Archive for the ‘travel’ Tag

Monday’s Friend: Ellis Shuman

Today I am pleased to welcome Ellis Shuman to the blog. Ellis and I met online through common writing habits. Like me, Ellis has a full time day job. Also like me, Ellis gets up early and does his writing in a coffee shop before going to work. He’s here today to talk about how a vivid sense of place can pull readers into a story. Take it away, Ellis!

Make Your Writing Appetizing to Readers
By Ellis Shuman

There’s nothing I like better than reading a suspense novel that you literally can’t put down. The action is so intense that you are riveted to the pages, staying up late into the night in order to finish reading another chapter, or even the entire book. The plot grips you, despite being occasionally far-fetched and unbelievable. The characters, although shallow and one-dimensional, keep your attention as they combat seemingly insurmountable odds on their way to the story’s thrilling conclusion.

ellis_shuman (2)The most enjoyable suspense novels, in my opinion, are those that take place in exotic locations. I am fascinated by stories set in Japan, or in Paris, or which use Caribbean islands as their setting, because by reading these books, I feel like I have traveled the world. The authors, if they do their job well, transport me to places I’ve never been. By reading their colorful descriptions, I stamp the passport of my imagination and expand my mind.

In most thrillers, even those set in exotic locations, the action moves ahead at breakneck speed, but I want more! Tell me the history of the place, talk to me about the religion of its people, and explain the traditions and daily life of those who live there. Once I have all that background in my mind, reading a suspense novel is much more meaningful to me.

I wish I could tell the authors to slow down, just a bit. If the characters are racing through a marketplace in Istanbul, describe the smells and sounds of their surroundings. What do they see, what do they eat? The protagonist is human, after all. Even though he is chasing the villain, or escaping his nemesis, the protagonist still needs to sit down and eat lunch.

When a novel is set in a foreign country, I long to read about the unique foods and drinks on offer. I not only want to learn about the book’s unique setting; I also want to taste it with all my senses.

In my writing, I try to include this missing ingredient: the taste and feel of the location where the action takes place. My book, Valley of Thracians – a suspense novel set in modern day Bulgaria – is not your usual thriller, because it highlights the setting. Some have called it a combination of mystery and travelogue. Bulgarian food, history, religion, and culture all play roles in the novel, making the scenic background an important element of the story.

My characters eat shopska salad, drink rakia, and have banitsa for breakfast. If all this sounds foreign to you, yet appetizing, you are invited to read my novel.

You may never have previously considered Bulgaria as a travel destination, but you should. The country has something for everyone, from majestic mountains and picturesque villages, to wondrous sea shores and ancient Roman ruins. Bulgaria, a member state of the European Union, is quickly catching up with the modern world, yet it takes care to preserve its history and culture. More than anything else, Bulgarians are extremely hospitable and visiting the country is quite affordable. If you can’t make the journey, read Valley of Thracians. You will enjoy the suspense and mystery, and the book will also introduce you to the culture, history, and even the tastes of Bulgaria.

valley_of_thracians_cover (2)VALLEY OF THRACIANS

A Peace Corps volunteer has gone missing in Bulgaria and everyone assumes he is dead, everyone except his grandfather, who refuses to give up hope. Retired literature professor Simon Matthews launches a desperate search only to be lured into a bizarre quest to retrieve a stolen Thracian artifact—a unique object of immense value others will stop at nothing to recover.

Matthews travels through a Balkan landscape dotted with ancient tombs and fortresses, unaware that his grandson has been confined to an isolated mountain cabin, slowly recovering from a severe head injury. Nothing can be taken at face value, as the woman assisting Matthews in his quest and the nurse caring for his injured grandson may have ulterior motives in helping the two reunite. Even when Matthews succeeds in joining up with his grandson, departure from Bulgaria is only possible if the missing relic can be found.

Valley of the Thracians is available on the Kindle from Amazon.

About Ellis Shuman

Born in the United States and with a permanent home in Israel, Ellis Shuman lived in Bulgaria for two years, traveling extensively throughout the country. He is the author of the suspense novel Valley of Thracians and the short story collection The Virtual Kibbutz. He is a book reviewer for The Times of Israel; a travel columnist at The Huffington Post; and a popular blogger with tips for writers. Learn more about Ellis on his blog, or follow him on Twitter.

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Gadgets

I got an iPad mini for Christmas. I am still figuring out how it works. And it has made me think about how many gadgets I actually own, and how important Internet connectivity has become to daily life.  At home I have a laptop, a NetBook, a Kindle, a PSP, a Playstation 3, a mobile phone and an iPad that all connect to my wifi.

I cannot imagine life without email, or Internet access. Whenever we go away anywhere, the first thing I do is find out how to connect to the hotel’s wifi – and whether or not it has wifi influences whether or not we choose to book it.

I also cannot imagine life without my NetBook.  This little gadget I take everywhere with me, and I do most of my writing on it.  It has become such a part of my life now that I find it difficult to write without it.  I certainly could not go back to the days of scribbling stories in pencil in the back of school exercise books, which is how I did it in my teenage years, and indeed back then could not imagine writing a first draft any other way.

The Internet has changed the world.  We can all connect with each other through cyberspace.  It has incited revolution in countries where oppressed citizens can see what life is like in other places, and collectively decide they don’t want to put up with this anymore.

It has made research a great deal easier.  In the old days, if you wanted to write a book set in, say, the French revolution, you had to go to the library and make use of the card catalogue to find books on the subject.  Now you just do a Google search.

It has made self publishing easier.  Anyone can upload a manuscript to Kindle Direct Publishing and publish a novel.  Whether or not they should is a whole other story, but I’ve already blogged about this recently so I won’t go into it again (see my post here if you want to know my views on this).

My mobile phone I have also become hugely reliant on.  I still have a paper pocket diary, but I find myself keeping track of appointments on the calendar on my mobile phone far more often than I refer to my diary.  I don’t leave the house, even briefly, without my mobile phone, just in case something happens and I need to phone for help.  In fact, the mobile phone has proved to be an even more world-changing invention than the Internet.  Just about everyone in the world has one.  We’ve been to remote villages in third world countries where people live very basic lives, but still everyone has a mobile phone.  From what I understand, the charities that work on trying to improve communications for people in poor remote villages across the world find it easier to distribute the old handsets that are thrown out to the people in these villages than to dig up the landscape in order to install cables for land lines.  There are now more mobile phones in the world than people, apparently.

Of course, technology often fails, and every time there’s a power cut, whether it be at home or at work, I am reminded how dangerous it can be to completely depend on technology.  I have more than one alarm clock set just in case the power fails in the night and the alarm fails to go off.  I back up my writing on several computers, and to Dropbox which I can access from pretty much every mobile device.  So if one computer goes kaput I can access my files from elsewhere, including battery-operated devices in case the power fails.  This is also why I have a paper address book and a paper diary – if technology fails, I don’t lose everything.

The speed at which the world has changed in the last thirty years is frightening.  But changed it has, and whether we like it or not we have to adapt to the changes.  We all have houses full of gadgets.  That’s the way things are these days. For most people in the Western world, the energy required to power these devices is taken for granted.  But what if the electricity ran out?  Permanently?  How devastating would that be for this changed world?

There’s a story in there somewhere…

 

The Winchester Mystery House

(Cross-posted on the WriteClub blog)

I’ve been wanting to go to the Winchester Mystery House for nearly 30 years – ever since I saw it featured on TV. It was on either “That’s Incredible” or “Ripley’s Believe it or not”, I can’t remember which – both featured the bizarre and the strange, and were on TV in the early 1980s when I lived in Canada.

Winchester Mystery House, from front left, and gardens

Winchester Mystery House, from front left, and gardens

Somehow we never got there on our previous two trips to San Francisco. I was very glad that on our third and recent trip there, we were able to hire a car and get to San Jose to pay a visit to this fascinating house.

Chances are, you’ve heard of this place already. It’s the house built by Sarah Winchester, heir to the Winchester rifle fortune. Sarah and her husband had only one child, Annie, who died of a rare childhood disease when she was six weeks old. A few years after that, Sarah’s husband died of tuberculosis. Some say she was driven mad with grief, and never got over the death of her baby. Whatever the case, Sarah got it into her head that she was cursed by the vengeful spirits of all of those who had been killed by the Winchester rifles her husband’s family had produced, and the only way to break the curse was to buy an unfinished house and keep on building.

She moved from her home in Connecticut and bought an unfinished eight-room farmhouse in California. She hired servants, gardeners, and a crew of carpenters, who kept building. In fact they didn’t stop. These carpenters worked in shifts, and the work carried on continuously, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, until Sarah’s death 38 years later.

It’s a bizarre house.  It has 160 rooms and 40 bedrooms. There are stairs that go nowhere, doors that open onto blank walls, other doors that lead to two-storey drops, secret passages, rooms with no floors, windows that look out onto brick walls. Sarah Winchester designed most of the house herself.  Some say she built the house the way she did to confuse the spirits. I think she was likely suffering from paranoid schizophrenia – she thought spirits were speaking to her, and the servants were conspiring against her. But she was also stupidly rich, and therefore it didn’t matter how mad she was, people would do what she said. Apparently she paid all her staff twice the going rate, but she paid them daily in cash, so that if she had the whim to fire anyone, she could do so on the spot. Arguing with her about her illogical building plans was apparently a cause for instant dismissal.

Me standing at the front of the house - note lack of symmetry...

Me standing at the front of the house – note lack of symmetry…

Sarah WInchester was obsessed with the number 13, which is a recurring motif throughout the house. Windows have 13 panes of glass.  Ceilings have 13 panels. There is even a chandelier with 13 light fittings. Apparently it originally came with 12, but Sarah wasn’t having that and she added the thirteenth herself – and you can tell which one she added, because it’s wonky and obviously stuck on.

Naturally there are many stories about the Winchester house being haunted. It does have a decidedly creepy appearance. With so much building work the house is not symmetrical, and viewing it from the outside it looks odd. Inside, there are so many rooms many of them don’t have any windows or natural light, so it is rather dark and dim. But we saw it on an exceptionally hot and sunny day – positively balmy for the time of year – and it was full of tourists, so it didn’t seem particularly creepy. Then again, I have no psychic sensitivities whatsoever. I’d like to remain open minded about the existence of ghosts, but if there are any, I’m unlikely to ever see any. I don’t get easily creeped out. So saying, I rather wish we could have gone at Hallowe’en, when they do a ‘ghost tour’ by torch light. The place might be a whole lot creepier then.

I did feel rather sorry for Sarah Winchester. She lived alone in this house apart from her staff, and apparently never had visitors – the rest of the family thought she was nuts and stayed away. So she rattled around alone in this immense house, working her way around the 40 bedrooms – never sleeping in the same room more than one night in a row, allegedly to confuse the spirits she was convinced were out to get her.

Outside view of 'door to nowhere' - leads to 15-foot drop

Outside view of ‘door to nowhere’ – leads to 15-foot drop

You are not allowed to take pictures inside the Winchester Mystery House, and any that are on the internet are copyright and not able to be used without permission. Which I don’t have. So I can only include here pictures of the outside. But a Google search of the Winchester Mystery House will take you to plenty of websites that do include images of some of the bizarre features of the house.

If you are ever in the San Jose area of California, do visit the Winchester Mystery House if you can.  It’s a fascinating tour. And is the house really full of vengeful ghosts, or was Sarah Winchester as mad as a box of frogs? Well, you’ll have to make up your own mind about that.

Monday’s Friend: C D Brennan

Today my guest is writer and fellow traveller C D Brennan. Welcome,  C D!

CDBRennanCDB:  First, I want to take the opportunity to thank Sara-Jayne for having me today. My fellow Lyrical sisters have been my greatest support in the promotion of my debut romance. And I’m very happy to now have Sara-Jayne’s acquaintance – a Londoner that can keep me close to all that is British, which I adore – from the Tetley’s tea to their crazy Premiership.

SJT:  When did you first know you were destined to be a writer?

CDB:  To be honest, I still don’t know. Is it my destiny to be an author? My undergraduate was in Creative Writing, so maybe even way back then I had a glimpse of my future. But that was twenty years ago, and I have had many fancies in between, for I’m a dreamer. I wanted to be a helicopter pilot and a professional sailor, and for a time a cowgirl. Now that I’m older, I can look at it in perspective and know those weren’t meant to be (although I had a fair crack at a couple of them). For one, I now have a fear of flying. Probably not the best quality for a helicopter pilot.  But I have been thinking lately that this series was meant to be, and the last 15 years of my travels was the perfect research for the Love Where You Roam series.  So everything comes together, in its own time.

SJT:  Who would you cite as your influences?

CDB:  Wow, that’s a hard one. You’d think it would be easy, and for some writer’s it is, they love a certain style or voice of a particular author, but for me, I soak up small details of many writers. The Love Where You Roam series is based on characterization plots. Take your hero and heroine and place them in different situations, even if that means an altered environment created by the other, and see how they evolve, and ultimately how the other is a compliment to themself.  I’ve drawn from YA writers for their character growth, classic romance novelists for their plotting and development, and (may be surprising) fantasy for the great way the writers are able to incorporate description into the story without it being too heavy and slowing down the pace.

SJT:  What advice would you pass on to beginner writers that you wish someone had told you when you were first starting out?

CDB:  Being an author isn’t just about writing anymore. It’s about promotion and networking and social media and website administration, and getting yourself out there, which takes an immense amount of time, and ultimately for me, takes time away from the next book. Because I am juggling another job and a young family, it currently takes me almost a year to write a book. Far too long. Because making your way as an author requires a backlist, which means many books for sale. You can earn a living by having numerous books out there over a period of time. But if you are willing to keep going with it, one day it will be worth it. As I reckon a job as a writer is a great job to have.

SJT:  It’s nice to have a fellow traveller on my blog.  What are your favourite places in the world?

CDB:  Sweet divine, where do I start? As photograph images and memories passed through me at this question, there was one that kept replaying. Mountain tops. Mt McKinley in Alaska, Mt Kenya in Kenya, Ben Nevis in Scotland, Croke Patrick in Ireland. Not only did I want to see the country, but I must have wanted to see the country from on high. Great views.

I have great memories of times with other travellers at the Cinque Terra on the west coast of Italy, Trevi Fountain in Rome, a train ride from Prague to Krakow, the Masai warrior dance at our safari camp in Kenya, a moose eating the bush out front of our kitchen window in Alaska (and opening scene in Book 3), the castles in Bavaria, sailing the Whitsundy Islands in Australia. So many, I probably have missed a million.

But mostly, my favourite places that I travelled are the places that I lived because of the people that made the experience that much sweeter, that much more memorable and personal. It wasn’t just visiting, it was home. It was delving into everything about that culture and living it.

SJT:  I know how a mixed-up accent confuses people.  Have you ever had people mistakenly guess where you’re from?

CDB:  When I moved from Ireland, my husband and I travelled through the States on our way to Australia. We stopped in New York, and while sharing an elevator ride with a couple of businessmen, they tagged me straight up as Irish. I had read somewhere that the more a person assimilates into a new culture, the more likely they are to pick up the colloquial language. When I lived in Ireland, I embraced everything about it, and I thought it was the place I would find love and live forever. Obviously, not meant to be after meeting my Aussie husband, but after a couple years in Scotland, seven years in Ireland and another five in Australia, my accent is a mutt of a dog. I tend to pick up phrases that I like, mostly slang, that has stayed with me all these years.

But a funnier story is my Australian husband now in Michigan. Americans, bless them, are not good at picking foreign accents, so most folk we meet think he is from Texas. LOL.

SJT:  Your book is set in Australia, so perhaps this location inspires you.  What it is about Australia that drew you to write about it?

When I wrote WATERSHED, I was currently living in Australia, in a small rural mining town in Queensland called Mount Isa. So the bush setting was all around me, and Queensland was then being tormented by flooding, which is relevant to the story.

But even before that, while backpacking through Australia in 1995, a woman sat next to me on a Greyhound bus journey from Rockhampton to Townsville, about an 8 hour drive normally, then add another four hours for the bus experience. As most travelers would understand, a spare seat next to you on these trips is a God-send, more space to stretch out and put your things. But, as fate would have it, another writer Margery Smith sat next to me and we chatted for almost the entire trip.

I had been in Australia for a month, working my way up the East coast, and even though it was a beautiful coastline and plenty to do (The Australian hostels were like motels with pools and BBQ facilities), I felt it wasn’t the Australia that I had hoped for. I wanted the true and gritty experience, not one polished and packaged for tourists. I mentioned my disappointment, and within moments my traveling companion offered that her daughter lived on a cattle station just west of Rocky (Rockhampton), and would I be interested in working as a jillaroo? Would I ever!

After my sailing trip through the Whitsunday Islands to see the Reef, I backtracked down to Rockhampton and then west, where another bus journey plopped me down at some dusty turnoff in the middle of nowhere. Thus, the opening scene of Watershed. Even though there was no romance for me personally at the Bloomfield Station (just a few hours east of Alpha, Queensland), I fell in love with the lifestyle and landscape, the people and animals, the fresh air and hard work. Ironically enough, I ended up marrying my own Australian country boy I met 10 years later when we were both living in Ireland.

SJT:  Any other projects in the works?

There are four planned books (perhaps more?) in the Love Where You Roam series. The series follows women as they travel, backpack and work in faraway places, and in those adventures the woman finds love where she roams.  Like in many journeys, the heroine’s path is not only physical but spiritual as they grow and change in their new environment. Ultimately, they find a place where they belong.

The series is tied by characters and concept. The heroine that stars in the following book of the series will make an appearance in the previous book. In Book 1, WATERSHED with Maggie and Gray, we also meet Lizzy, a jillaroo and friend to the Stewart’s that own The Gemfields. In the next book, A STONE’S THROW, Lizzy travels to Scotland where she meets the debonair but elusive, Hamish Skene.

Lizzy lives and works in a Hotel Pub in the small town of Bridge of Allan, Scotland. One of her coworkers is Sophie, a university student studying to be a linguistics teacher. She travels to Alaska in the next book, currently titled DUSTING OF LIGHT, where she meets a rugged native Alaskan. An Aleutian mother and Russian father, he is striking in appearance and mannerisms. I say “he” because I don’t have a character name yet. I might do a contest on my FB or my website for fans to choose a name. I have already started writing the book, and it’s a bit annoying to always use “Aleut” in place of his name. LOL. I was using “Alaska” but that got way too messy, as you can imagine.

Author Bio

Having traveled and lived all over the world, C D Brennan now talks with a strange accent, a mix of distant terminology, a blend of culturally cute but confusing euphemisms that leaves everyone looking at her with a blank stare. Luckily, her Australian husband (who she met in Ireland) and her two Aussie/Yankee sons have no problem understanding her – well, except for the word “NO”.

Now settled back “home” in Michigan, she enjoys reliving her glory days by writing about them. She considers the last fifteen years abroad the perfect research for her Love Where You Roam series; matchmaking women and men from different cultures, even different hemispheres, helping them find their true one across oceans of difference.

As destiny plays a hand in all the stories, Cd Brennan truly believes that what is for you, won’t pass you by. She hopes to inspire others to get out there: “Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” [Mark Twain]  And of course, fall in love.

Get in touch with her at www.cdbrennan.com.

watershedBlurb from ‘Watershed’

She left home to find herself…and found love along the way.

Maggie isn’t looking for love on her backpacking trip through Australia. She’s got enough man troubles back in Ireland. Australia is her escape, a place of adventure where she can create memories to last a lifetime.

But some memories won’t be left behind.

Gray is ready to quit hiring backpackers to help with the work on his remote Queensland cattle station when Maggie turns up. She’s just passing through, but the connection they forge during the long nights herding cattle won’t be so easily cast aside.

CONTENT WARNING: A strong-willed Irish heroine, a stubborn Australian hero, and oceans of difference to bridge for love.

A Lyrical Press Contemporary Romance

Excerpt

“In Ireland we have the Banshee.” Maggie broke Gray’s daydreaming with a start. “She is the omen of death and the messenger from the Otherworld.”

She continued in a whisper. “Often she appears an old hag. Folklore says she may also appear as a stunningly beautiful woman.” Maggie raised her brow at him, her eyes twinkling with fun.

Gray threw his head back and laughed, and she joined him. There was no shaking her. He decided he wasn’t going to best Maggie, and for the first time in a long time he was content with that.

He shifted so she had to settle against him. He heard her sigh as he wrapped his arm around her. They sat watching the fire, listening to the sounds of the bush settle for the night. It was peaceful and, Gray had to admit, romantic. He smiled, fulfilled after a long day’s hard work, some good bush tucker and a beautiful woman by his side. He had almost worked up enough courage to kiss her when she shivered, wrapping her arms around herself.

“I’m going to sleep.” Pulling off her trainers, she climbed into her swag. “Goodnight.”

Social Media Links

www.facebook.com/cdbrennan2012

www.twitter.com/CdBrennanauthor

www.goodreads.com/CdBrennan

www.pinterest.com/CdBrennan2012

Buy Links

Amazon http://www.amazon.com/Watershed-ebook/dp/B00BNDFJX6/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1362277880&sr=8-1&keywords=Watershed+Cd+Brennan

B&N http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/watershed-cd-brennan/1114744167?ean=2940016262345

iTunes https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/wayershed/id593848163?mt=11

Lyrical http://lyricalpress.com/watershed/

Kobo http://www.kobobooks.com/ebook/Watershed/book-9Js6iPtS1EaZzf1UQuTjaQ/page1.html?s=-HcXrxRb9kaOpQMeWIn7Mw&r=1

Egyptian Inspiration

This blog has been quiet of late because I’ve been away.  I’ve been to the land of Pharaohs and pyramids.

This trip was organised by hubby’s dive club some time ago.  I am not a scuba diver – having asthma prohibits me from such an activity.  Occasionally I tag along on the trips the scuba club organise, but generally there’s not much to do for a non-diver who’s not fond of boats.

However, I decided at the last minute to tag along for this trip, as a week of doing nothing but lie on the beach and read actually sounded rather appealing, after a few very stressful months.  I also had a plan to take the NetBook along, and do some writing.

The accommodation was a dive village in Marsa Shagra, on the shores of the Red Sea.  It was rather literally in the middle of nowhere.  After flying into Marsa Alam airport we had a 40-minute drive through miles of arid desolate desert land to get there.

The dive village, however, was well appointed.  As well as the dive centre there were various bars and seating areas, all out in the open air but under shelter, where I could set myself up with my NetBook out of the glare of the Egyptian sun.  The accommodation ranged in luxury, from tents to air conditioned en suite chalets.  As the site was rather full by the time I decided I wanted to come, it wasn’t possible to get an air conditioned chalet.  We were in a hut.  This was a stone building that was effectively one small room, with the usual furniture one would expect in a hotel room – wardrobe, dresser, bedside table.  There was no air conditioning, but the room had windows, and a fan, and we found it stayed relatively cool at night.

We had to share the toilet and shower block with others, but these were clean and in good order, and the nearest one was only a few yards away from our room.  Perhaps one of the most important facilities was a limitless supply of clean drinking water, as Egypt is fairly notorious for its lack of drinking water.  As the accommodation prided itself on being an ‘eco village’, it was encouraging its residents to recycle water bottles.  We could fill them up without limit from the various water coolers that were placed around site.

My writihg corner at the Oxygen Bar

So, after breakfast, when hubby and his fellow divers went off to don their scuba kit, I took my NetBook and bottle of water and set myself up to do some writing.  My favourite place for my morning writing session quickly became the Oxygen Bar.  This bar did not sell alcohol, but oxygen – literally.  I’m not sure what the benefit of inhaling flavoured oxygen is, but apparently this is all the rage in parts of Asia right now.  The bar was closed during the day, but I found a nice comfy spot with table and chair, and more importantly a power point – in the shade where I could write.  I would get a couple of hours’ work in before going up to the restaurant for lunch, with maybe an hours’ snooze in the bean bag somewhere in there as well.

The position of the sun meant that I couldn’t go back to the oxygen bar after lunch, as it was no longer in shelter and my NetBook isn’t glare resistant.  So after lunch I took an hour or so to lie on the beach and let my meal digest, and the restaurant to clear. It closed at 2pm, but the outside terrace became a good place for my afternoon session, as there were plenty of tables, sheltered from the sun, and I had a spectacular view of the Red Sea to offer inspiration.

The beach at Marsa Shagra

The divers came back between 4pm and 5pm, at which point it was time to stop writing and go for a shower.

For a week this became a most agreeable existence, and I did manage to get quite a lot of work done, too.  But it wasn’t all snoozing and writing.  On Monday 24 October – my birthday – a few of us decided to do the day trip to Luxor, to see some of Egypt’s history and culture.  It was a long old drive from the dive site – a good 4 hours – so we had to start early.  But we managed to pack in rather a lot in a day.  We went to Memnon Colossi, which were moved from their original site in pieces when floods threatened to destroy them.  We went to the Valley of the Kings, where most of Egypt’s Pharaohs were buried, in elaborate tombs. None of the mummies or the valuables that were buried with them are still there – they’ve either been sent to museums around the world, or were stolen by grave robbers over the centuries.  But the hieroglyphs and paintings that adorn the corridors of the burial sites can still be seen, in remarkably vivid colours considering they are 3000 years old.  Unfortunately you’re not allowed to take photos in the Valley of the Kings – the flash fades the colours, and people have abused this in the past so now no cameras are allowed at all.

Me and the Memnon Colossi

We also visited the Temple of Hatshepsut, which is not quite so old, as it’s been reconstructed.  Hatshepsut was the only woman Pharaoh.  Women were not allowed to be Pharaohs, but she had no brothers, and was instead married off to her step brother so that he could be Pharaoh.  She wasn’t having that, so she killed him, and eventually gained the respect of her people and was accepted as Pharaoh.  It’s always interesting to hear stories about strong women who know what they want.

After crossing the Nile to the East Bank, we paid a visit to the Karnak Temple – a vast and awe-inspiring place full of columns and ancient statues.

Karnak Temple

We got back rather late but it was a trip well worth doing, and a most memorable way to spend my birthday. In fact, it will be hard to match it in future years.

The Luxor day trip added a touch of history and culture to what was largely a trip about relaxation (for me, anyway – hubby got 2 or 3 dives in per day, so he came back at the end of each day quite exhausted).

Egypt also proved to be inspiring for me, writing-wise. When we left the UK, I had a vague idea for a new horror novel that I thought I might be able to work on. I returned, a week later, with not only three pages of notes and basic plot outline, but also the first 8,000 words of the first draft written. I attribut the inspiration to a combination of the sea air, the sunshine, and the inspiring view.  Too bad I don’t have these sources of inspiration available to me all the time – I’d be far more prolific.

New York State of Mind

We had the opportunity for a few days in New York City, in June of this year. Hubby and I love NYC and often gravitate back there. This was our sixth trip to NYC in ten years.

Me by Belvedere Castle


No matter how often we go, we always seem to find something new. We love Central Park and always pay a visit – in fact we got engaged in Central Park, in 2003. But the park is so huge we are forever discovering hidden corners. On this trip we discovered the Alice in Wonderland statue. We knew it was there – we’ve just never been able to find it. We also discovered a rather interesting building – Belvedere Castle.

We visited the Metropolitan Museum, which we’ve been to once before, but it’s such a massive museum it’s impossible to see the whole thing in one trip. So there were plenty of exhibits we missed the first time around.

We were quite lucky with the weather, and took a walk down to the marina on what turned out to be a lovely sunny day. We decided to take the speedboat ride around the tip of Manhattan – a half hour trip. The speedboat was called “The Beast”. We were warned we would get wet. We did. Still, it was great fun, and fortunately the weather was so warm it didn’t take long to dry out afterwards.

Alice in Wonderland statue


Another place in New York we love is the charming Greenwich Village, which has such an old-style British feel. We found a nice British theme pub there called GMT. It even served British cider, something that’s hard to get hold of in the States. We liked it so much we went back the following evening, to have another drink there before going for dinner.

The second time we were in New York, in March 2001, we had no idea that the pictures we took from the World Trade Center would be the last time we’d get to do it. The next time we went, in September 2002, Ground Zero had been cleared but it was heartbreaking to see this big hole in the middle of Manhatten where such an iconic landmark used to be.

In our subsequent visits, we’ve followed the progress of the building project that is taking place on the site of Ground Zero. The project is nearly complete now, with several buildings going up on the site. The tallest building is the last to be completed, and it’s nearly done. We learned that the buildings are to be formally opened on 11 September this year – on the tenth anniversary of Twin Towers coming down.

Me and my publisher, Renee


The highlight of our New York trip for me, far and away, was the moment I got to meet my publisher at Lyrical Press, Renee. Knowing that she was based in New York, we had arranged to meet while I was there. I was very excited about this – after all, to an author, the publisher is a Very Important Person. What never occurred to me is that she was just as excited about meeting me – a publisher considers her authors to be Very Important People, too.

We met for lunch and had a marvellous time, and took a picture to commemorate the occasion.

All too soon our visit to New York came to an end and we had to go back home again. I hope it won’t be too long before we are once again able to visit this most vibrant and exciting city.

Manhatten skyline, as of June 2011

Let’s Talk About the Weather

The weather here in Britain has been somewhat depressing the last few weeks. We’ve had rain, wind and grey clouds. Occasionally the rain stops, the clouds move and the sun peeps out for a few minutes, at which point you start to feel a bit hot in your rain coat and winter sweater. But then the clouds roll over again and another torrential downpour starts up. We occasionally have a few days of hot sun, but this is invariably followed by more rain.

To be honest, this is not unusual weather for the British summer. However, as all this has been going on my family in Canada have been grumbling about relentless 40c heat and no rainfall for weeks, and it has made me think about the diversity of this small blue planet of ours.

We’ve been to places like Borneo and Vietnam, where it’s incredibly hot and humid. When it rains, the rain literally comes down in sheets, but it’s so hot that when it stops the streets dry out in a matter of minutes.

We’ve also been to the Nasca desert in Peru, where it rains once every ten years or so. We’ve seen the Nasca mummies, which are the skeletonised remains of people who died hundreds of years ago, their bones bleached white by the sun, their hair and clothing and sometimes even traces of skin still preserved because there’s no moisture in the air to rot them away.

Right now there are places on the planet that are suffering terrible droughts, and other places where there are floods. More than half of our planet is covered in water, yet still there are places that don’t get enough water to sustain life.

So we might complain about the weather – and in Britain it’s a national pastime. But it does serve to remind us that nature is a far more powerful force than humanity is. No matter how technologically advanced we get, we can’t control the weather.

Cultural Differences

This recent BBC article studies the cultural differences between the Germans and the British. Germans don’t indulge in small talk, apparently. The British are very good at small talk – or in other words, the art of talking rubbish for ages without saying anything worthwhile. Consequently the British think Germans are rude, and the Germans think the British tell too many lies.

It’s these cultural differences that make travel so fascinating. Having been to Berlin, I agree with the concept that Germans can appear abrupt. They don’t intend to be rude. They just can’t see the point of talking without saying anything. I’ve also noticed no one in Berlin crosses the road on a red light, even if the road is empty of traffic. They always follow the rules, and the rules dictate that one doesn’t cross the road until the green man appears.

Contrast this to crossing the road in Vietnam, which I posted about recently. There are no pedestrian crossings in Hanoi, and the traffic doesn’t stop. Ever. To cross the road you step into the traffic and hope for the best.

In Greece, no one queues. The Greeks value personal choice and freedom, which tends to mean what the individual wants to do might over-rule what the crowd wants to do. So when the bus arrives, it’s a bit of a free for all as everyone’s trying to get on first.

The British, on the other hand, are pretty good at queueing and even in London, where the crowds get so bad it’s a matter of survival, when you look at any bus stop in rush hour you will see everyone standing in an orderly line. I’ve never been to Japan, but I understand that the Japanese are even better at queueing than we Brits are.

The differences between the American and the British mindset are so vast I might save that for blog post all by itself. But one point that struck me on our recent trip to New York is the service culture. Americans have a very high expectation of customer service. We discovered a British style pub in Greenwich Village. It was a nice place, and the decor and the beer were spot on with regard to their ‘British-ness’. One crucial difference, though. We sat down and a waitress came and gave us menus, then took our order and brought it out to us, even when we only wanted drinks.

In a real British pub, you don’t get and can’t expect table service. Even in a pub which serves food, you find your table and go to the bar and place your order. If it’s a nice place that’s trying to attract families and is serving decent food, someone will bring it to you when it’s ready. Occasionally you might even have to go get it yourself.

This concept of going up to the bar must fox many a first-time American visitor to London, unless they’ve been briefed beforehand. I have heard tales of Americans visiting London who sat in the pub for half an hour waiting to be served, before giving up and leaving, without realising that table service wasn’t going to happen.

Cultural mindsets are the little things that are so inbred in a society’s way of thinking they might never consider the fact this might seem odd to an outsider. Sometimes doing a little research into a place before visiting can give you insight into some of these cultural differences – and understanding them can make your visit a bit more enjoyable.

Passport To Adventure

I always think that the most valuable thing in my possession is my passport – not fiscally, but because of what it represents. My passport gives me the freedom to go anywhere in the world, at any time. Because of this, I get a bit nervous when it’s out of my possession.

When we investigated getting visas for our trip to Vietnam, it was recommended that we get them before leaving the UK, as there was no guarantee they could be acquired at the airport upon arrival in Vietnam. The instructions on the Vietnamese Embassy’s website stated that the visa application form had to be submitted to the Embassy along with one’s passport, and a photo. Either bring along in person or send by registered post, it said. Well, I wasn’t about to trust the Royal Mail with my passport, so it was going to have to be a personal visit.

The Embassy’s opening hours are, very inconveniently, 9:30am to 12:30pm, which required a morning off work, plus another morning a week later to collect the passports.

So off I went, armed with visa application forms, passports (for both me and Hubby), photos and payment to Cromwell Road in Kensington, where the Vietnamese Embassy in London is (and a very posh part of London it is too, I have to say). I found the Embassy without too much difficulty and fortunately there wasn’t too long a queue at the visa application window. I handed in my forms and passports, and was given a receipt to collect them in a week’s time. I was then sent to another window to hand in the cash (and it had to be cash – no cheques or plastic allowed), to a man who collected the money but who spoke no English. As I left, the man in the queue behind me was trying to explain to the man who didn’t speak English that his wife had sent four passports belonging to his family to the Embassy by post ten days ago, he hadn’t heard anything and could he check they’d been received please? So I was rather glad that I chosen not to entrust my precious passport to the Royal Mail.

But for seven days my passport was in the care of the Vietnamese Embassy. I have to say I was a bit anxious that week. While my passport is not in my possession I can’t leave the country. Even if I have no imminent plans to do so, this restriction makes me inexplicably nervous.

Fortunately, when I returned to the Embassy a week later, both passports were safely returned to me, undamaged and unmolested and with the Vietnamese visas in order and affixed securely inside.

Now I have returned from my travels, my passport is once again safely stowed in the drawer it lives in. It gives me reassurance every time I see it there, knowing that it’s waiting for me when I’m ready for my next international adventure.

Home Sweet Home

I am back from our latest travel adventure – a 10-day tour around Vietnam, plus four days at a beach resort in Langkawi, Malaysia. Hence the radio silence. Normal service on this blog will resume forthwith.

This trip involved rather a lot of planes. In fact, hubby worked out that we have spent a total of 36 hours, over the last 17 days, in the air. And during those 17 days a total of three days has been spent either on planes or waiting around at airports (much of the latter was spent at the awful airport in Da Nang, but I’ll tell that story later).

I will be documenting my travel journal of the trip on this blog, along with photos, soon. For now, though, it’s good to be home. Usually when I return from a trip, I am desperate for three things when I arrive home:

a) a decent cup of tea
b) a shower
c) sleep.

The order in which I acquire these things largely depends on what kind of flight it was and how jet-lagged I am. For this trip, a 12-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur westwards to London, leaving at midnight local time, meant I was actually tired enough, and on the plane long enough, to get a few hours’ sleep, something that normally doesn’t happen with me on long-haul flights. So a cup of tea, shower and clean clothes at home was sufficient to make me feel human again. The issue is probably going to be staying awake until bedtime tonight, as I’ve been working on Vietnamese and Malaysian time, which are six and seven hours ahead of GMT respectively.

It’s rather colder in London than we’ve been accustomed to in the last two weeks, but nonetheless it’s nice to be home, back to everything that’s familiar. And the cats, who’ve clearly missed us – they’ve been following us around ever since we got home.

Tomorrow is back to work and the usual routine. How many emails will be waiting in my inbox when I arrive at my desk, after over two weeks out of the office? I dread to think.