Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Rude Awakening

One cannot always be gracious and correct. Sometimes bad thoughts make their way through the mental barriers erected in order to maintain a civilized persona.
Main volcanoes in Iceland - including Bárðarbunga
Here in Iceland we are now at the edge of our seats due to an impending volcanic eruption that has all the makings of a disaster of Eyjafjallajöll proportions. This time around the volcano is Bárðarbunga and since last week hundreds of earthquakes per day in its vicinity imply that magma is on the move. If it blows it will mark the 49th eruption in Iceland in the last 100 years.
A screen shot of the earthquake web site - a cluster of quakes can be seen in the vicinity of Bárðarbunga. The largest so far has been around 4 on the Richter scale.
The country is now on alert and in preparation the highlands north of Dyngjukjökull have been evacuated. No one lives in the highlands but the area is very popular in the summertime for those that enjoy the harsh Icelandic nature, both locals and tourists. The Icelandic surveillance plane equipped with eruption monitoring equipment has been called home from the Mediterranean where it was temporarily leased out for border patrol and the National Crisis Coordination Centre has been fully activated. Everyone here constantly check for updates and I am would not be surprised to read that the earthquake web page has jumped to the top of the most popular internet sites.
The worry is that the eruption will do either of two things. A) cause a sub-glacial flood from Vatnajökull or B) result in an ash cloud into the atmosphere akin to or worse than the one from Eyjafjallajökull. Both scenarios could be quite catastrophic.   

Which brings me to my bad thoughts. On Monday I had guests over for dinner. This did not give cause for any bad thoughts – far from it. These related to a job related meeting that was scheduled after the dinner party was decided and was to take place at Þeistareykir in the north of Iceland, the day after the party. This required taking a flight that departed at seven in the morning and to wake up at six. I am not an A person – or maybe I am. I never remember if it is A or B that don’t like to wake up early. Anyway. Enter bad thoughts. All during the dinner party I kept wishing that the eruption would just go ahead and start. That way there would have been no flight and no meeting.
The touristic eruption at Fimmvörðuháls - oen of the cute ones
But my prayers were not answered and the volcano is still considering its options. Having taken my flight and while in the north I did worry that because I had been so selfish the eruption was sure to start while I was still there, grounding me on the opposite side of the country from where I wanted to be, namely at home. However, the gods decided to be merciful and I got there as planned.
Unless this mercy was a temporary reprieve. Next Wednesday I am supposed to by flying to New Zealand for WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival and then on to Australia to participate in the Brisbane Writers Festival. To get there I have to fly through Europe. So now I am doing the exact opposite of what I did during the dinner party. I am now praying for the volcano to stuff itself.
The wretched ash cloud no one ones to be reminded of
I cannot leave this topic without presenting you with some facts about the Bárðarbunga volcano. For one it is responsible for producing the world’s largest lava field in modern times when it spouted the Þjórsárhraun lava field 8500 years ago. It is around 950 square kilometers or 370 square miles. Bárðarbunga is contained within the Vatnajökull glacier so its impressive 10 km (6 miles) wide and 700 m (0.5 miles) deep caldera (crater) is not visible to the naked eye. The Icelandic volcano site lists Bárðabunga as being one of the most powerful and dangerous Icelandic volcanoes.
With regards to the meeting at Þeistareykir, it went as well as could be expected. Aside from the part when I fell asleep in the middle of it. I have seen project owners more impressed than when I was shaken back into consciousness.
Yrsa - Wednesday


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Battle of Paris begins

On August 19, 1944, 70 years ago  the battle for Paris began. After four years of German Occupation the Allies had landed and were approaching. Seizing the time, Parisians staged strikes that erupted all over Paris and the battle to re-claim the city began.

On June 14, 1940 the Wehrmacht had marched into Paris and millions of Parisians fled. Only to return and suffer four years of Occupation.

The Battle for Paris lasted eight days.

The first shots fired in the Battle for Paris were Tuesday, August 19. On that day Paris’s police, (then and now photo)
having sought what safety there could be in the police headquarters – the Préfecture de police began to fire at German soldiers and tanks down below on Boulevard Saint Michel and on the square in front of Notre Dame Cathedral.

Cara - Tuesday 

Monday, August 18, 2014

Veracity in Historical Fiction

In a few weeks I will be attending the Historical Novel Society 
Conference in London.  Without a doubt, the conferees will take up the question of how strictly the historical novelist must cleave to the truth of a story’s historical background.  There will be next to no agreement on this point.

Some people at the conference will say that a novelist must never stray from the truth; not even, for instance, to write a scene under the full moon, if there was only a half-moon on the specified date 1567.  I was once on a panel with a woman who began her story with a fourteen-page explanation of just how the story she was about to tell departed from even the minutest facts of the case.  These purists look down their noses upon any writer who takes any liberties whatsoever with what the history books say.

On the other end of the spectrum, are those who take whatever liberties they like.  Some even write alternate histories from the ones we all know.  Books and movies that posit a world where the Nazis won World War II or the South won the American Civil War.  Writers like these, as you can imagine, also feel no compunction whatsoever about completely changing the characters and deeds of historical figures.


I fall somewhere in between on this continuum.  Actually, I don’t see myself as a historical novelist, per se.  I am a mystery writer who sets her stories in historical backgrounds.  I know this because I feel at home, among my own tribe, when I am with mystery writers.   This is not necessarily the case when I am with historical novelists.   At HNS conferences, people walk up and ask, “What period do you write?”  “Tudor England” or “Regency England” or “Renaissance Florence” would all be good answers.  My truthful answer: “I don’t write only one time and place” draws frowns, at best, usually annoyance—both from other writers and from readers.

Being a mystery writer at heart, what is most important to me is the story.  If the story requires a night scene under a full moon, it gets it regardless of the planetary alignments at that moment, shocking as that may be to some.

History’s enigmas are what most appeal to me.   No one actually knows what happened to the Alcalde of Potosi’s vast fortune in silver that he stashed away during the King’s investigation of counterfeiting, in 1649.  Nor what happened to the national treasure of Paraguay during the War of the Triple Alliance in 1868.   City of Silver and Invisible Country offer plausible answers to both, but the stories are whodunit’s.  I knew full well while writing them that the average American would have no idea that those treasures were ever lost, much less never found.

Historians are still arguing over what role Evita played in Peron’s return to power during the most dramatic week in Argentine history.   Some say she did nothing because she was powerless until that time.  Others say she did everything, and offer as proof all the power she wielded after the fact.  I love this sort of thing and made a sideline to my story portraying her as a powerless woman who nevertheless found a way to turn the tide in Peron’s favor.

Which brings us to what people think are the rules for introducing real people into historical novels.  There are no real rules, of course.  The writer decides.  But some critics and readers will reject a work if it does not conform to what “history says” about the person.  My problem is whose history are we reading and when?  If you are over forty, you have seen the assessment of historical figures change in your lifetime.  Jimmy Carter.  Richard Nixon.  Need I say more?

I will give the last word on this to the great writer I quoted at length here a couple of weeks ago—John Fowles.  Here is a paragraph that comes a little after what I quoted then.  It answers the question about how novelists should deal with historical figures:

From The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Chapter Thirteen

“But this is preposterous?  A character is either “real” or “imaginary”?  If you think that, hypocrite lecteur, I can only smile.  You do not even think of your own past as quite real; you dress sit up, you gild it or blacken it, censor it, tinker with it. . . fictionalize it, in a word, and put it away on a shelf—your book, your romanced autobiography.  We are in flight from the real reality.  That is a basic definition of Homo sapiens.”

  The defense rests.

Annamaria – Monday

PS: I will be traveling over the next three Mondays, much of it in areas where I may not have reliable Internet access.  I will do my best to keep up with postings here. 

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Wrongs and Rights

RIP Jeremiah Healy

My words this week are fragmented, but that’s the kind of week it’s been. To begin with, I was stunned to learn the devastating news that fellow author Jeremiah Healy took his own life a few days ago. Jerry was one of the good guys, one who made me feel most welcome when I attended my first US convention in Florida.

Severe depression is a terrible illness for all affected – and by that I mean those closest to the person as well as the one suffering. A bad way to put it, I know, but if someone you love is depressed, everybody around them suffers the agonies of knowing there is nothing they can do to make it right. My every sympathy goes to Jerry’s wife, fellow author Sandra Balzo. To quote her on the late Robin Williams earlier this week: “Severe depression is as far away from ‘the blues’ as Ebola is from a cold.”

We remember people by the size and shape of the hole they leave behind them in the world. Dammit, Jerry, you’ve left a big hole.

Jeremiah Healy and Sandy Balzo

Something For Nothing

It seems a minor point, after that, to move on to the subject I was intending to bring up this week – the subject of torrent sites and illegal free downloads. It bugs me, but not enough to go stalking those responsible, wearing a ghillie suit and camouflage cream. If a site offering freebie downloads of my books comes to my attention, I’ll do something, but I don’t go trawling the Tinterweb looking for them.

Likewise, I don’t add DRM (Digital Rights Management) to most of my ebooks. DRM is supposed to prevent the user from making copies of the work, but I’ve always gone on the theory that for those people tech-savvy enough to want to do it, bypassing DRM is no barrier, and for the rest of us it’s simply annoying. I recognize that this is a similar argument to not locking your doors at night, on the grounds that professional thieves will know how to break in anyway.

So, is it time I rethought the whole DRM thing and added it to my backlist titles? What is everyone else’s view on this?

Signing It All Away

And finally, months ago I was asked to contribute to an anthology for the benefit of a particular writers’ organization. I’d contributed to a similar type of book here in the UK, and when I received my invite I asked the editor if the same piece would be acceptable, even though it had been published previously. I received assurances that this was just fine.

But when the contract arrived from the publisher the organization was using, it demanded that I sign away exclusive rights for the entire term of copyright. Not only that, but also that I agree to indemnify the publisher against any legal action taken over the piece (the content of which was entirely non-controversial, by the way). I baulked at this, and eventually – as publication loomed – was told by the editor to re-word the contract to something I was happy with and they would run it by the publisher. I did this, adding ‘non’ to the exclusive part, and striking through the indemnity clause.

To cut a long story short, the publisher rejected my changes and my piece was pulled from the anthology. Disappointing, but preferable, in my view, to setting a dangerous precedent by signing away all rights to my work.

Again, what are your views? Should I stop being so precious and accept that sometimes you have to let go of work forever and set it adrift in the hopes that it does some good because someone else happens across it, or stick to my guns? Or should I look at it as good advertising?

That’s all from me, except for my Word of the Week, which is tristifical, an adjective meaning to cause to be sad or mournful.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Alexander The Great's Triumphant Return To Greece. Maybe.

Amphipolis, Greece/AFP photo

Here’s just a sampling of headlines from around the world this week that have Greeks literally jumping for joy in robust pride:

“Vast Tomb Unearthed in Northern Greece.”

“Important Ancient Tomb Discovered In Greece Dates Back To Era of Alexander The Great.”

“Massive Alexander-era tomb unearthed in Greece—but who’s buried in it?”

“Mysterious 2,300-year-old tomb found in Greece.”

“Mystery over massive Alexander-era tomb unearthed in northern Greece.”

Those headlines give you the gist of this still developing story, one that undoubtedly will keep more than archaeologists on the edge of their seats for quite some time. 

Photo: Alexandros Mihailidis/AP

The tomb won’t be opened until the end of August, but already some are calling it the archeological find of the century; some view it as an astrological demonstration of the power of Leo in Jupiter—this being the Zodiac month of Leo, the lion being the guardian of tombs, and Jupiter the Roman equivalent of Zeus; and virtually all Greeks see it as an “up yours” to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM)’s claim to the name “Macedonia” and appropriation of the legacy and symbols of Alexander the Great as its own.

Heavy stuff, with a lot more expected to come, not the least of which are anticipated breathtaking hoards of gold in keeping with the way things were done back in those days.  That’s also one explanation for round-the-clock police protection at the site.

Treasures from nearby tomb of Philip II of Macedon at Vergina

The news stories covering the find are generally the same, and things are so preliminary at this point (and the mood so ebullient) that it’s hard to get any more solid facts from folks on the ground than what’s in the newspapers. 

I guess they’re mindful of what US television newsman Geraldo Rivera found on live TV in opening the subject of the hugely hyped television special, “The Vaults of Al Capone” (1987).  Hint: Shut your eyes and what do you see?

I have it on good authority though, that they’re hoping to find a blood relative of Alexander the Great in sufficiently good condition to yield up a DNA sample, and thus open up a whole new world of exploration and explanation. 

Hmm, “Be careful what you wish for” comes to mind.

Anyway, here’s one news story on this truly extraordinary find as reported by Nick Squires in The Telegraph:

Archaeologists uncover entrance to important tomb from reign of warrior-king Alexander the Great.
Archaeologists in Greece have discovered a vast tomb that they believe is connected with the reign of the warrior-king Alexander the Great, who conquered vast swathes of the ancient world between Greece and India.

The tomb, dating to around 300 BC, may have held the body of one of Alexander's generals or a member of his family. It was found beneath a huge burial mound near the ancient site of Amphipolis in northern Greece.

Antonis Samaras, Greece's prime minister, visited the dig on Tuesday and described the discovery as "clearly extremely significant."

A broad, five-yard wide road led up to the tomb, the entrance of which was flanked by two carved sphinxes. It was encircled by a 500 yard long marble outer wall. Experts believe a 16ft tall lion sculpture previously discovered nearby once stood on top of the tomb. [Ed. Note: The Lion of Amphipolis was unearthed a century ago five kilometers away.]

The Lion of Amphipolis, 4th Century BCE

They ruled out the possibility that the tomb could be that of Alexander - the emperor is believed to have been buried in Egypt after he died of a fever in Babylon in 323BC.

The tomb was found in Greece's northern Macedonia region, from where Alexander began to forge his empire.

"It is certain that we stand before an especially significant finding. The land of Macedonia continues to move and surprise us, revealing its unique treasures, which combine to form the unique mosaic of Greek history of which all Greeks are very proud," said Mr Samaras.

Archaeologists, who began excavating the site in 2012, hope to fully explore the tomb by the end of the month to determine exactly who was buried there. The site is being guarded by police while archaeologists continue their excavations.

Photo: Alexandros Mihailidis/AP

Catherine Peristeri, the head of the ancient monuments department in northern Greece, said some of Alexander's generals and admirals had links to the area around the ancient city of Amphipolis. It was also the place where his wife, Roxana, and son, were killed in 311BC by Cassander, a Macedonian general who fought over the empire after Alexander the Great's death.

Situated about 65 miles northeast of Greece's second-biggest city, Thessaloniki, the tomb appears to be the largest ever discovered in Greece.

It probably belonged to "a prominent Macedonian of that era," a culture ministry official told Reuters.
The tomb, which consists of white marble decorations and frescoed walls, was partially destroyed during the Roman occupation of Greece.

Amphipolis was founded as an Athenian colony in 437 BC but conquered by Philip II of Macedon, Alexander's father, in 357 BC.

Alexander the Great single-handedly changed the history of the ancient world with a lightning pace of conquest. Born in Pella, the ancient capital of Macedonia in 356 BC, he was educated by the philosopher Aristotle. When his father was assassinated in 336 BC, Alexander set about consolidating his hold on the kingdom of Macedonia before embarking on the conquest of the powerful Persian Empire.

He led his army to victories across Asia Minor, Syria and Egypt, establishing an empire that eventually stretched from the Danube to the frontiers of India.

Hmmm, sounds like there’s a book in here somewhere.