Science fiction could become real-life

Volcanic Mt Ruapehu in New Zealand – E. Jurus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Over a millennium’s worth of influence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing Inspiration: The Caregiver did it?

photo by E. Jurus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18791249

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 – https://www.mauritshuis.nl/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=55017931

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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=108882

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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2798407

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.

The month of misrule

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Almost there

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

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.