Small Critters, big Impact

If you’re writing a paranormal story and are determined to use animals to set the scene, you may want to hold back on the gnashing teeth of wolves, gnawing fangs of killer rats and toothy grins of giant snakes until you’ve read this.

While it’s easy to write something atmospheric and eerie with animals such as bears, wild boar or wolves, because they occur naturally in a rural landscape, writing urban fantasies is often limited to creatures that have been “turned”, either by magic or by man-made means, into something that they are not normally, such as being way beyond their normal size and unusually bloodthirsty.

Here in the United Kingdom we’re not blessed with inquisitive city-dwelling wolves or nosy bears having a go at our dustbins. Vampire, horror or ghost stories include a staple diet of certain creatures of the night that lend a paw to the overall feel of a location. If your story’s set in the city centre of Nottingham, Chicago or Berlin, you might struggle to find a critter worthy of a mention.

It’s the fantasy genre, I hear you groan, just make it up as you go along…but the rule is that within our fantasy world logic still has to apply to really draw our readers in.

The more familiar some things are to our readers – and the more logical – the more shocking the fantastical will be, when it gate-crashes into our worlds. However, this artistic device has to be applied within reason.

Inserting a silky web and hideously fat, red-eyed, tarantula-sized spider will lend great atmosphere to a dark and twisted tale; perhaps a vampire’s kidnap victim is locked in a crypt or basement with little hope to escape and is wordlessly watching the spider munch one of its victims, foreshadowing his or her own fate? Your readers will feel a pleasurable, spooky tingle creep up and down their spine, urging them to turn the page and find out what happens next to the human in peril.

Take the same silky web and insert a cuddly but fanged hamster feasting on a marshmallow and your reader is putting down the book with a “what the f*** was that?” If your heroine is chased by a giant gerbil with insatiable bloodlust you’re not likely to get a second book sale either, so what do you do?

Tiny critters can have a big impact, but choosing the right ones can be difficult. Spiders, flies, hornets and bats, urban foxes, homeless cats and starving abandoned dogs all work in a creepy urban setting, as do crows, mice and rats. Koala bears, wombats and puppies not so much.

Cover of "The Birds (Collector's Edition)...

Cover of The Birds (Collector’s Edition)

The same applies to supernatural beings. Vampires are cool and can be quite sophisticated beings – they work well in any setting and can adapt easily. Let them wear coat tails and sip cocktails with the upper classes in Cheltenham or dress them in a creased linen suit and put their feet up in an office in downtown New York. When they pounce, the impact on your reader will be the same.

Ghosts also advertise their services as being versatile and flexible. They might secretly prefer to haunt a mansion in Belgravia but are just as capable of scaring the living daylights out of someone reading about a rundown brownstone in the Bronx.

Pixies, fairies and nymphs in Manhattan, Paris or London on the other hand are distinctly out of place. While a fairy queen with an attitude will have a big impact in Sherwood Forest, the Forest of Dean or even the Black Forest (especially when bursting out of a cuckoo-clock), a winged, miniscule madam zipping along Sunset Boulevard, LA will only succeed in getting squashed without ever fulfilling the promise of magically drawing your reader into your story.

In other words, the location you have chosen for your story should determine the type of creatures you insert into the plot and that they should be used in a logical way.

English: Studio publicity photo of Alfred Hitc...

English: Studio publicity photo of Alfred Hitchcock. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Choosing the right tiny critter for the occasion can be hard for writers. If like me, you detest anything that buzzes, the very mention of anything with six legs and fifteen eyes can put you off delving into research. But think back to the Indiana Jones films, how Indie hates snakes and bugs – it made us love him all the more for this chink in his armour…for one glorious moment he was just like the rest of us, no longer a super hero.

Français : Borsalino identique à celui d'India...

If the tiny creature of the night is to signify a flaw in your protagonist or is to be a signpost for heartache still to come, great care should be taken to choose the right creature, namely one that will stick in our mind, not just be a gimmick.

If your creature is to be a metaphor for darkness and your villain’s evil schemes – the rats leaving the ship in Nosferatu for example precede his arrival and widespread, plague-like death – than choose an animal or supernatural being that represents all you want to say about your villain.

Why not surprise us with something common place that suddenly turns nasty, when you want to describe a loner-turned-serial killer? The impact is so much greater and such a critter will stay with us long after we’ve closed the book. If I’m not mistaken Patricia Highsmith wrote a short story once about common garden snails killing somebody which has been haunting me ever since…forcing me to circumvent the slimy assassins with big steps whenever I see them, just in case they decide my time’s up.

Indiana Jones

Indiana Jones (Photo credit: creative location)

I can envisage a beautiful moth fluttering in through an open balcony window where it attacks the half-awake sleeper in his bed, gorging out his eyes. How about a toad in a city park that inserts toxic slime into its bench-dwelling, homeless victims before feasting on their flesh?

Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” worked so well because we largely ignore the birds in our city surroundings…unless they bombard us with their droppings, that is. Ordinary sparrows and starlings, gulls and crows with a murderous attitude are far more terrifying than a ten-foot parrot with a death wish chasing us down our street.

The point is that such creatures exist in real urban landscapes and we take them for granted without really noticing them…which makes their sudden appearance far more frightening. Turn a squirrel into a twenty foot Godzilla and its laughable but not scary. Making the same squirrel stand out with unusual behaviour rather than unusual size will turn them into something truly terrifying and memorable.

Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This may seem very obvious when laid out in a blog, but all too often we find novels with werewolves trapped on subway trains in New York, when they’d rather be in Sherwood Forest and Godzilla-pretenders languishing in cramped conditions in England’s historic towns, when they’d rather be chasing Japanese maidens along comfortably wide highways in Osaka.

#3407 Mongolian gerbil (スナネズミ)

#3407 Mongolian gerbil (スナネズミ) (Photo credit: Nemo’s great uncle)

So before you sit down to write your urban fantasy novel, get to know your critter and its habitat!

Ghostly Goings-on

I was bravely ploughing on with chapter 4 of my new Willow the Vampire adventure, when I discovered my story was taking a rather unexpected turn. This required me to rethink the entire plot, because to my great annoyance the underlying theme had changed – thanks to my wilful, mischievous protagonist having developed a mind of her own.

All truly great children’s stories – those that endure the test of time anyway – have an underlying theme that resonates with the reader, no matter what age they might be. Sometimes this theme might be self-discovery or being brave in the face of adversity or coping with something really difficult like the death of a parent. While on the surface there might be a really cracking story with all the usual twists and turns, the author’s intention will be that the book should be something more than just an adventure story. In other words, there will be layer after layer of themes that the writer has woven in, so readers of different age groups can make all manner of discoveries for themselves.

Deciding on an overall theme can sometimes be hard to do and will largely depend on the age range one is writing for. From a certain age onwards children begin to understand comparatively complex, abstract issues like love and hate, fear, revenge and betrayal. This is well demonstrated by the success of TV family shows like Dr Who and PIXAR movies, where the jokes and emotional moments are multi-layered so they appeal to an audience of different ages.

New children’s writers and those who perpetually underestimate children (yes, teachers and literature critics, I’m referring to YOU) often don’t get this and doggedly believe just a good “story” is needed to make young readers want to read a book. However, children writers today compete with TV, video and online games, books, comics, movies and the Internet in general for the short attention span a child has to commit to anything. Children are far more sophisticated than literature critics, teachers and many new children’s authors give them credit for, so their books need to reflect this, if they are to stand the test of time and become that fabled thing, a piece of “literature”.

English: J.K. Rowling reads from Harry Potter ...

English: J.K. Rowling reads from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone at the Easter Egg Roll at White House (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Making abstract themes accessible to young, but accomplished readers who choose a novel for the age range 8 to 12 is naturally quite a challenge. Not every child reader will pick up on all the author’s intended subjects straight away. This may only happen at a later stage, when the story is re-read over time. Telling a multi-layered story then is what a dedicated author of children’s literature should be after to prolong the shelf-life of their work.

In my last blog entry I mentioned how we can use animals’ characteristics to express human traits of character as well as using certain types of animals as a metaphor for time passing during an important event in our storyline. It is also possible to use creatures of the night (or day) to mirror relationships that human protagonists have with each other.

In the animal version it often becomes much clearer what relationships signify – dogs and cats are deemed natural enemies, just like cats and mice or cats and birds. In the paranormal world this would then equate to vampires and werewolves for example or white witches against black magic witches, whereas in the human world the sensitive child becomes the natural victim of the bully in a schoolyard context, while teachers are typically everybody’s least favourite person.

Tolkien uses mirrored relationships – as well as mirrored locations – to great advantage in the Lord of the Rings. When we write about human protagonists, we are all too often distracted by what they are supposed to look like, their mannerisms and how they are supposed to carry our plot rushing from A to B.

Philip Pullman signing a copy of Lyra's Oxford...

Philip Pullman signing a copy of Lyra’s Oxford for a reader, Margaret Maitland, at the Oxford Literary Festival. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It seems so much easier to express a number of complex emotional issues with the assistance of animals – presumably this is why Philip Pullman included the idea of daemons into His Dark Materials and J K Rowling used the Patronus spell in Harry Potter’s books to show us each individual’s true self (Harry’s takes the form of a stag, his mother’s took the form of a doe).

Can you think of other novels, where authors have used animals to mirror a human’s inner self?

In my new Willow novel I decided to use the “mirror” technique to show how different relationships can work – some relationships are between adults, some between children, some between vampires and humans and some are inter-vampire relationships…and all of them are upset by a bunch of ghosts!

The ghost element of my story will be the most difficult to deal with. They are no longer “concrete” beings, but spirits with their own agenda who might be anything they choose to be, even physically. The nature of ghosts in literature, folklore and film is often that they have unresolved issues and as long as they resolve them, they can finally go to rest. What if they don’t want to though, what if their intention is to ensnare humans to allow ghostly entities back into this world?

What if ghosts wish to become flesh once more and have another stab at LIFE, that precious commodity we treat in such a cavalier fashion until somebody tells us, it’s time to take our last breath?

Does this ghost theme remind you of anyone or anything?

 

Animal Magic

Black-crowned Night Heron Français : Bihoreau ...

Black-crowned Night Heron Français : Bihoreau gris Svenska: Natthäger (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My apology for the absence of the usual weekly blog entry last week, but I’ve finally started to write up Willow and the Würzburg Ghosts, reaching chapter three this week, yay! Such moments of unbridled creativity must be exploited to the full and not interrupted by other writing work if possible – hence the absence of my blog entry last week.

When writing for children aged 8 to 12 one is usually forced to express emotions or difficult subjects like loss, love, hate, betrayal through metaphors, as abstract concepts are still quite incomprehensible to children of that age. Animals can stand in for their human counterparts, as they are non-threatening, meaning when we see animals behave in a certain way we will react very differently from the way we react towards humans doing quite the same thing.

For example, two otters embracing and “kissing” will elicit a heartfelt “awwwww” from us, no matter what age we are, whereas two humans doing the same thing would probably have children reaching for the sick bag.

Black-crowned Night-Heron Nycticorax nycticorax

Black-crowned Night-Heron Nycticorax nycticorax (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Animals’ characteristics or their behaviour in their own natural habitat can be used to great effect, if employed sensitively. I have already mentioned how animals can serve as a “time” marker in a piece of fiction, with nocturnal animals lending atmosphere to night time scenes or migratory animals serving as reference points of time in a plot…to introduce not just autumn/summer/spring or winter into our story but subjects of birth or death, or the aging process or they can be symbolising youthfulness, the feeling of abandonment or loss.

Waterfowl are really good for expressing a number of things, not just for setting the scene of unspoilt nature. For example, herons, egrets and cranes are wonderful for showing patience as well as cunning in a human character. Although we mostly think of waterfowl and sea birds as day time creatures, some of them are nocturnal, among them night herons, the star attraction for today’s blog.

Generally speaking, herons are long-legged freshwater and coastal birds that belong to the family Ardeidae; in total there are 64 recognised species, although some are referred to as egrets or bitterns, because they are significantly smaller and have plumage of various colours differing from the typically grey and white herons.

We are mainly familiar with grey herons from our day time rambles: they are tall with long legs, have a long beak and their feathers are grey, black and white. Sometimes they will stand for seemingly hours with their wings spread out to shade the water surface, where their beady eyes are trained on small fish or frogs foolish enough to come within pecking distance of a heron’s beak. Herons are also partial to small mammals like voles or other rodents they might espy in fields following harvest time and they’ll not say no to small birds like passing ducklings either.

Herons can be found near any type of water way, be it in a pond in a garden, in the reed beds of lakes, along the banks of rivers or in sprawling estuaries. Because of their wingspan, herons circling high up in the air are often mistaken for birds of prey. Grey herons at home in the UK do not migrate and can be seen at any time of the year.

English: Juvenile Black-Crowned Night Heron

English: Juvenile Black-Crowned Night Heron (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Unlike the grey heron the night heron belongs to the genus of Nycticorax, a name that stems from the Greek for “night raven”. They are mainly nocturnal feeders and their croaking call reminds one of angry crows – an eerie sound that can be used to great effect in a bed time story!

Of the nocturnal herons the Black-crowned Night Heron is perhaps the best known species. Smaller than grey herons but larger than egrets, night herons are often migratory birds when they stem from parts of the world where it can get quite cold during winter.

Members of the Black-crowned Night Heron family have quite short legs and a stout appearance with short necks. The two existing species both boast a black crown and a pale belly, while their wings, chest, neck and auricular are typically grey or darker, depending on the species. Their youngsters are brown, with white and grey speckles, and look quite similar to each other in the surviving species. They nest in colonies perched on platforms made from sticks in a cluster of trees, or, where they find sheltered areas like reed beds or islets, they’ll nest on the ground. At breeding time the female lays 3 to 8 eggs.

Black-crowned Night Heron Français : Bihoreau gris

Black-crowned Night Heron Français : Bihoreau gris (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The passage of time expressed by such creatures can either be very long – two people watching the patient hunter, while they are sorting out a major crisis in their lives – or represent a very short interval, such as two people watching a happy duckling swimming along one moment, only for the heron’s beak to find its target with lightning speed, a metaphor for the fact that our life could be over in an instant…and that we should value every moment that we are alive.

While very young (8) children won’t get all your subtext and metaphors at first reading, they will eventually, when they return to your writing at a slightly older age. Children’s books for that age group have to work on many different levels, as child readers falling into that age group have a wide range of reading ability.

At the 8-year-old stage they might only pick up on your slapstick humour, where your night heron tries to catch a fish, misses and falls over on its beak, but 10 to 12-year-olds will understand that even accomplished predators have bad-hair days…something to be exploited by little ducklings and frogs everywhere.

Your heron taking off into the night sky might express the soaring feeling of first love or finally getting mum or dad’s praise. A heron patiently standing for hours on end with its wings shading the surface of the water, before finally catching its fish reminds me of a child that employs patience and cunning to get even with a bully instead of using its fists.

Choose your animal representatives wisely and you’ll be able to express quite complex issues without too much difficulty.

Happy writing!

Willow in the Twilight Zone

While over at mariathermann.wordpress.com I’ve been discussing how important location is to me as a writer, here at Willow the Vampire’s own blog I have so far been looking mainly at nocturnal characters and their traits.

Willow and her family are creatures of the night themselves and naturally, this influences the way they view the world.

Not so long ago the excellent writer and teacher William Stadler talked about incorporating all the senses in one’s writing on his own WP blog Stadler Style, such as using sound and temperature for example.

Doing so will not only help with characterization but also with setting a scene far more vividly. One draws the reader in more, when there are points of reference familiar to the reader, such as the sound of a school dinner bell or heavy rainfall or thunder and lightning or a car back firing.

At the time I commented how I like to use animals to set the scene and to give a “time” reference such as allowing a bumble bee to enter a room as a reference/metaphor for daylight, spring and new beginnings or, in contrast, use the flight of migratory birds to symbolise autumn, endings and melancholy.

After having shown you a whole host of creatures of the night Willow the Vampire might come across on her nocturnal rambles through the Stinkforthshire countryside, I felt it was about time to introduce the Twilight animals to you.

Vampires can come out to play after the sun has set and can remain outdoors until the sun rises again. Although this does not apply to Willow herself, it is nevertheless what she grew up with and what is most familiar to her – her vampire parents are forced to live that way.

At dawn and dusk a large variety of animals emerge that we don’t always notice during the daytime hours. Take a stroll to a local river, pond or lake and you’ll see what I mean. There are herons and egrets, dancing cranes and grebes, Common loon and cormorants, squirrels coming for a drink of fresh water and geese gathering to take off in formation.

In your garden or in the hedgerows there are hedgehogs and adders, snails and slugs, moths and mice, which suddenly awake to forage, to mate, and to communicate with the world.

In some ways Willow the Vampire has been stuck in her own twilight world – she is still exploring who she is and what she is…are all vampires evil…or are humans bad? A recent reviewer of Willow the Vampire and the Sacred Grove picked up on the underlying discussion of good versus evil and all the twilight shades in between. This theme will be explored further in Willow’s second novel, when she sets out to deal with the problem of the Würzburg Ghosts.

Waterfowl are an interesting bunch and come in a great variety. There are divers, stalkers, hunters and shy creatures which, when startled, will break out in an ear-splitting call. As a child I often stayed in my grandparent’s hut on their allotment by a riverbank and memories of this special time have remained with me life-long.

At dawn the world around me awoke with tweets and coughs, clucking and chattering, hooting and flapping of wings on water. These sounds symbolise for me a very special time of day as well as an important part of my upbringing. At dawn and dusk the world seems more vulnerable, being reborn and dying at the same time. During the day and at night, when we are alone, we may feel abandoned, forgotten, lonely and scared, but at dawn and dusk, when the world either wakes up with a yawn or rubs its sleepy eyes to got to bed, we feel differently.

The animals gathering by the water’s edge may even be enemies at night or when the sun is high in the clouds, but at this special t’wixt and b’tween time a temporary cease-fire reigns and everyone gets on…

Mermaid Magic and Caribbean Manatee Musings

Perhaps it’s because I grew up at the seaside, maybe it’s because I was born in Lübeck and the Hanseatic League is coursing through my veins or maybe it’s because my maternal grandfather was allegedly a fisherman…my affinity with all things maritime knows apparently no bounds and my fascination with creatures of the deep sea and stories surrounding the sea has been life-long.

My WP friend Michelle Barber of LoonyLiterature is always asking questions about writing – how do we create our stories and how do our approaches to the work in hand differ – so I’ll try to explain a little over the next few posts how I approach my writing.

This group of three West Indian manatees (Tric...

Having established yesterday that I’m a fluttermole – Michelle is a butterfly writer, flitting from subject, genre and age group to the next, while I’m a combination of a mole (digging myself into a WIP) and a fluttering butterfly (being able to start several WIP at once and see all of them through in mole-like fashion) – I approach all new writing projects in the same way.

It starts with an interesting snippet I pick up in a newspaper, a magazine, on telly or overhearing a conversation on a bus or reading something in a history book – hey presto, a kernel of an idea is born. Then I do lots of research, which usually throws up some interesting combinations or juxtapositions.

At school we had to learn a lot about German legends like the Niebelungen – Siegfried, flirty Valkyrie Brünhilde, dwarves, treasures and lusty dragons – and among them were the stories about Loreley, a mermaid type woman who sat on a rock overlooking the Rhine River, luring fishermen and sailors to their doom with her beautiful singing.

English: Sankt Goarshausen with "Katz&quo...

English: Sankt Goarshausen with “Katz” castle, UNESCO World Heritage Site Upper Middle Rhine, Germany. Deutsch: Sankt Goarshausen mit Burg Katz, UNESCO Welterbe Oberes Mittelrheintal, Deutschland. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There she sat on a rocky perch in Sankt Goarshausen, combing her long golden hair. Not her fault that love-sick sailors couldn’t get enough of her lovely singing. Men are simply the weaker sex – the latter being the operative word. Innocent Loreley did nothing wrong – it was all in men’s heads and trousers that caused the drownings, the crashed boats, the wailing, the hue and cry.

Incidentally, today’s visitors to Sankt Goarshausen can’t get enough of music either – a famous open air music venue regularly stages rock and pop concerts here. However, as far as I know, there have been no more crashed boats or drownings owing to lovely music getting out of hand.

Close to the little town of Sankt Goarshausen are two castles, Katz and Maus (cat and mouse), which also overlook the Rhine River…no doubt they’ll get their write-up over at Maria Thermann’s blog!  What an amazing setting! You can see it all from the river, when you take the Loreley Ferry, before hopping off and taking to the “hills” on a trekking tour on the Rhein Burgen Wanderweg, which is a romantic trail running through the forested hills alongside the Rhine embankments. The ferries are very touristy, but it’s worth it, the place is gorgeous; sometimes you meet nice people on board, too – or so I’m told; I only met grumpy, smelly pensioners.

English: Rhine valley at Sankt Goarshausen, UN...

English: Rhine valley at Sankt Goarshausen, UNESCO World Heritage Site Upper Middle Rhine, Germany. Deutsch: Das Rheintal bei Sankt Goarshausen, UNESCO Welterbe Oberes Mittelrheintal, Deutschland. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1824 Heinrich Heine, one of my favourite German language poets, wrote a lovely Loreley poem (Die Lore-ley), which became so popular that in 1837 composer Friedrich Silcher put it to music. Today it represents one of the most famous “Rhine” songs that you can hear up and down the river in taverns, cafes, on ferries and wherever there’s a captive audience. Willow‘s dad Dylan would clap his hands over his ears and groan.

A West Indian Manatee, a member of Order Siren...

While Loreley combs her golden tresses and sailors perish, the manatee, an animal resembling most closely a plump mermaid in need of a crash diet, is also fighting for survival. The sea cow, member of the family Trichechidea, genus Trichechus, is an endangered species. As one of the largest surviving members of aquatic mammals, the sea cow has cousins among the Amazonian manatees, the West Indian manatees and the West African manatees.

They can grow up to 4 metres in length and weigh as much as 590 kg (1,300 pounds of proud blubber). Spending most of their day and night sleeping and just being active for 20 minutes at a time, the manatee is not what you might call a creature living in the fast lane.

FLORIDA MANATEE

Willow the Vampire would obviously not come across a manatee in rural Stinkforthshire, but with the usual weird leap of imagination that fluttermoles like myself are capable of, I’m plotting a story, where Willow meets mermaids and manatees for a healthy discussion about endangered species.

Willow may be pre-destined to bite humans and feed on them, but manatee are an entirely different matter – so are other magical beings like mermaids. Both species are off the vampire menu as far as Willow and her family are concerned.

It is thought that manatee or the order of Sirenia evolved from land-dwelling mammals some 60 million years ago – which begs the question, what did mermaids evolve from? What came first, the fish or the girl?

Manatee are vegetarian plant eaters with a stomach similar to that of a horse. Mermaids are presumably not veggies, but live off seafood. Manatee are very intelligent and understand complex tasks – very similar to dolphins; this suggests to me a story line where Willow and manatee discuss with mermaid not just who eats whom but also who destroys habitats and who should rebuild them.

Mermaids on the other hand have never struck me as very brainy – the one in the fairy tale gives up her mermaid existence of freedom for the sake of a faithless princeling – how dumb is that?

English: Location of Katz castle above Sankt G...

English: Location of Katz castle above Sankt Goarshausen and the river Rhine with Loreley rock in background (Germany). Deutsch: Lage der Burg Katz über Sankt Goarshausen und dem Rhein, im Hintergrund der Loreley-Felsen. Français : Le Rhin et le château du Katz, à Saint-Goarshausen en Rhénanie-Palatinat. Le rocher de la Lorelei est en arrière-plan. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: manatee Français : lamantin

I mean, giving up magical swimming powers for a MAN? That’s like Buffy the vampire slayer giving up her slayer powers for an earthworm or Morgause and Morgana suddenly deciding that Merlin is just too dishy and they’ll give up black witchy-woo stuff for good. Must be the prolonged effect of salt water on the brain…and they say a fishy diet makes you more brainy!

Willow the Vampire will have to go on a trip – outside her beloved Stinkforthshire she’ll be like a “fish out of water”, perhaps putting her little more in touch with the creatures that dwell in a sphere so utterly different from her own.

I’m thinking of sending Willow to the Caribbean Sea, where the West Indian manatee is at home – along with pirates, who also reported mermaid sightings on many occasions in the past.

Dylan Band (aged 401), Willow’s vampire father, is pursuing a career in music and of late, he and his band The Other’s Blood, are having some considerable success. What could be better than taking a little holiday – with sun for Willow during the day and Caribbean music venues for Dad Dylan at night? As a fully paid-up member of the vampire fraternity, Dylan cannot go out during the sunshine hours, but Willow, being a Child of Light, can do so.

The castle Katz from Patersberg and a part of ...

The castle Katz from Patersberg and a part of the Upper Middle Rhine Valley. In the background the Loreley rock. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, it’s off for a little calypso, mento, reggae and salsa for Dad Dylan and mermaids and manatees for daughter Willow – can’t wait to let my fluttermole spirit loose on this latest story!

There you have it, dear readers: manatees, vampires, priates, Loreley, mermaids, Caribbean music and Sankt Goarshausen all in the same post. Michelle, is this a fluttermole writer’s brain or what?

(source of pictures Wikipedia, source of animation; heathersanimations.com)

Würzburg – A City worthy of being a Vampire’s Lair

Before I get to my latest choice for the “creatures of the night” page, I’d like to explain a little about the location I’ve chosen for my follow-up novel to Willow the Vampire’s first adventure (Willow the Vampire and the Sacred Grove).

In book number two, Willow the Vampire and the Würzburg Ghosts, my multi-stranded story will move between rural Stinkforthshire in the UK (a fictional place, please don’t hassle your travel agent for details) and historic Würzburg in Germany.

Fortress Marienberg is a prominent landmark on...

The ancient city of Würzburg is entirely surrounded by beautiful forests and vineyards, virtually straddling the Main River. Officially, Germany’s famous “Romantic Road” starts here and the city is a favourite with tourists exploring Germany for the first time.

Although around 90% of the old city centre was destroyed during WWII, my intrepid countrymen have lovingly recreated, restored and rebuilt what was once one of Germany’s most beautiful cities. Würzburg was once a Franconian duchy, but things got complicated when three Irish missionary monsters arrived in 686.

With the usual hypocrisy of churchmen the three chaps, Totnan, Kolonat and Kilian, began to pester Duke Gosbert to convert to Christianity and naturally, all the inhabitants of the Duchy should follow suit.

In the process he was to get rid off his wife Gailana, who was his former sister-in-law, his brother’s widow. In pre-Christian medieval times it was still a natural thing for people to marry their widowed brother or sister-in-law, but with the typical perversity of a Church that is happily abusing children, the Catholic monk-boys objected to two consenting adults being married in a perfectly legal match.

The 168 Meter long Seite of the Würzburg Resid...

The 168 Meter long Seite of the Würzburg Residenz, built in Würzburg Prince-Bishops from 1719 to 1780. It is the most significant Residenzbau of late Baroque in Europe. She was inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1981. The Residence is visited annually by approximately 350.000 Visitors. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A woman after my own heart, Gailana didn’t wait around until she got ditched – no, she hired a hit man or gang of thugs and had the three irritating hypocrites bumped off in 689.

The murders weren’t discovered until several decades later and naturally, Rome had the three divorce-advocating missionaries declared saints. Würzburg became a city of pilgrimage in the process – always very lucrative, those saints’ days coincide with market days, don’t you know – and finally, the city became a bishopric in 742.

Most infamous for the witch hunt and subsequent burnings of nearly 1,000 people a few centuries later, the city was ruled with an iron fist by the resident prince-bishops from their hill-top perch on the Marienberg, where they had built a fortress in the early 13th century, possibly as early as 1201. The prince-monk-monsters must have been pretty fit – I give them that – it takes around 20 minutes to walk up the steep hill, which is covered in vineyards. From there our princely monks enjoyed stunning views over the city and their duchy.

With so much duplicity and double standards displayed by the clergy, the city makes for a perfect vampire lair, as Willow’s ancestors – in line with Joss Whedon’s blood-sucking character Angel – liked to feast on nuns and monks. Moving with the times, Willow’s family are now targeting bankers, lawyers and estate agents as their preferred source of blood; partly because there are far fewer nunneries and monasteries around – and partly because swallowing so much hypocricy gives you wind, even when your stomach’s meant to be undead and eternal.

Deutsch: Panorama von Würzburg, am Abend des 3...

The Marienberg fortress eventually lost in importance and in 1720 a new palace was designed right in the heart of the city. The Residenz Palast is not only one of Germany’s finest examples of a Baroque pleasure dome, it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with many other monuments and buildings along the Romantic Road.

The palace is built largely in a horseshoe design and stands gleaming in gold and white at the eastern edge of the city. It’s home to the world’s largest fresco, painted by none other than Master Tiepolo and the Hall of Mirrors as well as the Imperial Hall are rather spectacular.

Fortress Marienberg

Fortress Marienberg (Photo credit: only_point_five)

My choice for the next creature of the night is a mixed blessing – partly, because Stinkforthshire is nowhere near the sea, but close to a river (Stinkforthshire-upon-Avon) and partly, because the “mermaid” is a mythical beastie that, according to the US National Ocean Service has never existed anywhere other than in seafarers’ fevered imagination.

Even Christopher Columbus couldn’t resist the temptation of dreaming about mermaids and reported sightings while cruising the Caribbean – if there were any mermaids the infamous Hollywood pirate Captain Jack Sparrow would undoubtedly get entangled with them!

The closest we have to a nocturnal siren is the African manatee, which can live in coastal seas and rivers. It is partly nocturnal, but very poorly studied. The family it belongs to is called the Sirenia and consists of dugong and manatees.

Their family name harks back to ancient Greek mythology, which mentioned sirens or mermaids quite frequently.

English: Wellmich with Maus castle near Sankt ...

English: Wellmich with Maus castle near Sankt Goarshausen. UNESCO World Heritage Site Upper Middle Rhine, Germany. The passenger ship in foreground is the paddle steamer Goethe built in 1913, seen here after the replacement of the steam engine by a Diesel engine. Deutsch: Wellmich bei Sankt Goarshausen mit Burg Maus. UNESCO Welterbe Oberes Mittelrheintal, Deutschland. Das Passagierschiff im Vordergrund ist der 1913 gebaute Raddampfer Goethe nach seiner Umrüstung auf Diesel-Antrieb. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m determined to write a mermaid into Willow’s adventures in the future, albeit not in the WIP I’m currently sweating over. Hans Christian Andersen’s story The Little Mermaid was one of my favourite stories as a child; as a teenager I became fascinated by the story of Lorelei, the siren that reputedly sat on a rock overlooking the Rhine River, where she lured sailors and fishermen to their doom…more of that and manatees in my next post.

Meanwhile, the only nocturnal creatures Willow and her friends shall encounter in Würzburg will be ghosts and very real monsters of the human kind.

(source of animation: heathersanimations.com; source of photographs Wikipedia)

Bear-ing up under the Strain of Battle

The association between bears and humans goes back millennia and while bears were hunted for their meat and fur, they were also hunted as a test of “manhood”, “strength” and “bravery” among men with clearly nothing better to do and not a lot happening between their ears.

In Germanic culture bears were honoured for being a symbol of the warrior class and this filtered through in language. In Old English for example the word “beorn” has twin meanings, standing for both warrior and bear in equal measure.

Steiff Display!

Steiff Display! (Photo credit: crafterm)

In Nordic cultures men were and are to this day often called Bjørn or Björn, which also means bear. It’s quite a common name and, coming from Northern Germany, I knew a quite few Björns when I was growing up. There are various rune stone inscriptions mentioning the name, so it was already popular, when the Vikings were around.

Clifford Berryman's (April 2, 1869 – December ...

Clifford Berryman’s (April 2, 1869 – December 11, 1949) political cartoon of President Theodore Roosevelt’s bear hunting trip to Mississippi that gave the Teddy Bear its name. Was published in 1902 in The Washington Post (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Legend has it that some people even have the ability to transform into bears – which makes this an interesting animal to feature in Willow the Vampire’s next adventures. According to legend, warriors dressed in bear-skins could take on some of the bear’s most important characteristics, namely power, stamina and strength, all useful things in battle and when dealing with new, devious headmasters.

The bear-skins were treated with herbs and oils, presumably in a magic ceremony. The English word “berserk” is allegedly referring to this ability of transformation. When going into battle, such bear-skin wearers would feel “invincible” and therefore fight to the death without wasting a thought on injury or harm to themselves. People believed such warriors could even walk through fire, which just goes to show how silly human beings really are – no self-respecting bear would believe such utter nonsense.

Early Greeks also believed that people could take on bear characteristics and that the gods could sometimes transform people into bears.

Perhaps it was inevitable that humans should adopt the bear as their favourite toy. Steiff teddy bears are without doubt the most famous representative of this sub-species. The company was founded in 1880 by a little old lady called Margarete Steiff, who took in her brother Fritz as a business partner a few years later.

Toymaker Margarete Steiff was paralysed as an ...

Toymaker Margarete Steiff was paralysed as an infant. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

She originally made elephants, not bears, and they were not designed as children’s toys but to be pin cushions which Madge sold to her mates. When you purchase something from their shops in Germany, you’ll receive your toy in a lovely paper carrier bag that shows a drawing of the elephant on wheels, which Madge initially designed.

When she realised how much these elephants appealed to children, she started making all sorts of different animals for kids. The prototypes for Steiff elephants, cats, dogs, goats, pigs and hedgehogs were all designed and mostly made by Madge herself in a back parlour and later a small manufacturing place.

Eventually her nephew Richard joined the company in 1897 and created the typical Steiff teddy bear in 1902. The bear design was so successful that by 1907 the Steiff company was already selling just under one million teddies. Margarete created the company’s motto and it is still holding on to it to this day: “only the best is good enough for children” and I sincerely wished every single person on the planet would follow this motto!

There are few manufacturers in the world who strive to make products that come with a lifetime guarantee – we think of Swiss luxury watches or cars like a Rolls Royce when we hear of such high production values.

Steiff Display!

Steiff Display! (Photo credit: crafterm)

Making of a teddy bear 2 sewing and turning

Making of a teddy bear 2 sewing and turning (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yet, this is exactly what happens at Steiff, where each toy is tested to its absolute limits to ensure no child is harmed, no matter how much love the teddy bear or other toy is being subjected to over the years. Eyes and the characteristic metal “button” in the teddy’s ears must not come off through wear and tear; all materials used must undergo rigorous testing for their ability to withstand fire, water and far too many cuddles to reproduce by a machine.

Unfortunately, they hadn’t thought of children like me back in the 1960s, when they tested their bears – I put my Steiff bear into a cement mixer (hey, it looks a bit like a washing machine!).

The poor creature lost most of its fur, but he was still my favourite toy and once helped me to run away from home…I was about three and folded him up, climbed on his broad back and legged it across a fence that was meant to keep me safely in a garden.

Replica of the teddy 55PB of Steiff

There’s a Steiff Museum, http://www.steiff.de, in Giengen/Brenz, just off the A7 motorway.

I think Nuremberg is probably the nearest airport. Bookings must be made beforehand online; the site is available in several languages, including English.

Castle Katzenstein is nearby, which is also worth a visit (http://www.burgkatzenstein.de/allgemein_geschichte.php?language=en).

Burg Katzenstein dates back to the 12th century and is a fun day out for all ages, certainly the type of place Willow and her friends would enjoy – not to mention Willow’s four-hundred-year-old dad Dylan, who’d be familiar with the type of costumes the staff wear at Castle Katzenstein!

Bears, it seems, have their own way of dealing with humans and below you’ll find a few links to videos that show the bear vs. human situation doesn’t always end in nasty humans winning the upper hand; sometimes bears have the last laugh, and quite right, too!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E2pzHh732Y0&NR=1&feature=fvwp

(featuring a silly German woman jumping into Berlin Zoo’s polar bear enclosure = no, it’s not me!)

http://www.bear.org/website/ for more information on bears

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Wild-for-Wildlife-and-Nature/279792438707552 (how to help wild life in general and bears in particular)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4XpF04nximI

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HS4CymP-aZg&feature=fvwp&NR=1

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ubZimS4E3F0&NR=1&feature=endscreen

(the latter video is featuring a fatal panda attack, not for the faint hearted!)

(all photographs sourced from Wikipedia, animation sourced via heathersanimations.com)