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,, Public Domain,

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 –, Public Domain,

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.

Longing for longer days and slower paths

A walking path along the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland – photo by E. Jurus, all rights reserved

“There is nothing like walking to get the feel of a country. A fine landscape is like a piece of music; it must be taken at the right temp. Even a bicycle goes too fast.” – Paul Scott Mowrer

Life moves quickly. Before we know it, the week has flown by, then the weekend, then several weeks, then months. All the inventions of cars and airplanes did is move us faster from one location to the next.

The first time my hubby and I flew from one side of the world to the other, it was a strange experience in some ways, finding ourselves 8,000 miles from home in a matter of hours. It was convenient, but back in the Golden Age of Travel one would have felt, after taking a train, then a ship, then perhaps a local steamer or another train, that one had really voyaged.

I love a good road trip, which is a way to explore the landscape between here and there rather than just hurrying across it 35,000 feet in the air. But even better, if you have the time and health, is to walk it. Or at least some of it. The way to get to really know a place is to wander it on foot.

Hiking through the New Mexican desert to see the ruins of Chaco Culture – photo by E. Jurus, all rights reserved

When hubby and I joined a tour group to Egypt many years ago, we spent the first couple of days in Cairo riding around on a tour bus from place to place. Of course we got off the bus and explored famous sites, but we still felt like we were inside a fish bowl. It wasn’t until the third day, when we had leisure time, that we got the chance to walk the streets of the city, to dodge the crazy traffic, smell the aromas from the cafes and mingle with the people who lived there. Our feet may have been very dusty at the end of the day, from the ever-present sand blowing in from the surrounding desert, but we’d seen more of the real, modern Cairo to help us put all the spectacular ancient monuments into context.

We had a similar experience in Tahiti many years later. Our beach resort outside of the airport town of Fa’a was beautiful, and our overwater bungalow fantastic, but some of our favourite memories were leaving the resort to walk down the hill and over to the local mall to buy wine and pastries for our room. Cars and buses rolling past, families in their homes, a vendor on the side of the road burning the leftover husks of coconuts he was selling, people at the mall buying shoes and Halloween decorations (surprisingly, Halloween is really big there) – these were all aspects of Tahitian life we’d never have known if we’d stayed on the resort grounds.

And that’s the point of walking, whether it’s around a city like London, England, and having lunch in a pub or finding an umbrella shop or a good bookstore, or walking through a botanical garden to experience the scents and colours of the flora, or going on a long hike: you see life much more intimately. You see details that become engraved in your memory because they’re so wonderful and unexpected. You can’t really know a place unless you see it up close and personal.

In the midst of our Canadian winter, when it’s difficult to stay out long because the cold begins to seep through your clothes and turn your nose into an icicle, I’m dreaming of the warmth returning in just a few weeks, and being able to let my feet take me on adventures again. I want to see the early crocus and daffodils poking out of the ground at our local botanical garden. I want to hear birds chirping again, feel mild breezes ruffle my hair. I want to be out in the world again, not just sheltering inside as blizzards blow and ice coats everything.

photo by E. Jurus, all rights reserved

In England, wise people have been working on a network of walking routes around the entire country to connect every village, town and city. It’s called the Slow Ways initiative, and I think it’s brilliant.

Screenshot of the website

If you’ve never had a chance to explore the British countryside, I recommend you do it as soon as possible. It looks like the pictures you’ve seen, seriously, with winding lanes and sheep and hedgerows and fields of heather. My hubby and I have been to England many times, and the most country walking we’ve done was while we stayed at two farmhouse B&Bs in Yorkshire, when for a short while we got to pretend we lived in such a bucolic landscape. I hope one day we can return and do more extensive walking.

After a good walk, seeing animals scampering through the woods, crab apples ripening on trees, burbling water mysteriously appearing and disappearing, when the fresh air has blown all the cobwebs out of your head, you’ve earned a cup of hot tea and a hearty meal, and maybe even a brownie or a piece of pie for dessert. Life doesn’t get much better than that.

Segments of a felled tree in a mid-Ontario forest have become habitats of their own – photo by E. Jurus, all rights reserved

Hubby and I did a half-day hike on a sunny afternoon in the Hooker Valley in New Zealand. We saw rare birds, all kinds of spring flowers, silver-grey streams tinted by mountain minerals. We crossed suspension bridges and even witnessed two small avalanches on Aoraki, the peak that Edmund Hillary practiced on before he made his historic ascent of Mount Everest. When we returned to the National Park Visitor Centre, we had tea and burgers in the Old Mountaineers’ Café, looking out onto the mountains amid a plethora of vintage gear and the spirits of the intrepid climbers who braved the mountains over the decades.  

Glorious scenery in the Hooker Valley, New Zealand – photo by E. Jurus, all rights reserved

If you’re looking for a walking holiday, you can read much more about it in the BBC article The plan to connect every British town, and on the Slow Ways website.

For inspiration about exploring more of the world on foot, check out the BBC’s travel site called Slowcomotion.

Screenshot of the website

Garden paths, hiking paths, small roads and longer ones – they all take us to new places, or new views and impressions of places we’ve been before. Slow down and enjoy the journeys.

A pod of hippos cools off in the Mara River in Kenya during a safari hike – photo by E. Jurus, all rights reserved

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 –, Public Domain,

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, Fair use,

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!

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!

Blue Tuesday/Wednesday

Shades of blue in the Atlantic Ocean and distant mountains in an inlet on the west coast of Ireland – E. Jurus

I started writing this post on Tuesday, which stretched into today due to the complexity of the subject, so the title was adapted for my own reality 😊

The colour blue is wildly popular around the world, but I have to confess that it’s not one of my favourites. I find it generally cold, and never decorate with it. There are a handful of shades I like, and may occasionally dress in them, but most blues don’t suit my colouring at all and usually make me look ill, unless I supplement them with another shade like white or orange.

I find shades of blue in nature fascinating, though – blue skies and blue flowers, the varied shades of water and midnight blue sapphires. In fact, this post was prompted by the gorgeous Hyacinth Macaws I saw last week at the Nashville Zoo. These birds come from central and eastern South America, and are both the largest macaw and the largest species of flying parrot. Sadly, their beauty has made them increasing victims of the exotic pet trade, and they’re listed as Vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature‘s Red List.

Hyacinth Macaws, Nashville Zoo – E. Jurus

Blue is considered a primary colour, i.e. one of the colours that, along with red and yellow, is a parent of all other colours. You can mix blue and yellow to make green, or blue and red to make purple, for example, but there are no colours to mix to make blue. Different shades of blue can be made by mixing colours, and Mother Nature still has incomparable skills in creating wonderful shades of a colour that can be considered anything from soothing to depressing.

Skydivers in a vivid blue sky at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta – E. Jurus

We see blue via light with a dominant wavelength between approximately 450 and 495 nanometres. All blue is said to contain tinges of other colours, from the purplish-blue of flowers to the greenish-blue of the sea.

Shadings of blue; I like Morning Blue, with its greyish tones. It’s supposed to represent the colour of the morning sky. – E. Jurus

For millennia artists have strived to capture shades of blue. One of the most challenging has always been the blue of the sky. Mother Nature hasn’t made it easy to copy her. “Sky blue” as a colour we can reproduce officially has a Red/Green/Blue (one of the coding systems for producing colours) value of 173, 216, 230, as illustrated in the graphic below. But our skies are fickle, changing shades from almost white to deep blue and violet at their whim.

A limpid blue sky reflected in the waters of Lake Naivasha, Kenya – E. Jurus
The moodier blues and golds of an autumn sunset over Lake Muskoka, Ontario – E. Jurus

Our perception of blue, as well as other colours, depends largely on our reference point. The farther away an object is, the more blue it appears, such as the Sandia Mountains east of Albuquerque, New Mexico. This effect is called atmospheric perspective – the farther away an object is from the viewer, like mountains, the less contrast there is between the object and its background colour, as in a blue sky. It makes for wonderful photos. In paintings, cooler colours, like blue, seem more distant, whereas warmer colours like red appear closer. For taking photographs, if you want the sky to be more blue in your resulting picture, make sure you have your back to the sun; if you shoot into the sunlight, your background sky will be bleached of colour.

Blue-tinted Sandia Mountains to the east of Albuquerque, New Mexico – E. Jurus

A survey through ten countries found that blue is the most popular “favorite color” for people in the world. It seems that men preferred the color blue more often than women, which may partially explain its historic use in high-ranking professions (religious, military, business…), which were up until modern times held exclusively by men. Color psychology tells us that:

  • Because blue is so popular, it’s often viewed as non-threatening.
  • Blue is often described as peaceful, tranquil, secure, and orderly. It can feel calming and relaxing.
  • Blue is considered both conservative and traditional. As such, it’s seen as a sign of stability and reliability, and is used in advertising by businesses and organizations that want to project an image of security.
  • Some shades of blue, depending on how they’re used, can create feelings of sadness or loneliness. Our culture often refers to moments of feeling down as feeling ‘blue’.

The earliest shade of artistic blue was made by the ancient Egyptians, who valued the colour highly. With the scarcity of minerals containing the colour, such as azurite, they sought a way to produce it artificially. No written records were left of how they did it, but a Roman writer from the first century BC described approximately how it was produced by grinding copper, natron (a naturally-occurring deposit that, with its preservative properties, was also used in the mummification process), and alkaline sand that contained lime. The mixture was then heated in a furnace to produce the colouring material. Sadly, the original process was lost, but scientists have worked to approximate it in modern times.

Blue faience saucer and stand, Egyptian New Kingdom (1400–1325 BC); By Anonymous (Egypt) – Walters Art Museum: Home page  Info about artwork, Public Domain,

Interestingly, the ancient Greeks and Romans didn’t have a word for the color blue. If you’ve heard of the Greek writer Homer’s prose in his famous Iliad, describing the sea as ‘wine-dark’ or ‘wine-red’, now you know why. For Homer, the sea was “wine-red”. Nevertheless, blue was clearly all around them, including the Romans’ conquest of the Celtic tribes of Europe, who tinted their bodies blue with dye from the woad plant when preparing for battle. Descriptions of rainbows omitted the colour blue, but there are examples of blue-tinted clothing from that time period in artwork found in places like Pompeii.

Blue dye for textiles in antiquity came from the crop Indigofera tinctoria, a plant in the bean family that was cultivated in East Asia, India, Bangladesh, Egypt, and across the ocean in Peru. It was transported via the ancient Silk Road.

During the Renaissance, ultramarine blue was made by grinding the stone lapis lazuli into a powder. If ground too finely, however, it turned a dull grey. As a result, it was so expensive that it was worth more than gold, and was the finest shade used by painters, reserved for only the most important subjects, generally those with religious merit like the Virgin Mary. There was even a shade called Marian Blue that was used for her garments.

For the same reason, blue was often used in illustrated manuscripts and stained glass windows to denote holiness. The artist Cennino Cennini gushed that “Ultramarine blue is a colour illustrious, beautiful, and most perfect, beyond all other colours; one could not say anything about it or do anything with it, that its quality would not still surpass.”

“Girl with a Pearl Earring” by Johannes Vermeer features ultramarine pigment;
By Johannes Vermeer –, Public Domain,

One of the most beautiful examples of the use of blue is found in one of the most famous extant books from the Golden Age of illuminated manuscripts. In the Middle Ages, following the fall of the Roman Empire, books were created out of hand-lettered sheets of parchment or vellum, with hand-painted decorative flourishes, often in the margins and borders but sometimes throughout the page. The sheets were then bound into books called codices (or codex for a single book).

Originally books typically served a religious purpose – psalms, Bibles, and a very popular collection of prayers used to mark the observance of canonical hours (regular times throughout the day to spend praying) that was called a Book of Hours. Wealthy patrons could commission richly-illustrated Books of Hours, often from a monastery (produced by the labour of its monks over several weeks), but also by independent illustrators.

One of the historical characters in my upcoming urban fantasy series, The Chaos Roads Trilogy (Book 1 to be published soon on Kindle and other suppliers), is a young monk who becomes just such a manuscript illustrator at an obscure priory in Wales, then ends up travelling the world after the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII leaves him without a job or home. The protagonist of the books is herself a professional archivist, specializing in illuminated manuscripts.

The most famous Book of Hours is an incomplete folio produced for the Duke of Berry, a bibliophile who commissioned a lavish Book from a Dutch trio of brothers. The manuscript, called the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, was made on vellum (fine quality calfskin), and painted in vivid colours, particularly multiple shades of blue. Below you can see one stunning page, The Nativity of Jesus, folio 44v, with Mary’s robes in brilliant ultramarine and white, and the Lord looking down from a deep-blue celestial perch. The book was never finished because the brothers and the Duke all died, possibly from the plague.

By Limbourg brothers, Public Domain,

The Coat of Arms of St. Patrick Cathedral in Dublin contains rich shades of blue. I haven’t been able to find a description of the Coat of Arms and what it represents; the nearest information I was able to uncover is that, apart from the frequent use of blue to denote holiness, according to a 13th century manuscript, St. Patrick wore blue robes.

Coat of Arms, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin Ireland – E. Jurus

In the age of sea voyages, Spanish explorers discovered an American species of indigo and began to cultivate the product in Guatemala, spreading to English and French colonies in the West Indies. It was then introduced into colonial South Carolina in the U.S. and became a valuable cash crop upon the backs of the slaves who were forced to cultivate it. It made up more than a third of the value of all exports from the American colonies before the Revolutionary War changed things.

One of the most famous colours of blue, which has become ubiquitous in modern society, is Navy Blue, named after the dark blue worn by officers in the British Royal Navy, and then adopted by other navies in the world. All of these use Indigo dye as a base, and navy blue has become a symbol of authority, even in modern business settings, where it’s considered a ‘power colour’ to dress in.

There are four different classifications of indigo colour. It’s mostly associated with a very dark blue, as seen in the denim of blue jeans, but a more purplish version called Electric Indigo (see colour chart above) has become the colour of Spiritualism because it sits between blue and violet and thus represents colours of psychic abilities as well as the sixth chakra, which is said to include the Third Eye.

In the 18th century, someone finally discovered a way to manufacture a blue pigment, called Prussian Blue. It’s believed that Prussian Blue was synthesized for the first time around 1706 by a paint maker named Johann Jacob Diesbach in Berlin, and was the first stable and relatively light-fast synthetic blue pigment since the knowledge of making of Egyptian blue was lost. Prussian Blue became widely used by Japanese artists, particularly Katsushika Hokusai in his famous Great Wave. Famous contemporary artist Pablo Picasso used the colour during his ‘blue period’, when he was suffering from depression over the suicide of one of his close friends.

By Katsushika Hokusai – Metropolitan Museum of Art, online database: entry 45434, Public Domain,

Blue is considered to be a rare colour in nature, but every time I look up at the blue sky (although as I write this my sky is a dull winter grey) that hangs over us I feel I might dispute that assertion. Included below are some of the many other places I’ve found that Nature likes to use blue, and these are just a small sampling that I have photos of.

Blue and white columbine – E. Jurus
Nature uses shades of blue liberally in cabbages at the Niagara Falls Botanical Garden, and blends them expertly with greens and golds – E. Jurus
The vibrant tropical blues of a beach on the island of Tahiti, French Polynesia – E. Jurus
Male vervet monkeys have startling turquoise-blue testicles; Okavango Delta, Botswana – E. Jurus
Yellowfin Surgeonfish, Tahiti, French Polynesia – E. Jurus
Stunning shades of blue on the famous Lilac-breasted Roller, Botswana – E. Jurus

The colour blue can reflect many moods, from the happiness of a bright sunny sky, to the serenity of soft blue living and working spaces, to the murky and frightening darkness of deep ocean and the heaviness of melancholy.

At the Titanic Museum in Belfast, Ireland, signs marking the stages of the great ship’s sinking use deepening shades of blue to represent both the deep ocean waters off the coast of Newfoundland as well as the somberness of the incident – E. Jurus
Blue lighting can convey a sense of eeriness, as used here at the Bram Stoker Castle Dracula Experience, Dublin, Ireland – E. Jurus
Blue lights at the Glow event in Nashville, Tennessee in 2019 are used to make sections look icy and wintery – E. Jurus

The colour blue can reflect many moods, from the happiness of a bright sunny sky, to the serenity of soft blue living and working spaces, to the murky and frightening darkness of deep ocean and the heaviness of melancholy.

Blue and white is a combination regularly used in anything associated with the marine world, as in this workaday life preserver – E. Jurus

Its production has gone through many phases and turns of politics and economics. Blue gems have always held a certain mystique, particularly sapphires. (You can read about seven famous sapphires in history here.)

Blue eyes are a recessive trait, which means that both parents must carry the gene for blue eyes. Even then, if the gene for brown eyes is present, brown eyes will always dominate unless the child gets the gene for blue eyes from both parents. Blue eyes are particularly striking when we see them, although pale blue eyes can appear cold and calculating. People with blue eyes are somewhat luckier than those with darker eyes because studies have found that they release less melatonin in the winter and accordingly are less prone to winter depression.

Blue contrasts and compliments several other colours.

A surrealist photo of blue walls against the distant red walls through a doorway at a convent in Peru – E. Jurus

Blue has been a tried-and-true burst of colour in the decorative arts, even in outdoor spaces.

A startling blue doorway in a brick wall at Kylemore Abbey, Ireland, conveys a sense of mystery about what lies beyond – E. Jurus
Summery painted Adirondack chairs, shore of Lake Ontario – E. Jurus

For novelists, blue is a colour that has a wide range of connotations, and is part of the rich collection of words and descriptions that we have as one of our tools to bring our stories to life. I hope you enjoyed this brief look at a fascinating colour, and for more information about the publication of my first book, including sneak previews of the cover and contents, as well as more fascinating tidbits about writing and inspiration, please sign up for my upcoming newsletter (check back for the opt-in form, coming shortly!)

All photos are by me unless otherwise specified, and may not be used without my express permission.

Myriad shades of blue in the tumbling waters at the Horseshoe Falls, Niagara Falls Ontario/New York State – E. Jurus
The landscape of Killarney Provincial Park, Ireland – E. Jurus

An enchanted journey becomes a holiday classic

Two of my Christmas nutcracker figures

When my brother and I were children, my parents always kept a metal nutcracker in the house. Not the doll-like figure that graces households at Christmas in multitudes, but a twin-handled implement specially textured to be able to snugly hold a nut in its shell and then squeeze the handles to apply enough pressure to the nut to crack it. In those days, nuts were generally available inside their shells, and a bowl of assorted nuts was a fixture in European households during the holidays. Each nutcracker usually came with a set of picks – a sharp, pointy end affixed to a thin handle – to use for digging the nuts out of their shell casings once you’d cracked the nut open.

Screenshot Amazon website: You can still buy the utilitarian version of a nutcracker with picks, should you find yourself with a bag of nuts that need shelling

If one was lucky enough to live near a farm with walnut trees, nothing could beat the flavour of a freshly-cracked nut freshly picked off the ground. It’s been so long since I had a fresh walnut that I can’t remember the taste, only the pleasure in eating one.

But nowadays everyone buys bulk bags of shelled nuts to put in muffins, cakes and bowls of granola or yogurt. Super handy, but without the gratification in cracking apart a rich-looking nut to reveal the treasure inside.

Nutcrackers as tools have been around for centuries,  in various shapes including squirrels and crocodiles.

Screenshot of archived article from the BBC showing a vintage crocodile-shaped nutcracker

Apparently King Henry VIII gave one or two of them to Anne Boleyn in the 16th century, and long before that a nutcracker dating back to the late 4th or early 3rd century B.C. was cast in bronze in southern Italy, in the shape of a pair of female hands and forearms with gold arm bracelets.

Screenshot of the oldest existing nutcracker from the Nutcracker Museum

Even before that, nutting ‘stones’, made of a larger stone with a small depression to cradle the nut, paired with a smaller stone, called a ‘hammer stone’, that functioned as the smashing implement, have been dated as far back as 8,000 years ago.

Wooden nutcrackers have existed for several centuries, but somewhere around the 17th they began to be carved in figural shapes, i.e. the doll-like creations we know so well today, and were painted and given as gifts. In German tradition, they symbolized good luck and made great Christmas presents.

But it was Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann, better known by his initials, E.T.A. Hoffman, who wrote a story about a young girl who’s given a soldier nutcracker toy as a Christmas gift by her godfather, Drosselmeier. On Christmas Eve the toy, actually Drosselmeier’s nephew who was transformed with a large head, wide mouth, and cottony beard through a curse from the Queen of Mice, comes alive and leads Maria on adventures through a magical doll kingdom. Maria eventually breaks the curse, the nephew becomes human once more, and they marry (at apparently a very young age), upon which he takes her to live in the enchanted kingdom.

Hoffman’s odd little fairy-tale, written during the Romantic period in European literature, was published in 1816 in German, and later translated into English in New York. It seemed to capture the public imagination – writer Alexandre Dumas, pѐre, wrote his own version, and a composer was setting some of it to music by the mid 1850s. However, it was the dreamy ballet, with music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and first choreographed by the legendary Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, that brought the story of the girl and the nutcracker the fame it has now. The ballet was an adaptation of the original novella, using only parts of the tale and renaming Maria as Clara, and wasn’t overly successful at first. But the combination of Tchaikovsky’s wonderful music and gorgeous staging soon turned the ballet into a classic that’s now performed annually during the holiday season by countless ballet companies, and the role of Clara is the one all young ballerinas covet.

For a writer, that’s a grand measure of success: when your story so inspires people that it develops a life of its own across multiple generations. In a sense, all the decorative nutcrackers produced through the decades were early ‘action’ figures/fan memorabilia. I have several nutcrackers myself, including a vampire spin-off that’s one of my favourite Halloween decorations.

Hoffman’s writing was marvellously evocative, such as the scene where the Stahlbaum children are allowed their first sight of the newly-decorated Christmas tree:

“You will then be able to imagine the astonishment of the children, as they stood with sparkling eyes, unable to utter a word, for joy at the sight before them… A tall Fir tree stood in the middle of the room, covered with gold and silver apples, while sugar almonds, comfits, lemon drops, and every kind of confectionery, hung like buds and blossoms upon all its branches. But the greatest beauty about this wonderful tree, was the many little lights that sparkled amid its dark boughs, which like stars illuminated its treasures, or like friendly eyes seemed to invite the children to partake of its blossoms and fruit.”

Romanticism, Hoffman’s milieu, emphasized emotion, the richness of the medieval past, and the heroism of individuals, all of which permeate his story. The ballet has generated a fair bit of controversy in recent years with some of its ethnic stereotypes, and some companies are trying to eliminate those from their productions, but the music and magic are timeless. If you haven’t yet, I hope that you get to see a live performance, but some terrific televised versions are worth watching if you can catch one. I particularly like Nutcracker: The Motion Picture from 1986 — a sumptuous visual feast that’s closer to the original Hoffman tale. In the meantime, there are lots of versions of decorative nutcrackers around, from small to almost life-size, to allow you to enjoy a little of Clara’s enchantment for yourself during the holidays.

If you’re interested, you can read the original tale by E.T.A. Hoffman, translated into English at Wikisource.

A great book leads to a great movie and then an amazing travel experience

“Sometimes we gazed through a succession of arches, its course very like the aisles of a Gothic cathedral. The great artistic sculptors and builders of the Middle Ages might have here completed their studies with advantage.” Chapter 16, A Journey to the Centre of the Earth, by Jules Verne


I was introduced to Jules Verne’s A Journey to the Centre through the awesome movie made in 1959. My dad and I would watch it every time it aired, on Sunday afternoons; it was one of our favourite things to do together. As I later found out, the movie retains the overall premise from the book, but otherwise differed substantially to make it such an exciting visual adventure. According to Wikipedia, the script-writer, Walter Reisch, said that “The master’s work, though a beautiful basic idea, went in a thousand directions and never achieved a real constructive “roundness”.” 1

Reisch changed the professor who instigates the journey to Scottish, and his nephew, who accompanied him on the great adventure, to one of his enthusiastic geology students. The professor was still crusty, and played with panache by James Mason, while the student was played by a young and handsome Pat Boone who got to lose his shirt for female viewers, and the beautiful Arlene Dahl was added for a love interest deep in the bowels of the earth. The script was delightful, the actors wonderful and the special effects superb, and Hollywood produced a movie that can be watched time and time again.

One day I’d love to go to Iceland, to visit the volcano mentioned in the book and movie: Snæfellsjökull. It’s a real place, and though I have no plans to get inside it, I’d love to see it in person. None of the movie was filmed in that country, and Verne himself never actually went there to gather background material for his novel, but the landscape is such a vivid part of the viewing and reading experience.

Some of the underground scenes were filmed in Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, in a massive cave called the Big Room, and my hubby and I made a point of going there on our recent vacation. We’ve been to other cave systems, including Mammoth Caves in Kentucky and Luray Caverns in Virginia, so I wasn’t sure how impressed we’d be with Carlsbad, but given how much I love the movie, it was a must-see.

The park lies about twenty minutes away from the small city of Carlsbad, out in the Chihuahuan desert, which of course looks nothing like Iceland, but it’s what’s inside the mountain that you drive to the top of that matters (although the desert is full of things to see as well).

The caverns have been forming for about 250 million years, from an area that was once part of an inland sea. As a result, the limestone of the area was full of carbon-based fossils, which transformed into a really unique interior as tectonic movement shoved the former reef over 4,000 feet into the air.

Visitor Centre at Carlsbad Caverns NP

To visit the Big Room, which is one of the most accessible parts of the Caverns, you take an elevator down 750 feet from the Visitor Centre at the top deep into the mountain. (Hopefully you’re not claustrophobic.)

Disembarking at the bottom into a spacious underground room, follow the sign to the self-guided tour. The trail, though very walkable, is 2km long (1.25 miles); if you can’t manage the entire thing, there’s a shortcut.

Let me say that the Big Room is one of the most spectacular things my hubby and I have ever seen, and through 24 different countries, that’s saying a lot. Mother Nature always wins, and Carlsbad is no exception. The handful of photos below give you only a sense of how magnificent Carlsbad is; you really have to experience it yourself. They’re all taken without a flash, showing the drama of the shapes that have formed over millions of years, and are continuing to transform.

The caverns are pockmarked with all kinds of strange holes and indentations. This one reminded me of a skull face, and you can see the ‘popcorn’ formations that are found in many parts of the caves
The walking path is edged with handrails, and is textured to prevent slipping on the damp surface. It’s surreal as it winds through the caves.
This is the Lions Tail formation, as the popcorn clusters on the ends of the stalactites resemble the fluffy-ended tails of the big cats

The Big Room is so massive that it’s impossible to take a photo of the entire thing – about 4,000 feet long, or 11 football fields. It’s the largest single cave in the U.S. by volume, rising up to over 200 feet high. I couldn’t find information about where exactly the filming took place, but it was a brilliant choice!

I took this photo looking back across the Big Room from the far end. If you look closely, you can see the handrails of the walking path as it meanders through. This huge space is only a small part of the entire room.
A stalactite (growing down from the ceiling) and a stalagmite (‘growing’ upward from drips from the ceiling above) eventually meet in the Big Room

Great art, in whatever form, inspires people to explore further, and we’re so lucky to live in a world that provides the opportunities. For more information about Carlsbad, visit the NPS website.

All photos were taken by me. They’re posted at lower resolution than the originals, and may not be used without my permission. E. Jurus


A Taste of Culture

Best Sopa Azteca ever at the Antigua Cocina Mexicana restaurant in Roswell, New Mexico

Eating good food is, for me, one of the joys in life. I especially love to explore the cuisine of the different places my hubby and I travel to. We’ve doing this for many years, and it’s really come in handy since I started writing novels.

I can provide ambience just by describing what a character is eating, or being served. My parents, and my in-laws, were all European, and put out very representative meals, for example – very different than what we’ve eaten at our Italian best friends’ place, or Middle Eastern households we’ve been to. Since I love to cook myself, I’ve learned a lot about a variety of cuisines and can write about them with a fair amount of confidence.

In October hubby and I spent a couple of weeks in New Mexico. As it happens, we love southwestern food, and we made the most of it. Chilies, both red and green, are ubiquitous, of course. The state has turned their take on a classic cheeseburger – a good quality beef burger topped with chopped roasted green chilies and melted white cheese – into an official culinary experience. The New Mexico tourism website provides a map of selected restaurants on the Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail, but most of the places we went to made their own version. Below, you’ll see a photo of the GCC slider stack that I tried out at the Shark Reef Café in the ABQ Bio Park in Albuquerque; it was superb.

Chilies are native to Central and South America, although they’ve now spread around the world as many countries cultivate their own varieties.

Apparently wild peppers grow upright, to attract birds that will spread their seeds out the other end, but through the process of domestication the peppers droop downward. Chilies all start out green, but can be allowed to ripen until they turn red.

A high-res photo of this image, and other selected images from the trip, can be purchased in various formats through my photography site on Fine Art America.

At the annual Santa Fe Harvest Festival, we learned that green chilies are hotter, but they don’t keep as well. For preservation purposes, the chilies are allowed to fully ripen, and then are picked and knotted by their stems into long bundles called ristras. The ristras are hung outdoors to dry out, and can then be used bit by bit throughout the winter until the new batches grow.

If used fresh, the chilies could be roasted in beehive-shaped adobe ovens. The ones shown in the photo here are what would have been used by early settlers in New Mexico, but these ovens are still really popular today; many people build them in their back yards. On the afternoon of the festival, two of the docents were baking fresh bread and rolls, for which they heat the ovens to 700 degrees F inside. The pans are set on the brick bottom and the opening is sealed shut with a wooden door soaked in water, with water-soaked rags around the edges to complete the seal.

Samples were given out for free, and my hubby and I spent a most enjoyable hour or so waiting for the hot rolls to come out and chatting with another couple from the northern part of the state around Taos. Every sample was delicious, especially the rolls studded with dried fruit.

After that, we sat down to rest and bought the last two homemade tamales being sold by another docent sitting across from us out of an insulated bag on a little walker-style cart. Tamales are basically a savory stuffing wrapped in a masa (corn) dough and steamed inside husks of banana or corn leaves. They made steam come out of our ears, I think. I asked the vendor what was in the filling and she listed only two ingredients: pork and chilies. Wahoo!

But there’s more to the experience than just consuming the food. Entire cultures are build around the sharing of food, whether it’s years of tradition in a family home, or the communal wait for fresh buns at a festival, sharing a little bit of your life on a sunny afternoon with people you may never see again. It might even be the conversation you strike up when you’ve sat on a bench next to two women eating tamales that they bought from a couple of bright-eyed women across from you, and you decide to take a chance on a pair of foil-wrapped bundles that emerge from an insulated bag on a little cart.

The kind-hearted vendor even gave us a courtesy bottle of water to wash our impromptu lunch down with. Between that and the sweet rolls, we had a complete, and completely unexpected, meal.

As travellers, hubby and I live for these unplanned experiences – they’re often the best memories. As a writer and photographer, I pay attention and take lots of photos so that I can recapture the details long after we’ve gotten home, either as a piece of artwork, for a meal for friends/family, or as a sample of authentic culture in my novels. The different styles of food and food production might even make their way into a tale on a different planet – maybe it’s a less-developed civilization that still cooks in earthen ovens, or grows unusual plants on its farms.

Whichever the case, you can’t beat an authentic actual experience to understand what a different culture is really like, from the myriad varieties of potatoes (over 700) that are served with every meal in Peru to the cups of tea made famous in English novels of all genres to the little chilies that have caught on so much that they even get hung up as decorations.  For all travellers and aspiring novelists, our world is a rich source of cultural inspiration — don’t forget to make time to stop and smell the ristras.

All photos were taken by me, and all rights are reserved. E. Jurus

Book 3 is under way

Two years ago I began my tentative adventure in fulfilling a long-held dream: to write a novel. I’ve always loved reading — taught myself to read when I was four — and began writing stories somewhere around the age of eight or nine. Many years later, I’m getting the first book of my trilogy ready for publication, editing the second book for my beta readers, and have put ‘pen to paper’ for Book 3. It’s a little startling to realize how far my adventure has taken me already, and a little weird to think about typing The End to the entire saga in a few months

How does one get to this point? In my case (because all writers are different and I can’t speak for everyone):

  • By having a story to tell, that must pour out until it’s finished.
  • By getting that first rough, crazy draft done.
  • By having beta readers who’ve loved your work and keep pressing for the next installment.

There’s still plenty of work to do. The front cover art for Book 1 is set, having been vetted by the members of the small-business group I belong to; I’ve been working on the blurb for the back cover, and need to get some publishing details finalized (e.g. the ISBN number). I’ve had several requests to include maps of the small town where much of the action in the novels takes place as well as the private college where my protagonist works; I’m researching software to help me create versions that are more polished than the sketches I produced in PowerPoint. And finally, as a self-published author, all the advance promo rests in my lap, but I’m looking forward to working on it and posting the first pieces here on this site!

The entire process repeats for Book 2 — feedback from beta readers, a couple more edits to bring the novel to its best state. The cover art will be a variation on the version chosen for Book 1, so that won’t be too difficult, and I’ll build on the promo that’s already been put out there since Book 1. Hopefully I’ll already have a solid fan base.

Book 3 will undergo the same transformation, from rough draft to final product. And then what? Two years ago, when I wrote the first words of Book 1 (whose title has evolved constantly until a few months ago), I wasn’t even sure I could produce an entire novel, or that anyone would like it. There was no thought of what I’d do once I finished the entire trilogy.

I assume all successful writers (as in, have finished and published a book) go through this, the ‘what’s next?’ state of mind. I’ve given it some thought, and for some reason have decided to write a horror novel — even though I’m not a huge reader of the genre. Having watched stylish horror movies and turned off a few gore-fests, I do know what I like and don’t like, and the idea of penning my own chiller feels like a thrilling challenge to take on. Can I scare the pants off my readers in a way that burrows into your minds for a long time afterward? We’ll find out 🙂 It will be set in the same ‘world’ as my Chaos Roads trilogy, but with a different protagonist who brings her own peculiar baggage to the story; still fleshing out the details and how her journey will play out.

For now, however, I’ll keep you posted on Book 1, Through the Monster-glass, as it heads toward the day when it becomes available to the public on Amazon Kindle! Check back for many more details in the next few weeks; the cover art will be coming soon.