Taking Short-Cuts

bear on bikeIt’s been a very long time since I worked – still as an office slave – in London and now, that I’m staying here for a few months, I recalled how back in the 1980s and 1990s I used to walk everywhere in London because of constant bomb threats from the IRA. Frequently, underground stations would be closed for several hours at a time, making you either hopelessly late for work in the morning or delaying you to such an extent that train services back to sunny Surrey, where I used to live, would practically pack up and go home for the night before one managed to get back to Waterloo Station.

MonkWalkingJust as slowly as a medieval traveller on ox cart or on foot in air-conditioned sandals, the trusted cudgel by one’s side (which in my case tended to be a brolly), I would creep through the little rat runs and shortcuts of Soho to get back to Leicester Square and from there to Embankment, pushing through the crowds, the noise and the litter. Walking felt so much safer to me than taking the underground, even if it meant taking a risk in London’s dingy side streets.

Intellectual Short-Cuts

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATaking short-cuts in children’s writing is much harder to do, because their understanding of the world is less developed than that of adults. This has really hit home with me over the last few days, while I’m putting the finishing touches to my first German language novel for adults. When writing for grown-ups one merely needs to mention stiletto heels and the click-y-de-clack they make on the pavement and an adult reader will picture the type of person doing the walking perfectly. Finding child-sized short-cuts, as it were, is much harder.

If the writer takes examples from kid’s movies…those examples will date quickly…if one takes examples from classic literature kids might not have read those books yet. Be too long winded in the thing you want to say and kids throw your book away and head for a short-cut into the garden to play footie or go online to play games.

Travelling safely

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMedieval travellers, it strikes me, would probably have avoided taking short-cuts in real life, but they were masters at using metaphors in their paintings, illuminated books and swirly scrolls. Travelling was far too risky and best done in large numbers on well frequented routes.

monk with fishIf you wanted to get from castle A to fortress B, you joined a throng of pilgrims, preferably one with a few knights attached to their party, and hobbled along. Any creature of the night that might be tempted to drag you off to hell would think twice about attacking, for the throng of pilgrims might easily scare attackers off with a few well-aimed Hallelujahs, a punch on the nose and handy crosses aimed at the ghoul. Intellectual travelling, on the other hand, involved side-stepping a great deal of moral scrutiny, mostly from church leaders but also from an educated person’s peers.

What better way to avoid detection than using a few nifty metaphors of which only you and your mates knew the true meaning? Several hundred years later intellectual travellers looking at medieval paintings or books need an expert guide to help them find their way through the incomprehensible maze. Here taking short-cuts would have preserved the necks of those who painted or wrote something that the ruling order of the day did not approve of.

Getting lost in the Here and Now

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANegotiating the short-cuts we take in our stories thankfully no longer means trying to hide from the ruling classes for most of us – unless you live in a dictatorship or other type of evil regime. However, our writing short-cuts will be just as incomprehensive to future readers, no matter what age, if we go with the trendy phrases, the metaphors of Hollywood or TV. Yes, trying to please the “ruling classes” of current readerships is just as oppressive. Be a rebel, avoid the trendy and stick to the timeless!

What does that mean?

book00021 history book closesWell, if you want to describe a character in your book as somebody who’s easily led and superficial you could use the metaphor of gadgets, mobile phones perhaps or tablets…but remember, in just a few years’ time, a new generation may no longer understand what you’re talking about because technology moves on so quickly. If you’re aiming to write a book that will stand the test of time, especially in children’s and YA markets, and allow future armchair travellers to enjoy it just as much as readers would today, your short-cuts should be recognisable as such by future generations of readers.

Who’s afraid of Fairy Tale Forests?

Forest lake in summer

Although strictly speaking, they are not a “creature of the night”, forests scare me…perhaps because traditionally they are the natural habitat of creepy, crawling, scary things?

Growing up in Northern Germany, one is rather blessed with an abundance of forests, mysterious lakes and rivers. Am I freaked out by forests because trees are sinister ancient beings, whispering behind my back, as I’m trying very hard not to be eaten by wolves?

Erm…no…they’ve all been slaughtered by mankind, so nothing scary left in that canine quarter. What about bears? Nope, they went the same hearth-rug way as the wolves. Perhaps it’s the wild boars that still roam the Northern German forests? Nope, they are quite shy creatures and usually run away.

So why am I scared? I blame it on literature. Forests in books are often depicted as quite anti-human. Think of the forest in Harry Potter, where gigantic spiders have made their home or the way Tolkien uses trees and the forest to actually go into battle in The Lord of the Rings.

There’s also Little Red Riding Hood herself…not to mention Hänsel and Gretl, whose plight terrified me as a child – and in Germany children get to read the Brothers Grimm stories as originally intended – for an adult audience – not the watered down Victorian translations published in the English language versions of the famous fairy tale collection. Witches are burnt in ovens, children get eaten and nasty stepmothers have to dance with hot irons strapped to their feet until they die…the original Brothers Grimm stories don’t show a lot of mercy to culprits, I’m afraid.

Stamp description / Briefmarkenbeschreibung De...

Image via Wikipedia

Trees…every one of them offering a huge living space for all manner of animals, from birds, mice, bugs, slugs, worms, spiders and other insects to mischievous spirits, dwarfs (Zwerge) and fairies. Trees should be viewed as friendly, life-giving beings. Their wood can be burned to keep us warm and safe. Yet, literature rarely seems to view them that way.

Getting lost in a forest – let’s face it, who hasn’t left the trail for a clandestine pee behind a tree – is an unpleasant experience. As soon as it gets dark on a winter’s afternoon, forests turn into something unutterably hostile…a veiled threat behind every pine branch, danger lurking behind every oak and underneath every upturned elm root…the primeval fear humans have of the unknown?

Vampires are rarely seen in forests – even Willow the Vampire is suspicious of the Sacred Grove and its magical properties. Forests are not exactly a good hunting ground either – there are far too few humans in them nowadays. Modern vampires like to hang out with the young, bright and beautiful things in cities…there are easy pickings among inebriated teenagers…

TV shows like True Blood are rather unusual in that they depict vampires living everywhere, including rural areas, where the loss of victim after human victim would soon flush out the supernatural being and earn them a stake through the heart for their trouble. Not that the vampire genre is based on logic, you understand.

When I started out writing Willow stories, I wanted them to take place in a rural setting. Small villages in the middle of nowhere are scary places, too, no matter how picturesque they might appear to the visiting tourist. Just like trees they sustain a multitude of life, but make no mistake, there’s real danger lurking in Stinkforth-upon-Avon’s community!

Are trees so ancient, they can no longer comprehend the feelings and thought processes of lesser “mortals”, even vampires, who can “live” their afterlife for centuries? Are small village societies so cut off from the rest of society that they make their own rules? I grew up in one, perhaps that’s why I chose a small village as the scariest of settings I could think of.

Willow and the Afterlife

RAIOimage113

Image via Wikipedia

Whether or not one believes in ghosts, ghouls, zombies, vampires and similar apparitions, writing about them is great fun and has for centuries been a staple source for writers of many genres. As mainly creatures of the night ghosts are supposed to come out at midnight and haunt places and people, where they’ve had an unhappy time, while they were still alive.

As I am preparing the groundwork for Willow the Vampire’s second adventure (Willow the Vampire & the Würzburg Ghosts), I’m reading up on all manner of horrible events that might cause a whole army of the dead to rise up and take revenge.

Ghosts are deemed to be the spirit or soul of a dead person or even animal that can suddenly become visible to the living or return to “life” in the form or shape of other manifestations, such as sounds, smells or a difference in temperature in a room.

Hollywood ghosts might be either cute and cuddly (Caspar) or truly scary (The Woman in Black); they are often depicted as wispy white, floating shapes, like the proverbial fluttering sheet in the wind or a nightgown on legs. Sometimes they are the translucent skeleton jumping out at us, at other times they are the headless zombie seemingly appearing out of a wall, before gliding off down the corridor.

Do I have to believe in the existence of such a paranormal manifestation to write about it? No, I guess not. Do I believe in ghosts…well, not exactly. At least, until I had a rather singular experience some years back I would have said, no, most decidedly not, I do not believe in ghosts or people coming back as spirits to haunt the living, no matter how annoying some relatives of mine might have been during their lifetimes.

Walking back from the supermarket one day when I was still living in London, I was caught out by a heavy thunderstorm. The afternoon turned to night with flashes of lightning illuminating the sky. I hurried home – just a ten minute walk normally, but burdened with heavy shopping bags and an umbrella struggling to stay in my hand I had to fight my way up the steep hill on which I used to live.

To this day I don’t really understand what happened. A picture of my beloved grandmother, who died in 1986, flashed up in my mind. She was trying to say something to me…and as I “watched” with my mind’s eye how her mouth attempted to form a word, I stopped in my tracks, just for a couple of seconds –  but it was enough to save my life!

Lightning struck the car standing to my right hand side. The lightning bolt set off the car alarm and, I guess it bounced off the car, setting off the alarm on the house on the opposite side of my street. The bolt of lightning had struck just 30 cm in front of me – had I not had my grandmother’s vision flashing up in my mind to arrest my steps, I would have been the lightning bolt’s target instead of the car.

Was this a “ghost” or a guardian angel or some kind of friendly spirit protecting me? I shall never now. Once indoors, I stood in my hallway, my hands shaking, trying to make sense of what had happened. The flash of light, the ear-splitting crack as the full force hit the car, the alarms going off right next to me…and my grandmother saying STOP.

A little Owl-Post for You

Deutsch: Ein Waldkauz (Strix aluco). English: ...

Image via Wikipedia

After my post about Otto the Snake one gentle reader pointed out there are quite a few people who are terrified of snakes…so today I’m writing about something a little fluffier, if not friendlier – owls!

Owls live pretty much everywhere on our planet, except for Antarctica. No vampire lore like Willow the Vampire & the Sacred Grove would be complete without a hooting owl or two to set the scene and get us in the mood for a bit of blood-curdling storytelling. If it weren’t for the biting, scratching, hair-pulling and morbid fascination vampires hold for me, I’d probably have made Willow an owl rather than a vampire child!

The Tawny Owl, a beautiful tortoiseshell coloured creature, is a resident of Europe, with a habitat stretching from Scandinavia in the north to Italy in the south. Tawny Owls prefer a woodland and open grassland habitat, where they can hunt small mammals like rodents, such as voles and mice. Owls have excellent night vision thanks to their enormous eyes.

The Snowy Owl lives in arctic climes and has a beautiful coat of white fluffy feathers that enable it to blend in and practically disappear from sight as it glides over the snow-covered landscape called the tundra. A large number of owl species hunts at night, relying almost entirely on the dark to hide and protect them from larger predators. Arctic summers, however, have very long days and thus the Snowy Owl is forced to hunt during daylight hours to find food. The snowy coat helps the owl to stay safe.

Owls may look quite cuddly but they are strong and silent killers which strike from above. An attacking owl swings its feet forward as it gets near its prey. Spreading its toes widely, the owl tries to grab its prey and trap it, so it cannot escape. The owl’s talons slash and pierce the prey’s skin, more often than not the victim dies straight away, but if it doesn’t, the owl will kill it with a nip to the neck bone.

The owl’s long tail feathers stabilize the airborne predator as it swoops down for the kill. Forward-looking, large eyes enable the owl to be a good judge of distances and its powerful legs help to cushion the impact of landing and crushing its prey to the ground.

Owls have acute hearing and the shape of their head enables them to hear a sound on one side of the head just a fraction of a second prior to catching the sound with the other ear. The reason for this amazing hearing is not that owls are nosy and want to listen in on their neighbours’ conversations – this acute hearing helps the owl to accurately pin point mice and voles in utter darkness by just the tiniest of sounds made by the prey’s movement in grass or undergrowth.

Vampires like Willow have very acute hearing, too. Their supernatural powers enable them to hunt for humans in total darkness; they just concentrate on the blood pulsating in human veins and the thumping of human hearts…well that and the fact that most humans reek of either sweat, aftershave, deodorant or perfume…and some of them stink of all of the above!

Why Vampires?

Why did I make the heroine of my first novel, Willow Band, a vampire? I could have chosen for her to be a super hero with amazing powers. Instead, I created a little creature of the night that eats postmen for breakfast and bankers for supper.

One of the many regular questions a writer is being asked is where to your ideas come from? It’s a difficult question to answer and may be quite different for every writer out there. In my case – or rather in the case of Willow the vampire entering this world – it was the fact that there is a real little Willow alive and happy living in London…and she is a vegetarian! What started out as a joke to make Willow’s Mum laugh with a short story I had written about Willow and her family of vampires, became soon a full blown idea for a novel…indeed a whole series of books.

So why are we so mesmerised by the vampire genre? Ever since John Polidori’s The Vampyre was published,  soon followed by James Malcolm Rymer’s Varney the Vampyre, then later Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla and, of course, Bram Stoker’s Dracula at various stages of the nineteenth century, we’ve had a never ending thirst for more blood-curdling vampire stories or so it seems.

Many people believe that so many cultures in the West share the vampire myth because the idea of blood sucking fiends dates back to pre-historic times, perhaps even to the dawn of humanity. When food was very scarce and a clan’s very survival was at stake (pardon the pun), cannibalism was not unheard of among prehistoric peoples. Many cultures believed that drinking their slain enemies’ blood after battle would imbue them with their enemies’ strength, bravery and honour.

The Vikings, according to  Old Norse sagas, mention vampires and there were cults where high priestesses would collect the blood of human sacrifice victims to appease the gods. In the Balkans and throughout Eastern Europe the vampire is quite a different creature – mostly one that lives off the life force of a living being, but not a creature of the night that sucks blood.

Haven’t we all come into contact with people whom we’d perhaps like to describe as vampires? People who seem to drain us off our very energy, who are clingy, seemingly pitiful, but actually rather manipulating?

Known as vrykolakas in Greek and strigoi in Romanian folklore, the spread of vampire lore and their followers has been consistent since the 19th century, when the vampires stories mentioned above were supposedly expressing the “fears of an age”, the Victorian’s worries over sexuality, patriarchy and general loss of morals in an industrialised future. This seems rather too simplistic, given that the fear of dying is as old as humanity itself.

Vampires like Willow and her kin do have so many attractive advantages that it is hard to resist writing about them. I had never envisaged myself to be a “fantasy” writer, had in fact started writing a completely different, reality based novel for children, when Willow walked almost fully formed into my feverish brain and became the flawed heroine of a vampire book.

Perhaps my sadness to see the real Willow grow up so quickly and not being part of her every day progress had something to do with it? Maybe undergoing cancer treatment at the time and being more than usually preoccupied with morbid things caused me to choose the vampire genre?

In Western folklore the vampire is often depicted as a woman overpowering a man and draining the life force from him. Perhaps the idea that Willow should be a powerful being that can’t be pushed around by a male dominated society was at the bottom of my inspiration?

It is clear to me that inspiration for my writing comes from so many mysterious sources that it will be impossible to decide, which one was responsible for the creation of my fictional characters. Overheard snippets of conversation often find their way into my short stories, as do annoying habits displayed by those near and dear to me…where does your inspiration to write come from?

Surely a question impossible to answer for the majority of writers?

 

Willow the Vampire and the Sacred Grove takes a very different view of vampires. ..they are a life-force to be reckoned with!

Now out as a paperback novel, available at Amazon.com (ISBN-13  978-1468114683)

NB: Picture above Eduard Munch’s Vampire from wikipedia.org

What’s Bartholomeoaw’s real Catty Secret?

For those of you who have already finished reading Willow the Vampire and the Sacred Grove, Bartholomeoaw’s secret will be a “cat out of the bag”.

Willow’s pet is a little  more than meets the eye – which for most people in Stinkforth-upon-Avon means a mangy old cat that has seen better days and should perhaps better stay at home instead of going on vampire hunt.

While Bartholomeoaw has the appearance of a domestic cat, there is more to the species of cat that meets the eye from anyone’s perspective. Cats are often referred to as the ultimate hunters. As strict carnivores – notwithstanding my own cat’s hankering after digestive biscuits – cats in the wild eat mainly meat.

In nature we will find cats in practically all the regions our planet has to offer – from deserts in Africa to the icy cold horizon in the Arctic. Only Australia and Antarctica are cat-free zones. Famous for their grace and strength as well as astonishing agility, cats come in a huge range of sizes, colours and “danger factor”. From the massive lions of Africa to the kitty in your shoe-box, they all have in common that they bewitch us with their beauty, their elegance and mysterious stare!

The species CAT is actually split into three sub-families. There are big cats of the Pantherinae family, which includes lions, tigers, jaguars and leopards for example. Then there are the much smaller cats, the Felinae, which range from pumas, bobcats, lynx to ocelot. The graceful cheetah is in a category all on its own, namely the Acinonychinae.

The main difference that separates these families are the flexibility of their larynx. Who hasn’t shuddered at a lion’s roar in the zoo, when their yawn suddenly erupted into that ear-shattering noise? Only big cats can roar – probably just as well, or my own cat would have driven me to distraction long ago!

Cheetahs don’t have retractable claws like other cats and they are also much, much faster runners than other cats, or indeed other animals for that matter.

Domestic cats like Willow’s cat Bartholomeoaw often lie on their side so we can stroke their tummies. They learn how to do this when they are still kittens, namely when their  mums grooms them every day by licking their fur. It also serves as a warning pose to enemies in nature, since cats with their tummies exposed, their four legs outstretched, their teeth bared and their claws flexed can turn around in seconds to bite and scratch anyone who comes to close.

When you get to know Willow’s pet a little better, you will realise that stroking Bartholomeoaw’s tummy is not an activity to be undertaken without taking special precautions…like wearing oven-mitts for example!

Domestic cats might eat anything from mice and frogs in the garden or fields surrounding your home to raiding bins in cities or eating dainty portions of cat food in our kitchens. In the wild feral and domestic cats might even hunt rabbits, a prey nearly their own size.

Domestic cats are not adverse to a morsel of nice fish, while cats living in Stinkforth-upon-Avon might occasionally feast on vampires-turned-bat and wash it all down with a slurp of blood-wine.

A little Bat Music anyone?

Am currently trying to get to grips with the formatting for smashwords.com, so that Willow the Vampire and the Sacred Grove can appear in up to 9 different eBook formats – please be patient, Willow-Fans! This techno-gran is doing her best…

 

Meanwhile, let’s look at some of the amazing creatures that inhabit Willow’s world: BATS.

They are the only flying mammals in the natural world; some bats are as miniscule as a bumble bee, others boast wingspans of more than 1.5 metres. Its most ancient contingent, the micro bats, prey mostly on insects in our gardens and meadows. However, a more recently evolved mega bat species prefers to munch on juicy fruits such as figs.  They are not dangerous, but play an important role in the delicate ecosystems of tropical landscapes, where they pollinate plants, spreading seeds as they plant after plant to feed.

The earliest bat fossils date back to nearly 60 million years ago, when Earth’s temperatures gradually increased, insects thrived in their billions, providing a staple supply of food for bats. The bat fossils demonstrate that these mammals had already learned how to fly.

Bats use high-frequency sonar to hunt their insect prey. Scientists have so far identified more than 1,000 types of bats, which works out to an astonishing 20% of all mammal species.

While bats cannot really be called “musical”, they do produce their own type of music. Some species of bats produce continuous tones with varying notes. Other bats produce sounds where the tone modulates. Some bat species can even produce sounds as a harmonic chord.

Our human ear can only capture sounds up to 20,000 hertz, but bats can produce “music” of 14,000 to 100,000 hertz, which they use to hunt in the dark. Their pitched shrieks help them to determine their whereabouts in the pitch black night and how far away they are to solid objects. The delay in time and pitch changes signal to bats where they are within an open space.

Bats use their sounds to create a mental image of the world in the dark without the need for sight. Their sound making ability is called echolocation.

Bats are one of nature’s most powerful predators of insects, reducing insect populations in many parts of the world, where nature would otherwise be overwhelmed by an ever increasing insect world.

In Willow the Vampire and the Sacred Grove bats are not always friendly, since older vampires have the skill to turn themselves into a variety of nocturnal animals. In nature, however, bats are typically harmless and shy creatures, threatened by extinction due to our reckless destruction of their habitats.