Watch the Soap in your Writing


bat-1 bat and moonSince Easter was the usual rain-soaked affair here in the UK I indulged in a little downtime and re-watched old “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” episodes on Netflix. After several years of absence from Joss Whedon’s “Buffy-verse” I greatly enjoyed meeting Buffy, Zander, Willow, Anya, Tara, Angel and Spike again.

What struck me watching this ground-breaking series this time round was that truly great writers always allow their characters to grow and develop to their full potential within a story arch but only within the boundaries of that particular character’s personality. Integrity is a much underrated quality, yet it is that very character trait in both writer and their creations that will lure readers and TV audiences back again and again.
For example, a small town girl or boy is far more likely to reach conclusions and make choices based on their upbringing than suddenly come up with a solution that falls totally out their normal experiences and understanding, something that would be more logical to adopt for a big city girl or boy. We are very much influenced by our surroundings – our natural habitat if you like – and our choices in life reflect just that.

Honey good, soap bad

Writers and TV producers who don’t seem to have grasped this simple principle (what I usually call the Jane Espenson school of bad writing and producing) have strong female characters like Gwen (played by Eve Myles) in Russell T. Davies “Torchwood” suddenly turn into blithering, simpering idiots in Torchwood Series 4 (under the ill-fated leadership of producers Starz). Audiences and critics hated series 4 so much that Torchwood came to an abrupt end – I bet most people didn’t even bother watching all of series 4, because it was so bad; I stopped watching half-way through the second episode.HumanRobot

It had lost all of its Cardiff-induced charm and Welsh cultural heritage, and its main protagonists were transformed to suit American audiences without the slightest attempt being made to keep what the existing fandom would have perceived as the essence or main character traits.

Sometimes we, the audience, notice that lines that were obviously written for totally different characters are now spoken by another character simply because the writer or producer didn’t want to waste what’s in the script but can’t grasp who should “speak” the lines (BBC’s Merlin producers Capps and Murphy, according to some of the show’s actors). It throws a story out of balance, makes the reader or TV audience instantly switch off their suspended belief.

They stop identifying with the characters and thus the “magic” is gone. In TV terms this means the viewer either switches off, goes to make a cup of tea or stops watching the show completely. In book terms it means you’ve lost a reader who won’t buy the next book from your series. You want to build a honey trap and lure your audience into your story, not cover the road in soap flakes and trip them up en route.

Doctor, this girl has lost her head…and backbone

As soon as our favourite characters do or say things that are out of character, we the writers or TV producers had better come up with a believable explanation or we’re screwed. Example of hit-and-miss characterisation: “Willow” in Buffy the Vampire is grieving so much over the death of her lover that she uses her magic powers to such terrible ends, she nearly destroys the world. She hunts down her lover’s murderer and flays him alive.

green bookYet, almost at the very beginning of the next series she’s seduced by a pretty but awful girl called Kennedy and the two start a relationship without anyone ever mentioning the dead lover again. Since Kennedy is supposed to be in her early teens (15) and has neither magic powers nor interest in the subject, the relationship is reduced to a purely physical one – totally out of character for Willow.

When I began to analyse my instant loathing to the Kennedy character I realised it was not simply because she was portrayed as a lesbian predator (beware of cliché) but because Willow’s character had suddenly taken a total nose-dive in my estimation. We’d gone from a young woman who grieved over losing the love of her life to a Willow character who seeks instant gratification with somebody whom she normally wouldn’t have given the time of day to, let alone start an affair.

While some allowances have to be made for people grieving, I simply stopped believing in the Willow character as it had been portrayed within the Buffy-verse. She had lost her head and her backbone.

This type of writing – in TV, film sequels and in series of books – could be called the “soap” effect, where writers run out of ideas or can’t be bothered to think within the boundaries they’ve set for their primary and secondary characters. Writers will use the next sensational thing, the next explosion in Hollywood terms, to carry the plot. It happens most frequently in soap operas, where the pressure to create ever bizarre and sensationalist plot lines makes script writers lose their heads completely.

The internal journey your characters undertake throughout each and every book in your series should remain within the boundaries of each person’s traits of character.

In the Buffy-verse both slayerette Cordelia and vampire Spike are on the road to redemption, but they continue to be sarcastic and uncomfortably insightful; the former is a vain, shopping obsessed brat, the latter a serial killer at heart. Their wish to atone for earlier sins does not turn them into fluffy bunnies. They ultimately remain what they were, but gain greater knowledge of themselves that may help them to become a more useful member of society.

So if your readers like their slayers to be strong, vampires to be dark and brooding and slayerettes to stand up to scrutiny, remind yourself once in a while throughout your series-writing that trying to rub soap into your readers’ eyes won’t sell more books long-term. Fans you’ve won can be easily lost when strong characters turn flaky and weak characters’ faces are no longer covered in mud (or egg, if you’d like to return to my initial Easter theme).

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Homely Northern Castles (Part 7)


Deutsch: Hamlets Schloss – Schloss Kronborg in...

Today’s candidate for homely Nordic castles only made the list because

a) I stumbled across it by accident while I was researching ghost-related places for my blog site willowthevampire.com and it’s got ghostly goings-on AND

b) because in a round-about way it relates to Merlin and the Arthurian legends…AND

before you ask…no, I haven’t had a chance to rewrite the ending for my Merlin fan fiction thanks to my lovely clients all wanting their work ASAP the last couple of weeks; hopefully, I should be able to finish the story over the next few days (famous last words!).

Kronborg Slot on the Zealand peninsular in Denmark – or Castle Kronborg – is situated a mere 4 km from the Swedish coast, just a hop and a skip from Helsingborg. Serving as the focal point for the Danish town Helsingør, Kronborg Castle is famous for a number of things, including spooky things, but mostly for being the inspiration for Elsinore, Hamlet’s legendary castle in William Shakespeare’s play of the same name.

Kronborg Castle, Helsingør, Denmark

As one of the most important Renaissance castles in Northern Europe, Castle Kronborg is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that dates back to the early 1400s, when the first stronghold called Krogen was built on orders of King Eric VII.

It was part of a number of coastal fortifications that served to protect and control the entrance to the Baltic Sea. It wasn’t until 1574 and the reign of King Frederick II that the fortress was transformed into Kronborg Castle, a splendid Renaissance residence fit for a moody princeling like HAMLET.

But we’ll forget what’s above ground for a moment and have a peek under the casements, where one of Denmark’s most important national symbols resides: one Holger Danske or as he’s also known, Ogier le Danois – a name that dates back to the crusades and the Song of Roland, a French poem that describes the gruesome derring-dos of knights and Saracens.

Ogier the Dane in Krongborg Castle

Deemed to be invincible, Holger or Ogier the Dane returned to Denmark after the crusade and a major battle in France. Upon arrival at Kronborg, he promptly fell into a long and deep slumber. Legend has it, should anyone threaten the Danish kingdom, Ogier or Holger will awake instantly and set out to fight for this country and king. Sound familiar, my loverly Merlinians?

Oddly, this Nordic hero is linked to the Arthurian legends and just like Arthur, he became a king of the mountains, a protector who would awake when his country needs him most. I’ve been all over Denmark and I’ve yet to discover mountains…so where does this medieval error in map reading spring from, I wonder?

Is this our friend Merlin trying to befuddle our brains with a bit of Camelot magic? Is this reference to mysterious mountains an attempt to hide his beloved ARTHUR’s real resting place until it’s time for Arthur to wake and have his breakfast after a millennium of sleep?

According to legend, Ogier the Dane was also taken to Avalon by Morgan le Fay, which makes the link to Arthurian folklore even more interesting.

Holger Danske (Ogier the Dane) in a 16th centu...

The 11th century Song of Roland – or Chanson de Roland – is part of wider rhyming chronicles that chart the times of Charlemagne and is known to be the oldest surviving major work of French language literature. It was so popular during its own time that several different versions survived in manuscript form throughout the 12th and 14th centuries. The oldest of these manuscripts (dated to between 1140 to 1170) can be found in Oxford (UK) and is usually referred to as the “Oxford manuscript”.

In around 4,004 lines the poem describes the notorious battle, spawning many more heroic adventure stories of its kind throughout the middle ages. Therefore, the Song of Roland and our bearded friend Ogier have to be seen as part and parcel of the Arthurian legends we know and love today.

The Chanson de Roland or Song of Roland is essentially a heroic poem that relates the Battle of Roncesvalles in France in 778, which took place during the reign of Charlemagne. There are various references to Olgier/Olger/Holger that date back even earlier than the Chanson de Roland, such as a chronicle held at St Martin’s monastery in Cologne, where a reference to pillaging Saxons in 778 links directly to an Olger, Leader of the Danes, who helped – in the words of the monkish chroniclers – to rebuilt the monastery after the Saxons burned it to the ground (756 to 1021, Chronicon Sancti Martini Coloniensis).

Kronborg Castle

The monastery, incidentally, served as a Benedictine monastery for monks from Scotland and Ireland and was once Cologne’s main church (Groß St Martin), but it had been erected on a much earlier place of worship that dates back to Roman times.

What the Song of Roland also demonstrates is the power of story telling…if told well, a story can survive against all the odds.

Just think, minstrels all over Europe braved the ravages of Black Death, boils, starvation, plague and constant medieval warfare to turn up at whatever manor or castle would pay for their keep – and in return they recited their poems about heroic deeds and beautiful maidens…capturing our imagination more than 1,200 years after Olger the Dane allegedly threw a bucket of water over the smouldering remains of St Martin’s monastery.

It convinces me good storytellers are here to stay, no matter how hard Amazon seemingly tries to destroy the booktrade and deprive authors of a decent wage!

elf-smelling-flowersShould you ever find yourself at Kronborg Castle be sure to visit the enormous Knights’ Hall. At 62 metres length it is one of the longest in Europe and contains a statue of Holger Danske/Ogier the Dane. If you’re a Merlinian at heart, why not indulge in a little daydream of minstrels singing at Arthur’s court…

Canons at Kronborg Castle in Helsingør, Denmark

Canons at Kronborg Castle in Helsingør, Denmark (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

…and if you’re Shakespearean at heart…RUN, for Elsinore’s moody owner Hamlet is bound to have another murderous temper tantrum soon.

Homely Northern Castles (Part 6)


Dragsholm Castle in 1896

Dragsholm Castle in 1896 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While researching for my second vampire novel “Willow the Vampire and the Würzburg Ghosts”, I came across what is allegedly one of northern Europe’s most haunted citadels, namely Dragsholm Castle.

The 12th century, erstwhile abode of the Bishop of Roskilde in Denmark is not what I would describe as a fairy-tale castle, but I rather like its eerie, bleak setting, which would make for a fantastic crime novel or, naturally, a haunted house thriller.

Acquired by the Bøttger family in 1939, the castle was converted into a fine hotel, so should you find yourself hankering for a castle setting for your latest work of fiction, you could do worse than staying for a night or two…you never know, a ghost or two might appear and cure your writer’s block for good!

English: Dragsholm castle in Winter

English: Dragsholm castle in Winter (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dragsholm Castle in Zealand is shared by the Bøttger family, their hotel guests and several apparitions that haunt the corridors and even the forecourt at irregular intervals. Two of the ghosts are female, while one is male…and the other ghostly goings-on are provided by horses and carriages outdoors.

If you want to find out more about the ghost stories, head over to Willow the Vampire’s own blog (http://willowthevampire.com), where I’ll be discussing the various issues ghosts have with the living, taking Dragsholm Castle’s shadowy inhabitants as an example.

You can find out more about the hotel at the official website: http://www.dragsholm-slot.dk/en, a multi-lingual site with lots of pictures of the interior and the immediate surroundings of the castle grounds. For a potted history head to Wiki’s page at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dragsholm_Castle but here are some highlights:

wikiński snekkar "Morąg"

The name of the castle dates back to Viking times, when the word “drag” described a small stretch of land sandwiched between water. Viking ships were designed in such a way that warriors could drag the ship across a flat stretch of land – useful in Nordic lands criss-crossed by Fjords, lakes, melt-water rivulets and streams – and thus the islet on which the 800-year-old castle stands got its name “Drag”…while the castle became Dragsholm.

Before those of you who have seen the Werner Herzog epic “Fitzcarraldo”, starring one of my all-time favourite mad-cap actors, Klaus Kinski, in the title role, get carried away and imagine a huge ship being dragged, pulled and leveraged across a complicated set of rails, Viking ships only really held a small number of warriors, probably a maximum of 60 men, but usually less than that and their ships were not huge steamers but light wooden craft perfect for island hopping in Scandinavia. Later, Viking ships became a little more substantial to enable raids in Ireland and England, but on the whole the essential idea was that warriors should be able to carry the darn thing around with them, should they need to.

Anonymous. James Hepburn, 1st Duke of Orkney a...

Anonymous. James Hepburn, 1st Duke of Orkney and Shetland, 4th Earl of Bothwell. 1566. Oil on copper. Diameter 3.70 cm. Edinburgh, Scottish National Portrait Gallery. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Before the stretch of land known as Lammefjord received its own dam, the islet of Odsherred was connected to the remainder of Zealand by a narrow stretch of land, the aforementioned ”draugh” or ”drag”. This “drag” was situated just east of Dragsholm where the Dragsmølle mill is located today.

Dragsholm Castle’s bleak and romantic location is encircled by meadows and lakes, which for my writer’s mind conjures up a Victorian adventure of dastardly, but impossibly handsome villains abducting an heiress damsel to force her into marriage, with an equally handsome, but impecunious hero coming to her rescue.

Naturally, my story would be set in autumn or winter, with the icy winds blowing from the East that I know so well from my childhood. Along the way there would be a few Gothic murders (drownings), the odd moor corpse or two, any number of ghostly apparitions and there’d have to be a great chase at the end of the adventure, where the hero and revived and far more plucky heroine pursue the villain across the endless stretches of icy cold waters, frozen meadows and fields, where frost-covered sheep try to scratch a living.

What would your story be, if you had such a background for your adventure?

The castle’s turbulent history provides a plethora of excellent starting points for historic adventures. As a result of the Reformation causing massive changes in the fortunes of ordinary as well as “high-born” citizens, Dragsholm Castle was turned over to the Danish Crown. Belonging to the crown between the years of 1536 and 1664, Dragsholm Castle became a prison for aristocratic and ecclesiastical prisoners. The cellars and large tower at the castle’s northeast corner housed various prison cells.

Dragsholm’s prison register clocked up quite a list of famous miscreants, one of them being the former owner of the castle, Joachim Rønnow, who was the last Catholic Bishop of Roskilde. A Reformation allegory in the making, methinks…something about poetic justice given the Inquisition’s excesses?

Mary, Queen of Scots

However, the most famous of them all is the 4th Earl of Bothwell, who was the unlucky third husband of Mary, Queen of Scots. Queen Mary, as we know, also came to a sticky end during the reign of her half-sister, Queen Elizabeth I.

The Earl of Bothwell was kept in solitary confinement for some five years, after which he was found dead in his cell. Did he succumb after a long spell of madness brought on by the solitude and hopelessness of his situation or was he murdered? He’s getting his own back, though, as he’s reputedly still haunting the castle today…and if I were an aristocratic English traveller, I’d think twice about staying at the hotel!

After a turbulent history, during which the castle passed from the hands of a king to the hands of a grocer – and what a fabulous story that would make for a comedy film script – Dragsholm Castle was eventually purchased by the aristocrat Frederik Christian Adeler in 1694, who had the fortified palace rebuilt as the Baroque castle still standing today.

If you don’t wish to stay overnight – be it because you can’t stretch your writer’s holiday budget to cover the room rate or because the thought of bumping into several ghosts on your way back from the bar is just too much for your hot toddy-addled mind – it is possible to join a conducted tour, which takes place during the day, so no risk of meeting disgruntled former residents that can walk through walls.

English: Court yard at Dragsholm Castle

English: Court yard at Dragsholm Castle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

During the winter tours start every Friday at 16.00 hours, Saturday and Sunday at 14.30 hours and during the Danish summer vacations, tourists can join guided tours daily at 10.30 hours, 12.00 noon, 14.30 hours and 16.00 hours. Note how the management have carefully chosen day light hours for their tours?

Ghost repellent is optional, but for writers a notebook and pen are essential!

Homely Northern Castles (Part 5)


Deutsch: Die Orangerie des Schweriner Schlosses

Apology to Merlin fans: I won’t have time to do a “Merlin” review of the last three episodes until Thursday this week with more Merlin fan fiction to follow next week…the usual client work gets in the way of the far more serious business of Merlinian shenanigans, I’m sorry to say.

While over on Willow the Vampire’s blog (http://willowthevampire.com) I’m discussing the mysterious and ghostly presence of the Petermännchen (Little Man Peter) in greater detail, here at Maria Thermann’s blog we are taking a closer look at the Petermännchen’s once and future home: romantic Schwerin Castle, my favourite of all the homely northern castles.

English: Castle bridge Schwerin with castle; M...

Schloss Schwerin or Schwerin Castle in Mecklenburg is seemingly floating in the centre of a lake right in the heart of the beautiful town of Schwerin. For a very long time the castle served as residence for the Dukes of Mecklenburg.

The castle’s history dates back around 1,000 years and its present circumference harks back to a hill fort that was erected on the small island in the centre of the lake in the year 965. For over one thousand years generations of architects and builders reshaped the castle but hardly any trace remains of their “blue prints” until in around 1500 the first generation of organised builders and architects start collating a plethora of pictorial and documented construction plans. Just as an aside, the terracotta used to build the castle came from my home town Lübeck, no doubt supplied by a happy merchant who was a member of the Hanseatic League.

Schwerin Castle, south-eastern aspect

The castle as it stands today owes its appearance to the considerable refurbishments and restoration works carried out during 1845 and 1857. No fewer than four architects worked on the castle, using French Renaissance castles as their guide.

Travellers familiar with the architecture of Castle Chambord will probably spot some similarities, as the at the castle along the Loire River in France was one of the examples used by architects Georg Adolf Demmler, Gottfriend Semper (the same chap who was responsible for the Semper Opera House in Dresden), Friedrich August Stüler and Ernst Friedrich Zwirner to create the romantic effect we see today.

I won’t bore you with all the various people who tried to get their greedy paws on Castle Schwerin and the fertile lands of Mecklenburg (King Henry the Lion being one of them in 1160). The first time I clapped eyes on this magical castle was a few days after the Berlin Wall fell. My parents took me across the then still existing East German border, which ran just about 8 or 10 km inland from where I grew up.

English: Schwerin Castle Deutsch: Schweriner S...

English: Schwerin Castle Deutsch: Schweriner Schloss (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Schwerin Castle.

I’ll never forget the truly awful state in which nearly all of the historic monuments in towns and cities like Rostock, Schwerin and Wismar languished. Castle Schwerin was in a pretty rotten condition and when I saw it nearly a decade later, restored to its 1857 glory, I have to admit I looked upon it with swimming eyes.

At the end of 1989, when the German “Democratic” Republic was finally consigned to the history books and declared to be part of a united Germany once more, a consortium of 25 companies in and around the city of Kiel created an emergency trust fund with which important monuments like Castle Schwerin should be rescued from total collapse.

Whole armies of dedicated and hard-working restoration experts are responsible for the amazing transformation world heritage treasures like Schloss Schwerin have undergone since April 1990, when the first workers arrived to deal with the many problems of the domed roof alone.

front aspect of Schwerin Castle, Germany Españ...

front aspect of Schwerin Castle, Germany Español: Castillo de Schwerin en Mecklemburgo-Pomerania Occidental Italiano: Castello di Schwerin Česky: Zámek v německém městě Schwerin Polski: Zamek w Schwerinie Русский: Шверинский замок в городе Шверин в Германии (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Castle Schwerin Deutsch: Schloss Schwerin

When I visited the castle last, there was talk of connecting the seven lakes in the area up to Lake Schwerin, as tourism from canoeists, cyclists and walkers is vital for the economies of the area. The castle is home to the State Museum and a major tourist draw.

The castle gardens were still “under construction” when I visited last, but I see that in 2009 they underwent considerable restoration and reconstruction, too, in order that UNESCO World Heritage status could be applied for on behalf of the whole castle complex.

It is an absolute MUST see destination for anyone travelling around northern Germany and, of course, for anyone thinking about writing a story with a romantic castle setting. I would like to thank the armies of workers who have tirelessly restored this treasure to us after decades of shameful neglect by the so-called government of the so-called German Democratic Republic which, as we learned after the fall of the Berlin Wall, was as rotten and in need of urgent restoration as the castle in Schwerin itself.

Bundesgartenschau 2009 - Schwerin Castle seen ...

For more detailed historical information, please visit Castle Schwerin on Wikipedia or go to

http://www.museum-schwerin.de/orte/schloss-schwerin/ , if you’re fluent in German and to see the lovely pictures there. Click on the left hand side on Museums Schloss Schwerin for a picture gallery of the castle and visit the webcam for a view across the gardens from one of the castle’s highest towers.

For information about the little castle ghost, the Petermännchen, just head to http://willowthevampire.com, where I’m explaining what the ghost is and why it still haunts us today.

Homely Northern Castles (Part 4)


Nydam Boat, Gottorp Castle, Sleswig

Nydam Boat, Gottorp Castle, Sleswig (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

No tour of homely Northern Castles would be complete without Schloss Gottorf located in my native Federal State of Schleswig Holstein in Germany.

It’s not a castle I’d use for the setting of one of my children’s books as it is too “new”, but Castle Gottorp as it is called in Low German is important for different reasons than its architecture and splendid interior.

Just like a person (it’s the inside that counts, not the gorgeous exterior) Castle Gottorp or Schloss Gottorf in the small town of Schleswig is a character with hidden depths. It is home to some of Germany’s most valuable historic collections and adjacent to one of Northern Europe’s most important archaeological sites.

English: View of the southern wing of Gottorp ...

English: View of the southern wing of Gottorp Castle, Schleswig, Germany Deutsch: Blick auf den Südflügel von Schloss Gottorf (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Built originally as the ancestral home of the Holstein-Gottorp branch of the House of Oldenburg, a bunch of local aristos, the castle sits just 40 km from the rough Baltic Sea coast on an island in the Schlei, a river-cum-firth-cum-estuary of outstanding natural beauty.

The estate sprung to life in 1160 as home and imposing residence of Bishop Occo of Schleswig, another one of those all powerful bishops that couldn’t possibly live in a hovel like a good Christian , medieval monk-boy should have done at the time.

In 1268 the Danish Duke of Schleswig bought the whole estate but in 1340 the estate changed hands again, when Count of Holstein at Rendsburg acquired it (a member of the House of Schauenburg, another aristo branch hanging out by the Baltic Sea’s stormy coast, must be the lovely white sandy beaches that lure them there, I reckon. Perhaps somebody should have told them it’s always freezing cold up in Schleswig).

Eventually, after several generations and through inheritance the estate fell into the hands of Christian I of Denmark, who was the first Danish monarch to head the House of Oldenburg in 1459.

Nicodemus Tessin d.y. (1654-1728)

Nicodemus Tessin d.y. (1654-1728) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Throughout the centuries the estate was enlarged and altered until it finally became the Gottorp we know today. Construction on the castle as seen today did not start until 1697 and the whole complex was finally completed in 1703 under the watchful eye of famous architect Nicodemus Tessin the Younger (one of my favourite names…Nicodemus…perfect for a children’s mystery or horror story…also the name of Marian’s cat in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, the Kevin Costner movie).

Like so many castles in Northern Germany, Castle Gottorf served as home to refugees and displaced persons for a number of years after WWII.

Just like Schloss Eutin (see earlier post), the restoration needed was considerable after such “misuse” and the works were not deemed complete until 1996, when the State Art and Cultural History Museum and the State Archaeological Museum moved in (see http://www.schloss-gottorf.de for pictures and if you speak German, there’s plenty of stuff on temporary exhibitions held at the Schloss).

Deutsch: Schloß Gottorf in Schleswig

I feel after 800 years of various uses the castle has finally found its calling: its museums are superb and offer great insight into the early dwellers of the region – particularly, as Castle Gottorp is THE place to go, when researching Vikings – important for my Willow the Vampire and the Sacred Grove novel as well as for Willow’s new adventure, which will still have Viking-related plot twists and turns, despite the fact that it’s partly set in the south of Germany, in the town of Würzburg, which couldn’t be less Viking and Nordic, if you showered it with Pretzel and Sauerkraut and shouted “Skol”.

Haithabu (known as Hedeby in English), located near the castle and island, is an amazing place. Once it was the largest trading post in the “south” for Scandinavian Vikings.

Map of Schloss Gottorf

Map of Schloss Gottorf (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The many archaeological finds displayed in the castle museum and the separate Haithabu-exhibition show a lively and huge merchant settlement with “all the trimmings”, including walled fortifications. Over the last few years the museum has expanded its exhibits considerably, and now there are 7 Viking houses and a jetty, where visitors can experience what it must have been like to be part of this important community.

English: Iron axes and shield bosses from Nyda...

English: Iron axes and shield bosses from Nydam Mose, at Museum Schloss Gottorf, Schleswig, Germany Deutsch: Eiserne Axtköpfe und Schildbuckel aus dem Moorfund aus dem Nydam-Moor, im Archäologischen Landesmuseum Schloss Gottorf, Schleswig (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Denmark_0396 - Gottorp Celestial Glope,

Denmark_0396 – Gottorp Celestial Glope, (Photo credit: archer10 (Dennis))

Thanks to the Viking museum and the many finds that document what life was like 1,000 years ago in Northern Europe, Castle Gottorp ranks as one of Germany’s most important museums. While the site itself is inspiration for perhaps a dark age island adventure aimed at older children, the finds within the Haithabu museum offer a huge amount of inspiration for any number of stories – for children of all ages as well as for adult literature.

Viking Knit Bracelet

Viking Knit Bracelet (Photo credit: musicanys)

If you like writing medieval mysteries a la Ellis Peter’s Cadfael novels or Umberto Ecco’s The Name of the Rose, this is the place to come for research. The Viking corpses found in the local moors alone are worth a visit by any writer interested in historical fiction and a taste for the macabre!

The settlement at Haithabu was mentioned as a “very large town at the outer most end of the world’s ocean” by the Arabic chronicler Ibrahim ibn Ahmed At-Tartûschi in around 965, when he wrote about his northern travels. This one sentence sends shivers down my writer’s spine and I want to sit down and start a story in which Kirk Douglas type Vikings battle it out with sea monsters a la Jules Verne.

From Haithabu the Vikings traded with far flung places like Russia and Mongolia and with virtually all of western Europe. From here they established trade routes that centuries later were still in place, when Hanseatic League merchants hopped on board their ships from my home town Lübeck and set sail for Bergen, Riga and St. Petersburg.

Deutsch: Orgel in Schloss Gottorf

Deutsch: Orgel in Schloss Gottorf (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Read more: http://www.frommers.com/destinations/schleswig/A26338.html#ixzz29cwzoZXT

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hedeby

A pocket-sized Castle just right for an Afternoon


Guildford Castle

I had planned to post this yesterday, but my dog-walking duties and client work got in the way. B’s getting restless again, so I’d better get on with this blog, before there’s a puddle on my carpet.

I have to confess that of all the places I have lived at in the UK, Guildford in Surrey is my favourite. Known as the “stockbroker belt”, Guildford and its neighbour Woking are within an easy commute of London and Portsmouth with trains running approximately every 10 minutes into either direction.

It takes just 45 minutes on a stopping service to get to London Waterloo and half an hour on the fast service. A 40 minute train journey takes travellers with a hankering for the sea to Portsmouth; add another 15 minute journey by boat and you’re on the lovely Isle of White.

മലയാളം: Guildford castle - UK

My blog series on castles should not miss out Guildford Castle, which will be used as one of the locations in my WIP “The Daddy Snatchers”, a novel for children aged 7 to 9.

Having lived in the town for such a long time, I feel confident of using it as my main location for a story about two small boys trying to come to terms with the loss of their dad and the possibility of their mother marrying again.

Guildford Castle grounds are a lovely place to spend a lazy afternoon in the sun. The gardens are exceptionally well maintained and the castle complex is just large enough (or small, depending on your point of view) to keep you  entertained for a couple of hours.

Buy your picnic lunch at the bakery in the High Street, spread out your travel rug on the lawns or kick a lazy student off a bench and enjoy the magnificient gardens and keep!

Construction started reputedly just after 1066 on the order of none other than William the Conqueror himself, who marched into Canterbury and then attacked towns situated along the Pilgrim’s Way, which included Guildford in Surrey.

The above may be a medieval urban myth, but it is fairly certain the castle’s oldest parts date back to the 11th century.  The building works aren’t mentioned in the Doomsday Book, which suggests the construction didn’t start until after 1086, when the great book was compiled. The remaining complex was developed up to the 13th century.

Initially Guildford Castle was little more than a motte or mound, consisting of a deep ditch and bailey, which would have been surrounded by a wooden palisade to keep marauders out – marauders in this case being the miffed inhabitants of the area, who were none too happy to see William the Norseman’s hordes occupying their lands.

English: Guildford Museum Quarry Street Entrance.

English: Guildford Museum Quarry Street Entrance. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The original bailey would have encompassed much of what is today the heart of Guildford, Castle Street for example and South Hill as well as Quarry Street, where the museum used to be when I lived there, and the Bowling Green, a wonderful place to sit in the summer and watch the players concentrate with furrowed brow on what must be one of the most satisfying games for the elderly.

At the time the castle was built, Guildford was – along with Southwark – the only sizeable town in Surrey and lay on the important route between London and the coastlines to the south and west of England. In other words, the main supply lines to the shores where William’s Norman troops would land with their ships.

Initially there would have been a wooden tower built on top of the motte, where a lookout would have been posted and the garrison would have found some shelter, too.

It wasn’t until the early 12th century that the wooden palisade was replaced by a chalk wall (shell-keep), large parts of which are still standing today.

English: Guildford Museum and Castle Arch. On ...

English: Guildford Museum and Castle Arch. On Quarry Street. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

During the 1130’s the wooden tower was replaced with a more durable material, namely stone. The location of this first keep or great tower was probably part motte, part shell-keep, as the motte wouldn’t have been able to carry the great weight on its own.

The stone was transported from the Goadalming area, a charming little town with excellent pubs (brewing their own ale), if you happen to be in Surrey, take an afternoon to explore – you can take a local bus from Guildford. The stone is called Bargate stone and has far greater density and therefore durability than chalk.

The castle originally consisted of two floors, of which the first floor would have been reserved for the king’s private apartments. The surrounding walls once carried crenellations, where sentries could keep watch and alert the garrison, should the Guildford population revolt over their meagre supper and their king.

English: Guildford Castle Gardens. This is in ...

English: Guildford Castle Gardens. This is in the ditch surrounding the castle which is to the right, out of photograph. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When it proved the king wasn’t all that interested in using the castle as his permanent private residence, the keep became the newly appointed Sheriff’s quarters in the late 12th century.

Eventually, Guildford Castle was used as the county goal for Sussex and Surrey, when the king moved to more comfortable apartments in the bailey, where a chapel and domestic buildings had been erected.

It is assumed the Great Hall was located on the site, where today two houses stand, at the very bottom of Castle Hill. The Hall was constructed from stone and had wooden aisle posts, which apparently had been painted to resemble marble, a savvy cost cutting device employed by a king who was always strapped for cash.

When Henry III made further additions and improvements to Guildford Castle, it suddenly gained the status of “palace”, although there’s little trace of that today – more about the palace in my next blog!

I’m using the town centre with Castle Street and Quarry Street, where my erstwhile solicitors used to have their offices, as settings for a big event in my novel that will be largely determined by the town’s unique location by the River Wey.

Guildford is a charming place to visit for a long weekend. The Wey River Navigation allows houseboats, canoes, kajaks and rowers to fully enjoy the “messing about in boats” a wise Ratty has been advocating for years (get your life-coaching from Kenneth Grahame‘s Wind in the Willows, I always do!).

English: The Keep of Guildford Castle as seen ...

English: The Keep of Guildford Castle as seen from Castle Hill (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s a lock, a rowing club and a pub overlooking the waterways, as well as a park with picnic areas. The path along either side of the river is perfect for a walk or a trip by bike, if you haven’t found your “sea-legs” or shy away from the rather expensive hire costs of a river barge.

It’s possible to hire these barges for a week or so and travel at the alarming speed of 4 miles per hour through the Surrey countryside. If I’m not mistaken, the Wey River links up with the Thames at some point, so one could make it a two week trip at that speed. The boats come in different sizes and can sleep up to 12 people, if memory serves me right.

English: View From Guildford Castle Photograph...

English: View From Guildford Castle Photograph taken from the viewpoint, in front of Guildford Castle Keep, in the direction of Guildford Cathedral. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For more information about Guildford Castle, please visit http://www.guildford.gove.uk/article/7576/History-of-Guildford-Castle

or contact Guildford Museum directly on heritageservices@guildford.gov.uk

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

More Trouble with the Neighbours


Slovenčina: Bratislavský hrad po rekonštrukcii

Perhaps I should have been posting this entry on my Willow the Vampire blog, since Bratislava Castle (or the Pressburger Schloss as it is called in German) is actually sitting on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Danube from a hill top position in the Little Carpathians, where vampires begin to feel right at home and garlic breath is said to keep one’s snapping neighbours at bay.

As soon as I started looking at the history of Bratislava Castle I felt an affinity with the people who used to live in the old town beneath the fortifications. Just like them I’ve had my (un)fair share of troublesome neighbours. The latest instalment in the Grunter & Co saga is that the night before last we were woken up at 3.30 am by loud banging on the front door downstairs.

This was followed by noisy feet running up the stairs, entering the flat of the vamoosed lady, trampling about for a few minutes; then the feet’s owner slammed the door shut and vacated the premises, before speeding off in a car that must have been parked outside with the motor running…

I noticed this morning that our house really does appear to be under surveillance…unless the guy who’s been parking outside for hours is just waiting for his shop-a-holic girlfriend returning from Cardiff Bay (the new Dr Who Experience has particularly interesting things for sale, I’m told).

Bratislava Castle, 2010

The inhabitants of Old Town Bratislava must have felt similarly agrieved, when a succession of attacking hordes devastated their town and the castle with it. Frankly, if some university professor unearthed evidence of iron-age Grunters in the vicinity, I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest.

Bratislava Castle marks an important geographical spot that is virtually at the very centre of Europe. In days gone by it protected safe passage for the traders and merchants on the Amber Route, which was part of the trade routes running from the Balkans and the Adriatic Sea via the Rhine River to the Baltic coast, where I come from and where amber can still be found at the seashore today (if you’re lucky and are blessed with eagle eyes that is).

Bratislava Castle

An emblem and landmark of the capital Bratislava in Slovakia, not Czechoslovakia as I erroneously claimed in my previous blog (hey, I’d had very little sleep thanks to Grunter & Co), Bratislava Castle is a perfect example of a fair and square castle. Its four corners have an imposing watch tower each from where crossbowmen and archers could see all the way to Austria and Hungary on a good, sunny day, when no war machines were being pushed up the hill and no rocks were being hurled at them either.

Bratislava Castle was fought over so often and destroyed, remodelled and rebuilt so frequently, the history of this one-time home of King Stephen I of Hungary (1000 to 1038), Friedrich Barbarossa (1182) and Albert of Habsburg (1287 to 1291) fills not just volumes of books, but whole book shelves of them!

Bratislava Castle - Slovak National Museum.

Bratislava Castle – Slovak National Museum. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Burned-out Bratislava (Pressburg) Castle, mid-...

Burned-out Bratislava (Pressburg) Castle, mid-1800s. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The actual origins of Bratislava Castle date back 3,500 years to the Baden culture, a people who first used the hill to construct fortifications. However, the foundations for what can still be seen today dates back the 9th century. The castle was constantly being changed, enlarged and updated until the 18th century. Eventually, the whole complex had to be rebuilt, which was done between 1956 and 1964. In 2012 it is as ever “under construction” and no doubt the present Slovak population is stamping its own cultural face onto the place as I’m writing this.

Besieging armies hoping to succeed as soon as the castle’s inhabitants ran out of water must have been in for a bit of a shock – there’s a water well that’s 80 meters deep right in the courtyard. Apart from the largest tower, built in the 13th century, which once housed the crown jewels, there’s also the Slovak National Museum, the presentation rooms belonging to the Slovak Parliament and the Music Hall for public performances which are of particular of interest. The courtyard also allows access to the Knights Hall.

Bratislava Castle

Bratislava Castle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bratislava Castle boasts four entrance gates to the castle complex. There is the Sigismund Gate, which is located in the south-east; it dates back to the 15th century and is deemed to be the best preserved original part of the whole complex, which under Sigismund of Luxemburg had 7 metre thick fortifications built to protect the city and the castle inhabitants.

Bratislava Castle Stairwell

Bratislava Castle Stairwell (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the south-west there is the Vienna Gate, which is a fairly late edition, dating back to 1712. The Nicholas Gate is located in the north-east and dates back to the 16th century. Finally, there’s the Leopold Gate, which I think is also 17th century.

The castle seen today was really started by archaeologists as a gigantic jigsaw puzzle back in 1953. Actual work on restoration and rebuilding couldn’t start until 1957, when it had been decided to take the castle back to its Baroque design, but preserving the older Gothic and Renaissance elements. The very first reference to the city of Bratislava is connected with the castle and the old town and can be found in the Annals of Salzburg dated 907. Perhaps predictably, it features my own countrymen the Bavarians and a bunch of Hungarians in battle.

I love the idea that the new constitution of the independent Slovakia was signed in the Knights Hall (3rd September 1992). After all the centuries of turmoil, when the castle was occupied by pretty much every crowned head of Europe and those heads who thought they deserved a crown, the Knights Hall was finally instrumental in giving the castle back to the people and re-installing the laws of chivalry again…namely that the overlord in the castle should protect the lands and its people and vice versa.

English: Bratislava, Slovakia, aerial photogra...

English: Bratislava, Slovakia, aerial photographgy, castle Magyar: Pozsony (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The palace courtyard (before reconstruction)

The palace courtyard (before reconstruction) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A new restoration programme started in 2008 and in 2010 the latest phase of a restored courtyard was revealed. The 5-year programme is to finally finish next year.

So who were these knights and ladies who lived in such places? How did they finance building and maintaining such huge “homes”?

I’ve been reading up  on how knights got their remuneration and what they would have expected to get in return for the services they might have performed for their king.

Our idea of knights is mainly shaped by Hollywood; therefore we assume almost automatically knights did not much else but fight in wars and laze about in peace time. However, they were administrators, diplomats, estate managers, clerks, civil servants and held all manner of offices, which might bring them social advancement and riches through their connection with the king.

In the 13th century for example an English knight’s pay and “holding”, meaning the land he owned, would have been “proper” at the level of £20 per annum, however, there’s evidence that many knights only had an income of £10 per annum. Cash-strapped kings often paid their knights in land rather than money and the usual remuneration a knight would expect would be around 5 hides of land (a hide being anything between 100 to 120 acres).

The difference between a knight at the top of his game and the common gentry protecting some little back-water abbey or monastery was colossal. A knight who had married well “up the social ladder” could command an income of £4,000 per annum or more derived from his lands and the money or gold and jewellery his wife had brought into the family.

He’d have a huge number of staff looking after a multitude of manors and castles, while a knight with just a few small manors to call his own might have had no more than £400 per annum and perhaps as few as 24 to 45 staff looking after the whole estate with casual labour being brought in at harvest time.

Should you plan to go on a tour of Central Europe this summer, why not drop in on Bratislava Castle and see how you’d manage on £20 per annum and a staff of just 24. The Knights Hall at Bratislava Castle is the venue for an exhibition on the latest reconstruction of the castle – open from 9 am to 5 pm until 31st December this year.

Next week it’s back to Germany and Heidelberg Castle – hopefully, I’ll have found some of my old photographs by then!

http://kalendarakcii.bratislava.sk/en/vismo/akce.asp?id_org=700023&id=5077

http://visitbratislava.sk/en

http://www.slovakheritage.org

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

Hanging out with Vampires, Sorcerers and Witches at your local Cemetery


Before I release some more Merlin fanfiction over the weekend, I’d better carry on with my regular blog post about locations that inspire my writing for those of you who are not into sorcery and early medieval whodunnits!

I had planned to stroll around Caerphilly and take more pictures of Welsh castles, but with record rainfall in June, I’m forced to turn to my pictures of Llandaff Cathedral, a very lovely building, even if it isn’t a castle with turrets and eye-candy-knights.

There’s no hope of a photo opportunity this Saturday either, when the worst rainfall is expected and my Italian flatmate and I have tickets to see Shakespeare’s Macbeth performed at Cardiff Castle…at an open air theatre, naturally! Why Welsh people haven’t grown gills and fins yet  is a mystery even Merlin would be hard pressed to solve.

Llandaff Cathedral, according to its website, is one of Britain’s oldest Christian sites and was already a place of worship in the 6th century (when the BBC’s King Arthur and Merlin allegedly lived). There are no remains of the original church left, however, a Celtic cross which once marked the spot is still on display by the door of the Chapter House today.

The pictures you see here are showing the Cathedral as it has been since 1107, when Bishop Urban, who was the first bishop the Norman invaders appointed, had the cunning plan a much larger church by the River Taff would give him not just greater prestige but also a greater flock into the bargain.

Over the centuries many alterations and additions created the Llandaff Cathedral complex of buildings we see today, with a 13th  century Chapter House and “new” 14th century windows – presumably installed after a savvy medieval double glazing salesman had convinced the bish “that it was high time Llandaff replaced those awful Norman panes with something more fashionable, if the bishop wanted to be counted among the A-list celebs of the day.”

The cemetery and sanctuary with its ancient tombs (one of which belongs to none other than St. Teilo) are perfect places for taking spooky pictures, which serve as my inspiration for vampire stories or witchcraft and sorcery. It may seem a strange occupation for a plump, middle-aged German to hang around Welsh cemeteries on Sunday afternoons, but Cardiff has an abundance of rather lovely final resting places (Heath and Cathays cemeteries being the other places I’ve been haunting of late).

The names on tombstones are excellent help when I’m stuck on naming my fictional characters set in period context. It would take far longer to trawl through books than it takes to stroll past a few tombstones with a notepad and pencil or snapping away with my camera.

Another advantage is that gravestone inscriptions often give away far more details about people’s lives and their death than the person originally commissioning the stone had presumably intended. While Spike Milligan’s wonderful epitaph “I told you I was ill” is deliberately placed by the deceased himself, other inscriptions show the feelings a person burying a family member might have had about the corpse. Some inscriptions show  feelings of love and affection, respect and gratitude, others betray jealousy, disappointment, dislike and even hate.

Causes of death in centuries gone by can also be found on gravestones. Particularly moving are those tombs dedicated to women who died during childbirth.  It’s one thing to read about historic high infant mortality rates in a book, but quite another to see babies’ birth dates and the few hours or days they survived hewn in stone. more often than not, the babies embarked on their eternal journey accompanied by their young mothers.

There are stories for your very own Twilight sagas to be gleaned from some of the inscriptions on tombstones, as they mention several generations of the same family. If you are writing a short story or novel set within a certain period of time or just within a general historic context of “18th/19th/20th century” and you are stuck for inspiration, visit your local cemetery…it’s a great place to hang out on an overcast afternoon, not just for Buffy and her Scooby gang, but also for vampire and witchcraft writers.

If you come across any sorcerers like Harry Potter searching for his origins or Merlin having mislaid one of King Arthur’s swords during last Sunday’s visit to the Celtic Cross, ignore them and move on; they are most likely a figment of your over-stimulated writer’s brain – and if they’re not, you’d better not mess with them, as wizards don’t the Welsh weather any more than you do, but they might blame the constant rain on you, Muggle visitor, and open the nearest grave just for you.

If you come across any vampires and you haven’t got Buffy’s Mr. Pointy with you…RUN!

 

(all photographs by Maria Thermann, animation sourced from heathersanimations.com)

Life is a Journey: the Places we visit are not accidental


Whether you are Doctor Who and engaged in time travelling adventures or just a plain, earth bound foot soldier like me, the places we end up spending time at are not chosen at random or even by our own “free will”.

Life is a journey, somebody once said, and the places and people we come across along the way are not thrown into our path by accident. Our lives go through several stages and at each stage we find ourselves exactly where we are meant to be with the kind of people we are supposed to be with at that precise moment in time.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my brush with cancer, it is that all things happen for a reason. If I hadn’t been diagnosed with cancer, I wouldn’t have quit my boring job and become a full time writer. If I hadn’t moved to Wales, I would never have met the real Willow and her Mum, both of whom I regard as the granddaughter and daughter I’ve longed to have all my adult life. If I didn’t blog on WordPress, I’d never have “met” my virtual and very real friend Michelle Barber (author of Will Blyton and the Stinking Shadow; proud owner of Mildred the Cat, dominatrix at the LoonyLiterature Laboratory)

I’ve lived at many different places, which prior to cancer I regarded as insignificant stop overs. It wasn’t until I got to Cardiff – and later to Leipzig – that I felt a sense of home coming. Our homes are so important to us that they gives us roots to settle down and be content as well as wings to spread and fly off into the world, because the happiness we experienced in our homes gave us the confidence to brave the unknown.

Be there dragons, pirates, sea monsters or mischievous fairies, having our roots hooked firmly into a place that anchors us physically and emotionally gives us strength to cope with whatever might come along. When we lack happiness at home, we feel lost, emotionally and quite literally, unable to settle anywhere for long.

I have come to believe that we “choose” the places and people we come across our life journey not by accident, but by instinct. Somehow deep down inside of us we know that we are very much at the right place at the right time. Stevie Brown and Hamish Fensterlein might be hunting for run-away houses, but deep down they know where their true home lies. Giles Gimingham grew up on the streets but has found his home on the sea, as cabin boy on the ship The Good Intent. Willow the Vampire felt unhappy, alone and abandoned in London, but instinctively knew that Stinkforthshire’s countryside was going to be her real home. Inspector Beagle and his Sergeant Beanstalk would never consider a transfer away from Kentish Mumsgate – for a start, who’d look after Roddy Winters, their elephantine colleague?

As I’m working my way through the research for my various WIP projects, I am reminded of all the places that I have lived at, all of which are in one way or another contributing to my writing. If some people I’ve met along the way are occasionally recognising their own traits of characters in my protagonists, my apology, but I just can’t help it.

You are as integral to my writing as the places I’ve known so well: my home town Lübeck, the small Baltic seaside resort I grew up in, Guildford, where I was happy, London, where I was so miserable I wanted to die, Ramsgate where I discovered I wanted to live, Cardiff, where I found a home and Leipzig, where I intend to end my long journey for good. I needed you all, even if I didn’t love you all.

Lübeck in 1641

Lübeck in 1641 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(source of animation: heathersanimations.com)

The Ghost in the Machine


English: An ilustration from the novel "J...

I decided early on that all my children’s books would carry some small educational element embedded in the story. While Willow the Vampire is about discovering history, The First Intergalactic Dating Agency is about understanding science.

In the story the two boys are the sons of astronomers and physicists, so not scared of encountering the odd robot, spaceship or time travelling contraption. However, foster child Molly has led a very different life and, as a girl, has been brought up with a certain fear of science and technology. Although this may look like gender stereotyping, I felt this was still very much part of modern girls’ daily experience in schools and at home. I wanted to address this issue as well as looking into our attitude towards technology as a whole.

As a child I grew up with the wonderful stories of French writer Jules Verne, who used 19th century cutting edge scientific discoveries and theories as starting points for many of his fantastical adventures. At a time when people where still speculating about journeys to the moon, submarine travel and the use of electricity, Jules Verne wove such facts and theories into his stories and made them seem possible; so much so that, when some of these things came true in the 20th century, many people thought he had “predicted” these inventions.

Poe's novel inspired later writers, including ...

Today we read every week about new discoveries by space probes and giant telescopes in space as well as planning our first mission to Mars with the aid of robots. Unlike many children’s books that are based upon little more than their author’s imagination, I wanted to use the Jules Verne principle and weave information about cutting edge robotics and space travel into my novels.

This is easier said than done – like Molly, I grew up as a technophobe and am scared of anything that is marginally more technical than my waffle iron or toaster. Reading through human brain-to-robot-interface experiments or seeing the latest robotic achievements, where restaurants have robots serve diners their meals or ASIMOV shows off his stair-climbing skills like a cute, pacifist version of a Dalek scares me more than I can say.

Most of the technology we already use in our daily lives is so beyond our understanding that a thinking and decision making robot would probably have great fun manipulating sheep-like humans, who follow the latest technology without question (especially if it’s trending on Twitter).

The ghost in the machine is scary not because it’s the mind of a new being, one that is outside of our ordinary understanding and now sharing the planet with us. It is frightening, because the origin of its “soul” lies within the human brain – with all our faulty traits of character as well as any kinks in personality of whoever programmed the robot in the first place.

LA Con IV Exhibit - Robots - Robby between fri...

For in this Human Mark II all compassion has been removed – this upgraded soul runs strictly on mathematics and calculating the best possible outcome, one that is not based on that which supposedly makes us human, namely the ability to see beyond saving our own skins and the wish to save that of others. The upgraded human thinks no further than his own robotic nose and wouldn’t lift a bionic finger to save the life of another being.

Compassion is not a concept that figures much in science, although it should, even more so than in other disciplines.

This is assuming not all scientists are completely devoid of feeling and compassion, as those who experiment on animals clearly are. Such people will justify anything that serves their “scientific achievement”, no matter how debased or cruel it might be. From torturing mice, kittens, puppies and rabbits it is after all only a small step to experimenting on babies.

Perhaps the ghost in the robot is so terrifying because we see in it our own reflection, the thing we have become, a slave to science and technology, just one step away from no longer being in control of Earth and life as we know it.

At the heart of my time travelling adventure is the question of how far we are prepared to go in the name of science and technology? Children growing up now are forced to learn an ever increasing amount of facts, figures and the use of constantly changing technology. My friend’s six-year-old daughter knows more about the remote TV control, the internet and computer games than I do…

When Peter and Leroy’s dads send out a message into space, they have no idea what the consequences of their actions are going to be – just like most scientists, I hear some of you cry. If we don’t try, we won’t succeed in the name of progress…along those lines many terrible things have been justified throughout human history.

We are apparently closer than ever to finding alien life – but what’s the use, when we have no respect for the life forms that are already sharing THIS planet with us?

The ghost in the machine that we created may well decide that in order to save THIS planet, the human race is obsolete and a kinder, gentler creature should emerge through evolution – one worthy of making contact with whatever might be out there – and may be willing to communication in dots, lines and numbers with the ghost in our machine.

Do I need Insurance for Time Travel?


If this blog upsets your pre-conceived ideas about all things German, please let me apologise right now. It is not my intention to eradicate any festering old prejudices against Germans that some of us feel so comfortable with.

Far from it – it’s just that I’m rather like those oddball creatures of the night I’m describing in my Willow the Vampire blog…some of them are neither nocturnal nor day time dwellers, but lead a confused in-between existence!

Having lived half my life in the UK, I fear I no longer belong into any discernable category of national (or do I mean irrational?) behaviour – I guess, I’ve ended up being a universal sort of mess.

I don’t like football, Weißwurst, oompta-oopmta music, I don’t yodel or go skiing and, for a German, I’m rather disorganised. Worst of all, if you’ve read any of my stories on this blog or even my Willow the Vampire book, you’ll have discovered by now, shock horror, that Germans do have a sense of humour.

No, seriously, it’s official. My former Cardiff University creative writing tutors confirmed it – I’m FUNNY – who am I to argue with the experts? (You may doubt the veracity of their observations – donations for the speedy recovery of tutors’ mental well being are gratefully received at an offshore account near you)

Thanks to my general state of disorganisation, I have learned the hard way that being disorganised when writing a book just adds drastically to the workload. Hence my collection of photos and drawings I’m inflicting on you here. I’m attempting to be a proper German…erm…a proper writer, I meant to say.

So, having dutifully crawled out of bed on a cold morning to take my pictures of Schwäbisch Hall’s historic town centre, I considered my second move carefully. The public library was the best option – here I could find out more about the ancient houses, their occupants and their fate through time. Next stop after that, the open air museum a few miles out of town. Where the hell is my time table for the bus? Ah, MOPPLE the cat’s got it…

My novel The First Intergalactic Dating Agency revolves around time travel, you see. While the first adventure of my three child protagonists sets up how they get involved with time travel and manage to lay their sticky hands on a time machine that looks like an upturned tea cup, part two of the adventure throws them back and forth in TIME, but not in PLACE – which is where Schwäbisch Hall’s historic town centre comes into the equation.

Not unusually so, the town burnt down first in 1680 and then again in 1728, because most of the houses dated back to the Middle Ages and had been constructed from wood. Following the last fire, the good burghers of Hall decided to rebuild the town exactly as it had been before, albeit with less flammable materials.

Houses in the centre of Schwäbisch Hall, next ...

Houses in the centre of Schwäbisch Hall, next to the river Kocher (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some fashion-victims of the time managed to smuggle in some fine Baroque buildings like the Town Hall, so there is at least some new-fangled architecture to be taken into account, when researching for my time travelling story. Two major fires, an unsolved murder at a tavern, rich merchants and even wealthier aristocrats, bandits, a cloister that’s more like a fortified castle…monks that are more like knights…all that makes for a really good adventure story!

Hall is the Celtic word for salt and the Celts were happily mining for salt in the town centre as far back as the 5th century. The last salt mine closed in 1925 but the town had grown rich on this valuable commodity in the centuries before the closure. One of the results of this wealth, Comburg Castle, which still towers over the town today, became my next line of enquiry.

The Hall settlement got its first official mention in some document at the end of the 11th century and there are wonderful accounts of who lived where and did what or owed what taxes to whom. This presents me with rich pickings that can be woven into my story to make characters appear “real” within their setting throughout the centuries, without being too difficult to understand for the age range 8 to 12 that I’m writing for.

St Michael's Church, Schwäbisch Hall

St Michael's Church, Schwäbisch Hall (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What is much harder to come by is information about children through the ages – and that’s really the point of my time travelling adventure. Not what nasty, greedy kings and queens got up to but what happened to ordinary families and their children. It is a tough life for children in the UK in the 21st century – only this week a shocking report said that up to 20% of children and young adults are forced to go to bed or school on an empty stomach because they are not being fed.

What must it have been like for children who lived in the remote, barely accessible parts of Hohenlohe, where deep gorges and steep mountains almost permanently covered in cloud during autumn and winter, made travel difficult and condemned many wives and their children to a terrible life with violent husbands or bandits on the prowl, who thought nothing of robbing and slaughtering whole farmsteads?

Travelling through the Hohenlohe terrain didn’t come with travel insurance and many a salt merchant fell foul of the bandits who traversed the forested hills by night and went into hiding in spooky taverns by day, where unscrupulous landlords profited from giving them shelter. That way fortunes were made and lost again in the salt mining industry.

The open air museum at Gailenkirchen in Hohenlohe, just 9 km outside of Schwäbisch Hall, has a wonderful collection of ancient inns, farmhouses and workmen’s cottages on display that were rescued from the whole of Baden Württemberg, but in particular from the Hohenlohe region. Here I found many accounts – some even with evocative photographs from the 19th century – of the families who had lived in these historic homes. At last, a real glimpse into the lives of children – and intriguing time travel destinations for my child protagonists to visit…with or without intergalactic time travel insurance!

Here are some first drafts of what MOPPLE the legendary pet and some of the protagonists will look like (I’m still experimenting with MOPPLE, she’s such an awkward little so and so):

and you can read the draft of the first two chapters for the First Intergalactic Dating Agency on the page Mopple’s World at this blog site, where you’ll see pictures of the three child protagonists, too. I’ve drawn this by “mouse” on Publisher and as you can see, I’m not very good! However, it helps me hugely to know what my characters look like, when writing a series about them (if that makes sense!).

For the novelists among you, how do you prepare for your projects? Are you a proper “German” when it comes to organising your work or are you a confused nocturnal creature caught in the daylight, when it comes to plotting, researching and collating material for your books?