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

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Journey_to_the_Center_of_the_Earth_(1959_film)#CITEREFMcGilligan1991

On hiatus this week

Hi everyone. I’m taking a break this week, as I had to have some minor surgery yesterday and am recovering. In the meantime, for your viewing pleasure or possible inspiration, the photo above is one that I took at the Bottomless Lakes in New Mexico recently. See you next week.

All photo rights are reserved by me.

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

Orange, the colour of autumn, pumpkins and Halloween

Classic orange pumpkins in the autumn sunshine, Ontario

Tickled orange! I’m coining a new phrase to describe how I feel every September and October.

Orange is one of my favourite colours, in small doses. That may sound contradictory, but a little orange goes a long way. A friend of mine loved the colour so much that she wore orange outfits frequently and painted her entire living room tangerine – attractive, but I couldn’t visit when I had a migraine.

The colour sits between red and yellow on the spectrum, meaning scientifically that our eyes perceive it when through light between 585 and 620 nanometres. (For sci-fi novels that might be important.) It’s named after the classic citrus fruit whose juice makes Screwdriver cocktails and Creamsicle martinis so delicious.

Invasive orange goldfish, pond at the botanical gardens, Niagara Falls

Orange as an English word comes from the Old French for the fruit, pomme d’orange, which in turn was derived sequentially from Italian arancia, based on Arabic and earlier roots.  

Artists as far back as ancient Egypt used an orange colour for skin tones on their famous murals, made from a reddish-orange mineral called realgar, an arsenic sulfide compound that would have been very toxic to work with, as so many of the early pigments were.

Orpiment, a related yellowish-orange mineral (also toxic), was more in use by medieval times, as it had been an important trade good in the Roman Empire. It was common in illuminated manuscripts.

Orpiment crystal, By Rob Lavinsky, iRocks.com – CC-BY-SA-3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10145584

Interestingly, it was also in use as a medicine in China, despite its toxicity. Its name was a contraction of the Latin word for gold (aurum) and colour (pigmentum), and coupled with its yellowish tinge, medieval alchemists thought it might help them make gold, and ultimately the Philosopher’s Stone.

In the late 15th and early 16th century, Portuguese merchants brought the first orange trees to Europe from Asia, along with the Sanskrit word naranga, which eventually morphed into our current English name.

The old Latin word for orange fruits was pomon, and by the 18th century orange was sometimes used to depict the robes of Pomona, the goddess of fruitful abundance; she was a popular subject in paintings and sculpture. her name came from the, the Latin word for fruit.

“Pomona”, By Nicolas Fouché – The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=150971

Initially oranges were an exotic delicacy in Europe, England, and even North America, but they became more common thanks to the invention of the heated greenhouse in the 17th century. Wealthy homes had buildings of this type attached; they were called orangeries. There’s a well-known one at Kensington Palace in London (the official London residence of The Prince and Princess of Wales and their children, including Princess Diana), where you can enjoy a lovely Afternoon Tea.

Screenshot, Kensington Palace Orangery website

A French scientist discovered the mineral lead chromate In 1797, which led to the invention of the synthetic pigment chrome orange. The Pre-Raphaelites in Britain loved the colour, using it particularly to paint shades of red hair. The Impressionists prized orange for depictions of the sun and its reflection in water, especially because they understood colour theory and how beautifully orange and blue compliment each other. Some painters used it straight from the tube, like Renoir, while others mixed their own custom hues, like Cezanne. 

Toulouse-Lautrec used orange regularly to represent gaiety in his paintings of Parisian clubs and cafes in turn-of-the-century Paris, while for Van Gogh orange, together with yellow, captured the glorious sunlight in Provence. He often contrasted his yellows and oranges with blue and violet, apparently writing to his brother that he was “searching for oppositions of blue with orange, of red with green, of yellow with violet, searching for broken colours and neutral colours to harmonize the brutality of extremes, trying to make the colours intense, and not a harmony of greys.”

Blue and orange in an old Gulf Oil sign in a cafe in Virginia

In modern times, orange’s visibility has made it a popular colour for certain kinds of clothing and equipment, like life jackets that can easily be spotted by search-and-rescue, vests worn by cyclists and highway workers to avoid being hit, astronauts to highlight them in space and against the blue of the ocean when they splash down.

Life jackets on a cruise to see the Ballestas Islands off the coast of Peru

On the flip side, it’s also been used for prison uniforms to make escapees easier to spot. The ‘black boxes’ on airplanes are actually bright orange so they can be found more easily, and some warning icons used orange to indicate danger.

Orange mixed with yellow in the background of this wall mural in Belfast enhances the impression of toxicity

Orange, like all colours, has a split personality. In Paganism, orange represents energy, attraction, vitality, and stimulation, and Buddhist monks are famous for their saffron-orange robes, but in Christianity, orange represents the Deadly Sin of Gluttony, because of its association with fruitfulness. It can be a decidedly vivid colour, as in the clothing of various cultures around the world.

Colourful robes, Samburu tribe, Kenya

As a wall colour, it can be unexpected, spicy and pungent, especially when used in a normally sedate setting like a monastery.

Monastery of Santa Catalina, Arequipa, Peru

But the ubiquitous fall fruit, pumpkin, produces a mellower colour of orange that, for lovers of the flavour, instantly makes our mouths water.

Pumpkin whoopie pies on a fall picnic

International orange is a deep, medium orange hue used by the aerospace industry to differentiate certain objects from their backgrounds, surroundings or other objects. It’s the colour of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco to increase its visibility in fog.

If you’ve ever wondered why some street lights have an orange tinge, it’s because of the type of bulb. Most street lights are high-pressure sodium vapour (HPS), which give off a warmer light that I, for one, find soothing on the eyes. However, studies have shown that whiter lights give drivers better peripheral vision, leading to  improved braking speeds. Sodium vapour lights are more efficient than the other bulb options, like incandescent, and have a much longer lifespan.

In colour psychology, orange is considered optimistic, energetic, dynamic and stimulating. It attracts attention without being too aggressive. It symbolizes adventure (probably another reason I love it 😉), spontaneity and creativity, although for some it represents exhibitionism and insincerity.

For me, orange represents all kinds of good things – the warmth of a wood fire in chilly weather, pumpkins (as in pies and jack o’lanterns during my favourite time of year), autumn leaves (after the green chlorophyll wanes) and sunsets.

Blazing orange and purple sunset (another pleasing combination), Africa

I also like sweet potatoes (as in fries with spicy aioli dip), and carrots (such a useful and healthy vegetable), although before the 18th century, carrots from Asia were usually purple, while European carrots were either white or red. It was Dutch farmers who bred an orange variety, possibly as a tribute to William of Orange, ancestor of the monarchy of the Netherlands).

The orange colour in the Flag of Ireland represents the minority Protestants who were supporters of William of Orange

In nature, orange colours can represent toxicity, or just indicate the presence of a gorgeous Monarch butterfly.

Orange has become synonymous with Halloween, especially in combination with black, which it complements wonderfully.

A blazing orange octopus carved from pumpkins at Pumpkinferno, Upper Canada Village, Ontario

If you haven’t been a fan of the colour orange, I hope it may now start to tickle your fancy. There are so many shades to love, and its appearance on trees signifies arguably the most beautiful, sensual season in the year — the season of cozy sweaters, wood smoke on a cool day, celebrating the spookiest date of the year with a big helping of goofiness (and treats), the warmth of a Thanksgiving table surrounded by friends and family … and pumpkin spice lattes!

Autumn on an Ontario golf course
Fishing ginger cats, island of Mauritius
Orange chrysanthemums look spectacular in a flower bed with white flowers and brown grass plumes
Jack o’lanterns warding off Halloween spirits that have crossed the Veil

All photos are by me unless otherwise specified, and all rights are reserved by me. E. Jurus

A Truly Historic Event

Buckingham Palace in London from a bridge in St. James’s Park

The years since the turnover to our current millennium have been filled with globally historic events. There have been other world-shaking events in the past, but with instantaneous news transmission, we now get to watch them play out as they transpire.

It’s a sign of the charisma of the British monarchy that millions of people around the world are affected by the death of its longest-reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. The late queen was such an iconic symbol of an iconic institution that her passing is momentous, whether you’re a fan of the monarchy or not.

If you’ve ever been to London, you’ll understand how deeply the presence of a living monarchy runs through British culture.

Main gates at Buckingham Palace

Buckingham Palace dominates the central part of the city. Its ornate, imposing gates look just as they should for what was once the most powerful institution in the world. In the early 20th century, the British Empire, including all of its far-flung territories, dominions and outposts, covered almost one-quarter of the globe, all overseen by that small island off the coast of Europe and Scandinavia.

By contrast, my hubby and I were in Vienna a number of years ago and visited the Hofburg Palace, a magnificent building that’s now only a museum piece. You can visit remnants of Austria’s monarchy all over the country, from hunting lodges in the mountains to cafes where all the court gossip that was worth hearing could be had for the price of a cup of rich kaffee and a luscious pastry. But it’s all slowly becoming an annotated archive, whereas in England the monarchy lives, goes about its daily duties and celebrates milestones with flair.

The modern London Eye overlooks centuries of history on the Thames River

London itself is one of the great crossroads cities of the world, with a historical reputation to match. But even though modern touches can be seen throughout, London inevitably brings to mind grand architecture, atmospheric pubs, beautiful parks, and so many other things that are steeped in tradition.

For writers, the progression of events surrounding Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral are a study in the pomp and formality of a form of government that’s 1200 years old and still thriving. If you doubt that, look at all the attention the royal family still receives.

On top of that, the ripple effects of a change in monarch are widespread. So much speculation about the new King and how he’ll handle the many challenges still embroiling the royal family, how soon official portraits will be changed, how many foreign dignitaries will travel to London for the funeral, how many British-ruled territories will decide to become independent, and all the many other people and places impacted by the royal family in some way.

I can’t believe how many articles I’ve seen in Canadian news about our currency that has the late Queen’s image on it. Personally, I can’t see the Bank of Canada reprinting all of the millions of pieces of currency in circulation just to change the images. I’d expect to see new bills and coins slowly start to appear with King Charles III on them, and the old ones to disappear as they start to wear out. Likely there will be some commemorative pieces that are issued for avid collectors.

How long will the British monarchy survive? Only time itself will sort that out, but for now, the passing of the torch from the Queen to the new King is something worth watching. We’ll never see a transition of this magnitude again in our lifetime.

You can follow more of the historic event on the royal website, and if you’re curious as to how Canada is handling all of this, visit the “Commemoration for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II” section of the Government of Canada’s website.

The Changing of the Guard in front of Buckingham Palace

All photos are by me unless otherwise specified, and all rights are reserved. E. Jurus

Celebrating National Book Lovers Day

Bookstacks at the Trinity College Library, Dublin, Ireland

North of New York City, along the edge of the Hudson River, there is a small estate lying between the railroad tracks of Metro North and the broad expanse of the river.

Chapter One, Ghostlight, by Marion Zimmer Bradley

One October, I made a pilgrimage, with hubby as chauffeur and adventure partner, to the Hudson River Valley in New York State, just on the strength of one New Age/Occult book that I’d read. It was the book that made me fall in love with the genre of urban fantasy, because it told the kind of story I’ve always hoped could be true: that our world holds more in it than our humdrum everyday lives.

The author, Marion Zimmer Bradley, led a very controversial life, but she was a damn fine storyteller. I loved her style – very readable but incredibly evocative, even poetic in spots. The story in Ghostlight is fascinating, but what hooked me even more was the setting, which was so well-portrayed that it was almost a character in itself.

So that year, my hubby and I decided to do a road trip, and I suggested the Hudson River Valley. You might be more familiar with this part of New York State as the eerie locale for The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Its author, Washington Irving, built his own house there in the town of Sunnyside. He was basically a superstar in the region, and to this day you can see his influence all over the valley.

One of the many things named in honour of the Hudson River Valley’s favourite celebrity

Irving found great inspiration in the mysterious atmosphere of the Catskill Mountains, and when autumn rolls around the entire area takes inspiration from his stories to create one of the best places to go for Halloween-themed travel.

Farm markets abound in the Hudson River Valley
Bumper sticker spotted at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, town of Sleepy Hollow, New York State

Great books live on in our psyche long after we’ve finished reading them, and this week’s blog is a celebration of National Book Lovers Day, celebrated in both Canada and the U.S. It’s not an official holiday, just an acknowledgement of all the enrichment books have brought to countless lives ever since they were first created.

Storytelling became an art long before the written word, through the generations of cultures who passed along knowledge, both practical and spiritual, to those who came after them. Even early rock art told stories.

Tribal rock art, Botswana, Africa

Stories began to be inscribed on stone and clay tablets. And not just stories – records of things, from inventories of goods to spells and curses (as in the Egyptian Book of the Dead) to lists of kings and other important historical facts.

Stories were created to explain how the world works. Cultures like the ancient Egyptians and Celts and Greeks had elaborate tales about the supernatural forces they believed were the cause of things that went wrong.

As science was developed, books were written about discoveries. But others were written just to entertain – to thrill, to haunt, to tell tales of love and romance and chivalry.

My parents loved to read to me, and I developed a love of books from all those wonderful imaginary journeys. I fell in love with the stories of HP Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe at an early age, and when I was fourteen, an ex-boyfriend introduced me to The Lord of the Rings, which I read non-stop during my Christmas holiday break. Oh how I wanted to visit Middle Earth, to see dragons and elves and magical silver. (When we travelled to New Zealand a few years ago, one of the great highlights was a visit to the Hobbiton movie set, including mugs of hobbit ale at the Green Dragon Inn.)

The gate to Bilbo & Frodo Baggins’ house, Hobbiton

That’s the power of books, that they can make a place or a story come so alive for us that we don’t want to leave.

I still love to hold a good book in my hands, curled up with a cup of tea, but I’m also quite happy to download ebooks to my laptop when I can’t get them in our local bookstore. My hubby and I have lately been downloading the Nero Wolfe mystery/crime series of novels by author Rex Stout. These novels capture the atmosphere of the 1950s, from gumshoes to slinky dames, through the eyes of quirky genius Nero Wolfe, who rarely leaves his brownstone in New York City, solving crimes with his remarkable brain while his assistant, debonair and smart-mouthed Archie Goodwin, does all the legwork and his chef Fritz cooks remarkable gourmet meals. We’ve read most of them before, but are now revisiting an old friend and adding the substantial canon (40+ books) to our collection, all compactly stored on our laptops.

Writers also learn to become better by reading great books, and it doesn’t have to be a ‘classic’. Not everyone’s into the works of Tolstoy, or even J.R.R. Tolkien. Whatever genre you like to read, enjoy the experience, escape with it, learn from it, let it fire your imagination.

In future posts, I may start doing book reviews, and I’m also thinking about creating a book club for budding writers, to discuss books we like (or hate), what we loved (or didn’t) between their pages. We’d ready any genre, because I think a good writer can learn something from all of them, and because a diversity of writers would make a great book club. If you’re a new writer and would be interested in joining such a club, let me know!

“If you don’t like to read, you haven’t found the right book.” JK Rowling

Writing Exercise/Inspiration: Look Closely

Just for fun, I thought I’d suggest a writing exercise this week. The above photo, for your inspiration, was taken at Luray Caverns in Virginia.

The caverns are filled with limestone stalactites and stalagmites, from tiny to mammoth. Many of the stalactites are ‘wet’, as in continually dripping and growing. Look very closely at the photo above — what you’re seeing is not a roof of stalactites and floor of stalagmites. In several locations in the caverns, the water dripping down from the stalactites forms a pool so still that it creates a perfect mirror image of the ceiling — Nature’s trompe l’oeil in a small cavern about five feet high.

Play around with how you’d describe such a scene, either as a real place in your thriller novel, or an alien landscape (maybe an entire tiny civilization living in it, or perhaps fifty times the size with a gigantic race of monsters), or as a Jules Verne-style adventure.

This is the largest group of caverns in the eastern United States, and I highly recommend a visit. One of the great things about Luray is how walkable it is, along paved pathways. When hubby and I visited there was a staircase going down into the caverns, but they’ve just added a stair-free entrance for wheelchairs. Because of some of the slopes/grades in the path they’re not able to list the caverns as handicapped-accessible, but they are quite friendly for people with some walking challenges, like arthritis (as compared to Mammoth Caves in Kentucky, which is very rugged; there’s a small section of the original tunnels that has been made accessible, and is still really cool to visit, but the best parts aren’t).

I hope you enjoy letting your imagination run wild with this challenge, and I’d love to see the results!

As always, all photos are by me unless otherwise specified, and all rights are reserved. E. Jurus

World-building: Just the Facts, Ma’am

The July 4th fireworks began just as the sun was setting, sprinkling their bright colours across the Niagara River as they rose and burst into a thousand stars. We’d just finished dinner at 7 p.m. and walked across the road from our house to see them …

Wait, what??? In the latitude of the Niagara River, which joins Lake Ontario to Lake Erie, at the start of July the sun doesn’t set until 8:58 p.m.

Information like this is easily looked up online now. A great many of your readers might not know the difference if they’re in distant parts from your setting, but even a detail like the timing of the sunset greatly influences a local culture. From living in the area, I could tell you the following about summers in southern Ontario:

  • Days are long and we make the most of the extended light in the evenings – at the beach, on a restaurant patio, on a golf course, in our back yards below lights strung in trees.
  • The humidity is high. The two great lakes in proximity generate a lot of moisture in the air year-round, but when the hot days roll in, the combination of ninety-degree heat and ninety percent humidity turns the area into a steam bath and the inside of a vehicle into a sweltering oven. It makes life challenging for anyone of low income who can’t escape from the heat, for senior citizens and those with health issues, for any pets unlucky enough to not have thoughtful owners. On the worst days, I’m typically hiding inside, because even the short trips between my air-conditioned car and air-cooled buildings are draining. I up the ante on my antiperspirant with dustings of baby powder, wash clothes more often. Several years ago we attended a family wedding where one of the guests, an elderly woman, fainted from the stifling heat inside the church.
  • The pollen count tends to be high. There are a lot of gardens dotting the landscape, as well as numerous orchards and vineyards. Allergy sufferers don’t love our summers. But, for garden lovers and photographers, summers are paradise.
  • Farm markets are abundant from June, when fresh strawberries make their luscious appearance, to juicy August peaches, to autumn when a wide variety of fat pumpkins fill market bins. I usually make a weekly trip out to my favourite market to see what they have that I can embellish our dinners with.
  • Canada geese, our most majestic bird, poop everywhere. It tends to drive golfers nuts, and some courses hire dogs to chase off the geese as much as they can. Personally, I’m happy to step carefully for the privilege of having these beautiful birds in our lives.

There are hundreds of other details that make up life in the area. Without living hereabouts, it would be impossible to know them intimately, and readers don’t expect that from you, but even a short vacation would give you enough information to add some authentic local colour to your book. Since most of us can’t just pick up and travel to every foreign place in the world to absorb the local culture, we can follow in the footsteps of one of the most famous mystery writers in history, who was equally famous for both her British flavour and her exotic settings – Agatha Christie. She wrote about what she knew, from the villages of England and 1930s London, to the places she visited on her travels – Turkey, Iraq, Egypt and more. Who are we to disagree with her methods? 😊

It was five o’clock on a winter’s morning in Syria. Alongside the platform at Aleppo stood the train grandly designated in railway guides as the Taurus Express. It consisted of a kitchen and dining-car, a sleeping-car and two local coaches.

By the step leading up into the sleeping-car stood a young French lieutenant, resplendent in uniform, conversing with a small man muffled up to the ears of whom nothing was visible but a pink-tipped nose and the two points of an upward-curled moustache.

Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express

You say viridian, I say verdigris

Shades of green in an Irish forest

Did you know that there are 171, 146 words1 in use in the English language, plus another 47,1561 obsolete words? For writers, language is a rich and delightful playground. Like the great old radio dramas (The Shadow, Philo Vance, Dimension X, and the famously infamous War of the Worlds), we use ‘theatre of the mind’ to engage the imaginations of our readers.

The Foley artists who created the sound effects that helped radio audiences see the action and the settings in their minds used all kinds of techniques to replace the lack of visuals. Authors describe the action and settings, providing prose keyed to readers’ five senses, and one of these revolves around colour imagery.

I’ve always loved the lushly-coloured old movies filmed in Technicolor, ever since I first saw The Wizard of Oz, made in 1939.

The Technicolor process was actually a series of improvements beyond the British film industry’s Kinemacolor, starting in the 1930s. The three-color version was known for its new highly saturated color, and was used by Hollywood for the blockbusters pictures, like the Wiz, The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn, Gone with the Wind..

For The Wizard of Oz, the colour of Dorothy’s shoes was changed from silver in the books by L. Frank Baum to ruby specifically to take advantage of the new colour advances. It was a small, but wise decision – those ruby slippers became ultra-famous and iconic. In 1989, to honour the 50th anniversary of the movie, Harry Winston Co. even created a replica version, decorating them with approximately 1,500 carats in rubies and an additional 25 carats in diamonds. They’ve been valued at $3 million.

Colours are one of the ways we understand the world and appreciate its beauty. For writers and graphic designers, colours play a key role in how we get a message across with pizzazz. In honour of Earth Month, we’ll take a look at the colour Green.

I’ll bet you could easily name a dozen versions of green just off the top of your head – lime green, mint green, grass green, jade green, olive, emerald… A simple walk through a spring garden, such as the one I did the other day, will yield myriad shades of green:

The classic green of boxwood hedges
Striped green crocus leaves
Jade green sedum
Glossy green leaves contrasting with fairy-pale green inside a hellebore blossom

Green is a complex colour, created by combining the two primary colours of blue and yellow. It has many shades and connotations.

When I think of the colour, it immediately makes me think of nature, freshness, renewal.

“When the green woods laugh with the voice of joy, And the dimpling stream runs laughing by; When the air does laugh with our merry wit, And the green hill laughs with the noise of it.” William Blake

Interestingly, though, there are negative associations with green as well: greed, envy, poison. For someone with allergies, the greens of springtime might conjure up visions of hay fever. It’s all in your perspective.

O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-ey’d monster, which doth mock The meat it feeds on.” William Shakespeare

A few shades of green have been so iconic that they’re become famous and instantly recognizable. One of the earliest of these was Nile Green, also sometimes used interchangeably with Eau de Nil. I can tell you categorically that the waters of the Nile are not green (though perhaps they once were, when the Pyramids were young), and the origins of the nomenclature are murky. The best that I’ve been able to unearth is that somewhere in the haze of Egyptomania that gripped the fashionable world after Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922, a light-to-medium green with perhaps a slight bluish undertone came to represent the exoticism of the Orient, and in particular Egypt.

A stunning pendant made around 1900 by a renowned French jeweller, George Fouquet, in collaboration with Alfonse Mucha, the Czech artist who captured Art Nouveau style, and now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, epitomizes the colour and the Egyptomania style.

Screenshot of the pendant on the Metropolitan Museum website, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/493766

The Benjamin Moore paint company quite aptly describes Nile Green as: “Classic and subtly shaded, this green conveys mystery and Old World elegance. “ If I was writing a scene set in the 1920s or 30s, I’d likely include the colour to evoke the flavour of the era, and perhaps even add a tone of mystery, in the same way that red is often used to bring out a sense of horror or dread.

Another shade of green that will be instantly recognizable to a lot of people is Harrod’s green.

My souvenir Harrods mug

The olive-toned green, always paired with elegant gold lettering, has an air of poshness that few other brands in the world have managed to represent so thoroughly. Created by Minale Tattersfield Design Group in 1967 as a way to unify the department store’s disparate packaging in its 300-plus departments, the signature look has taken on a life of its own, as all good branding does. Harrods, like any business I’ve ever come across, is extremely protective of their brand, and will sue any other brand that even approximates the Harrods lettering font.

Producing green tints for artists’ paints has been challenging throughout history. The first pigments, used in cave art 30,000 to 40,000 years ago, were made from a combination of chalk, burnt charcoal, soil and animal fat, and the colour palette was limited to red, yellow, brown, white and black. As painting progresses, there was an ongoing effort to produce more colours, and to improve the stability of the paints.

Artists and dyers began to experiment with extracting colour from natural materials, like flowers. You might think that it would have been easy to achieve a nice green, since it’s all around us in nature, but that wasn’t the case. If you look at the photo below, which I took at the Awanacancha Textile Centre in Peru, which is a cooperative of families dedicated to preserving the traditional methods of dying and weaving, the only green colour you’ll see is a rather drab sage.

A vibrant green, like the almost fluorescent shade on this lizard in the Amazon jungle, was much harder to create.

Amazon Racerunner Lizard, Peru

Blue, a colour that rarely appears in plants, was much easier, although very expensive – it was made from the semiprecious stone lapis lazuli, which for a long time could only be mined in a single mountain range in Afghanistan. Also called ultramarine blue, it’s the colour that we all associate with the robes of the Virgin Mary in medieval art.

Red came from red ochre, plentiful in iron-rich soil, and is still in use today. Black was originally called ‘bone black’, as its source was indeed charred bones.

Yellow was another challenging colour, for which the artists who loved it went to strange lengths to achieve. J. M. W. Turner, famous for his dreamy 18th century landscapes, used a watercolour paint called Indian Yellow, which apparently was sourced from the urine produced by cows who were fed only mango leaves. (It was soon banned as animal cruelty; the cows became badly malnourished on their forced diet.) Vincent Van Gogh was arguably the most famous painter using yellow, and he used a synthetic compound called Chrome Yellow, which contained lead and was known to cause delirium.

In ancient times, the colour green was made using malachite, a vibrant green mineral of various shades. Verdigris, the greenish coating that develops on weathered copper and bronze, was used by the Greeks, and was also subsequently created artificially by exposing copper plates or strips to acetic acid (such as that found in vinegar).

In 1775, the Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele invented a bright green pigment named after him. It became enormously popular, but the arsenic used to make it ended up poisoning both artists and customers. Napoleon Bonaparte’s bedroom in his home on the island of St. Helena, where he spent many years in exile, contained Scheele’s Green, and historians believe that’s what caused his death. It was replaced by Paris Green in the late 19th century, which was more durable but still contained arsenic, and was sometimes used as an insecticide. It may have caused Claude Monet’s later blindness, perhaps the ultimate nemesis for someone who dedicated his life to capturing the world around him in his art.

Classic shades of green, with their colour values in the Red-Blue-Green (RBG) scale

I have bedimmed

The noontide sun, called forth the mutinous winds,

And ‘twixt the green sea and the azured vault

Set roaring war-to the dread rattling thunder

(Shakespeare, The Tempest)

For writers, a well-chosen word or turn of phrase can magically create an image in a reader’s mind. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but we can’t use that many to create our mental pictures or we risk losing our readers in a mire of details.

So when I’m looking at scenes that I might use in my books, I’m also thinking about whether I could describe the scene well enough that my readers can envision what I’m writing about. I’ve actually discarded ideas because I felt I couldn’t capture them adequately in words, whether the details weren’t vivid enough, or too fleeting, or I’d just need too many words to describe it.

In honour of Earth Month, and the many beauties of our world that have enriched stories for eons, here are some of my favourite scenes of green from my travels. Pick your favourite and let me know how you’d recreate it with words!

Green waters of the Zambezi River tumbling over Victoria Falls
Layers and layers of green in the Amazon jungle canopy
The pastoral green of Ireland in the autumn
A lazy hippo among water hyacinth in Lake Naivasha, Kenya
Some of the most vivid greens I’ve ever seen on an oxbow lake in the Amazon jungle
Blue-green peaks of the Andes surrounding Machu Picchu, Peru

All photos by me unless otherwise specified, and all rights reserved. E. Jurus


  1. Sagar-Fenton, Beth & McNeill, Lizzy (2018). “How many words do you need to speak a language?” BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-44569277