British monarchy provided a £193.3 million annual boost to the economy in the UK alone, including the granting of royal warrants, and that small companies might experience as much as a 5% increase in sales just for having such an endorsement. That would be some serious cash to lose, and I imagine that all of the warrant holders are scrambling to get their applications in.

Our culture tends to look for approval by others before we make purchases, from product and service reviews (on sites like Trip Advisor), to the number of stars a potential recipe has received, to reviews on a book we might want to download from Amazon), to opinions of friends and family to consumer reports. We want some advance assurance that we’re not wasting our hard-earned money. And that assurance of quality is exactly what the Royal Warrants have been providing.

I’m not an avid Royal fan, but I’ve always been fascinated by the complexity, tradition and pomp that have accompanied monarchies throughout the centuries. When they’ve been deposed in the past, it’s often been with fervour and drama – the fall of despotic Roman Emperor Nero; the horrific French Revolution; the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, the last heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife, Sophie; the forced abdication of Puyi, the last emperor of China.

As a writer, there’s a lot of material throughout history of different kinds of rulers – their foibles, styles, relationships, and panoply – to pull from when I’m creating characters for my novels. In Book 2 of my Chaos Roads trilogy, still in the hands of my beta readers, there’s a tyrannical empress named Hepira who terrorizes her subjects in inventive ways. I make a lot of notes from history, current events, the famous and the everyday. Most of them doesn’t appear literally in my writing, but their influence is there nonetheless. And that allows me to feel that I’ve brought authenticity to the stories I tell to you.

Writing Inspiration: The Caregiver did it?

photo by E. Jurus

Last week was something of a wash for me productivity-wise, as I’ve been serving in the role of part-time caregiver to an elderly aunt, largely because of my pharmaceutical and medical knowledge. In one of my many past careers, I worked as a pharmacy assistant in several retail drugstores, and I learned a lot.

The role of caregiver is a tricky one, and can be very time-consuming. I’ve been happy to help out, though; too often our elderly are treated as nuisances with one foot in the grave, and are mis-medicated if someone with experience isn’t around to pay attention to how they’re reacting to their prescriptions.

I’ve been a caregiver several times during my life, but this time it’s made me think of the role from a writer’s perspective. Caregivers hold a unique role that can be used for good or evil, and that’s become fodder for all kinds of misadventures in literature. This quick blog post, then, is another with the theme of Writing Inspiration.

A caregiver, in its simplest form is defined as “someone who is responsible for looking after another person” (Collins Dictionary). Think of the power this puts such a person into – are they responsible people who lovingly take care of their charges, or do they create mayhem by twisting young minds, poisoning food or messing with the medications they’re handing out?

For writers, this opens the door to all kinds of delicious suspense. The caregiver may be nice outwardly and have a dastardly hidden agenda, or alternatively crusty at first glance but with a warm heart.

Nice caregivers often find themselves at the mercy of either members of the household or the extended family. As children we were all introduced to the abused but ultimately triumphant Cinderella, forced by the death of her father to serve as maid to her malicious stepmother and spoiled stepsisters until she meets the Prince and marries him.

In adult literature, the role has often been embodied in the form of a governess for children, a housekeeper, or a nurse for an ailing patient. These kinds of caregivers have become some of the most compelling in the history of novels and film.

Think of the title heroine of the great gothic story Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. Jane starts out life as an orphan with the typically harsh childhood of the very poor in 18th century Britain. But she’s a smart, resilient survivor who eventually gains a position as governess for the capricious female ward of Edward Rochester, the brooding owner of Thornfield Hall. Foreshadowing a common trend in gothic novels, the master and the governess fall in love with each other and decide to flout all the social rules of the era and get married. But there have been indications of a dark mystery in Thornfield, and Jane is soon to find out what that is, to her horror.

In the 2019 smash hit movie Knives Out, the nurse of the victim (the wealthy patriarch of a very dysfunctional family) is manipulated from all directions as she desperately tries to keep herself out of trouble.

One of my favourite novels, Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier, features a classic sinister housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, who loved the late Mrs. de Winter (dead first wife of Maxim de Winter) to a point verging on infatuation, and proceeds to make life miserable for the second Mrs. de Winter. Throughout the book, the reader wonders just how far Mrs. Danvers is willing to go, while the mystery of how Rebecca (Maxim’s beautiful and glamorous first wife) really died remains up in the air. Although the young and naïve second Mrs. de Winter is the ‘heroine’ of the story, the characters who’ll remain in your head the longest after you finish the book are both the mysterious first wife and her obsessed caregiver.

In the gothic horror novel The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, there are two sets of caregivers: the new governess at Bly Manor, and the ghostly figures of the former governess and groundskeeper. What makes James’ tale so gripping is whether the two ghosts are actually there, or exist only in the new governess’s paranoid imagination.

And so the multi-faceted caregiver character continues to inspire novelists and screenwriters to this day. It’s just so much fun to wreak havoc either with or by the caregiver, whether they’re the main character or a fascinating subsidiary character. Enjoy plotting how you might use such a character in your story!

The month of misrule

December – the end of November NaNoWriMo craziness and the build up to holiday craziness. I’m now a three-time National Novel Writing Month winner, which really just means that I’ve churned out 50,000 words of a new novel in 30 days. There’s a Winner Certificate, banners to post on social media, and discounts on a number of software programs/tools for writers, and the satisfaction of having gotten that early start on Book 3 that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

My first win was super-exciting, because I wasn’t sure I had it in me. The second win was a thrilling foray into the ongoing adventures of my protagonist, which also meant that I’d completed Book 1. This year’s win was challenging on so many levels.

To begin with, I’ve been sorting out some health issues, so distraction was a big factor. There was also the knowledge of embarking on the final ‘chapter’ for my heroine Romy, which means a big climax to finish off the trilogy with a bang, as well as the need to tie together a lot of plot parts that have been dangling intriguingly since the very first Prologue. Not to mention the Epilogue, which will give a little insight into what life will be like after the ‘big bang’. I suppose it would have been a lot easier to produce a single novel, but Romy’s story is just too rich and enthralling to put in one book, and was always going to be played out in a trilogy.

And for those reasons, among many, I feel like this December in particular is under the sway of an imaginary Lord of Misrule. For anyone not familiar with the concept of ‘misrule’, in medieval times December was a month of revelry in all its forms – including wild partying and lots to drink – presided over by an appointed ‘Lord’, who was usually someone much lower in class than the actual rulers of the period, either religious or secular.

This practice of inversion dates as far back as ancient Roman times and the Saturnalia festival, during which every Roman held equal status and all normal rules were upended.

The medieval Lord of Misrule’s alternate title was Captain of Mischief, and he would lead the people in all the activities that were frowned upon the rest of the year. Quite a few writers of the time complained about the general noise and chaos.

This year, post-lock downs, we’re all able to cavort socially again, although we can choose not to get back on the December hamster-wheel. As for me, hubby and I put up our Christmas tree two weekends ago. We buy a fresh one and decorate it with a lot of memorabilia from our travels, and we love to sit by the beautiful tree and a warm fire every evening. We’re doing a couple of low-key gatherings with family/friends this month, and Book 3 is largely on a shelf.

However, I’m not overly happy with the start I made on it and it’s bugging me. Writing ‘stream-of-conscious’, as you do during NaNoWriMo month to get your 50,000 words in, is very freeing in some respects – you just let ideas flow while you transcribe them. But then you have to deal with the rough mess you made.

One bonus, though, is that some really cool ideas can present themselves, including a fabulous plot twist that even I, as the author, didn’t see coming. Those are the really exhilarating moments, where you think, ‘Hot damn, that’s good!’ Book 2 was so much fun to write, and I’m having inklings of that in Book 3, but not the full effect yet.

I’m not writing this month, but I’m making copious notes on my substantial plotting spreadsheet of things I need to fix. My brain has been shoving thoughts at me at all hours: glaring inconsistencies, the feeling that I haven’t done my heroine’s transition proper justice, and so many plot points to write her through to the big climax that it’s a little overwhelming. So I do what I always do when faced with seemingly herculean tasks: I break them down into manageable chunks.

Then there’s the process of getting Book 1 ready for publication. That’s pretty much on hold until January, but quite a few people have been waiting for the book to come out and asking about it, in different formats including printed copies, and I’m doing research when I can. It’s all very exciting, and intimidating, and momentous as it leads up to the day the whole world can lay eyes on my ‘baby’ and comment on it. But that’s a chunk for down the road; lots of chunks to knock off before that.

In the meantime, Book 2 has gone out to my loyal beta readers, and I’ll see how they react to all the tumult inside its pages. For all of you faithful blog readers, I look forward to sharing some previews with you as I count down to publication of Through the Monster-glass, Book 1 of the Chaos Roads Trilogy – what the cover will look like, a sneak peek at the Prologue and/or first chapter (in a newsletter I’m developing), and other cool stuff. Friends have already suggested some possible merchandise too, and I’ll look into what I can arrange.

Try not to let Misrule turn your month into complete chaos (unless you thrive on that sort of thing, of course). Take some down time, to just enjoy the charm of the season, and to share good food and laughter with people you care about. And remember the people who can’t do either of those, and help them out however you can manage. Because those are the things of value in this crazy world.

Almost there

One more day to go in National Novel Writing Month, and we’re pushing hard. I just wrapped up a doozy of a chapter, with consequences that will hit my heroine hard, and have less than a thousand words to go to reach the month’s goal of 50,000. It’s been a challenging month, because I want to do my trilogy proud and wrap it up with a bang, not to mention tie up all the loose ends, mete out proper justice to a few bad guys, and leave my future readers well satisfied with the journey. So, no pressure at all. Next week I’ll have more time to chat, but for now I’m going to take a break from a very intense writing day and chill for a bit, probably with a Hallmark holiday movie or something else light on the brain. See you next Tuesday 🙂