Thursday, August 26, 2010

Verdun

Verdun, France. From my diary, August, 2010:

Where to begin? That’s what the history begs, as the history does not begin with one date in 1914 and ending in a date in 1918 – it does not bear one year, one single identiy, one particular flag (while it would choose the French flag if it had to choose) but it is a graveyard turned verdant – a word very near to its name.

I mustn’t neglect the journey on the rails to Verdun; a simple yet remarkable foray. En route to Verdun one sees field after golden field; the hills a particular yellow, a Van Gogh yellow. A crow on a hay-bale conjured up countless museum images and the impressionism of a master painter was translated into reality. I saw with Vincent’s eyes, his palette. We passed a whole vast plot of sunflowers, a transporting sight that connects me not only to Van Gogh but this sea of bright flowers also startlingly reminds me that I’d written about just such a field in my upcoming novel. In The Perilous Prophecy of Guard and Goddess the Goddess offers her Guard a glimpse of when she first met Phoenix; in a field of sunflowers arranging their seeds into iterate patterns. It was as if I knew that field before I’d ever seen it.

Arriving into the heart of Verdun, the first thing I see is a warrior-angel towering over the city, sword strong in her folded arms. She stands over la Rue de la Victoire and her declaration of victory is stern, not joyous. She is flanked by canons and she reminds you of death and war. She is a god not to be trifled with and you can see her from every city vantage point. She pierces above the 14th century turreted city gates, watching. Warning. "Seven hundred thousand..." she murmurs.

Transferring to a bus that takes tourists to World War I sites, monuments and forts, it is very clear that within its life and charm, Verdun remains a city of memorial. And it has just cause for grief nearly a century old. The most costly battle of the entire War to End All Wars, Verdun saw 700,000 dead, directly in the middle of the war, 1916. Its land, while overgrown with grass, trees, wildflowers, in many places remains jagged and unnatural, the work of bombs, mines and innumerable shells. The earth still bears the scars.

But it is a pocked landscape transformed green. Life will out, I was reminded, as swallows had reclaimed Fort Douaumont as their own, chirping and diving, nesting and flocking, these birds found the cool, dank fort a haven, turning what to humans appeared a bastion of hell, into a place that sheltered fragile, avian life.

Sorting through my notes from the fields and furrows, words are more raw than I'm used to. I stood drinking in what was once a “lunar landscape” of mud, shells fell like rain and opened violent craters. Though the land is blanketed again with green, the disconnect remains between the verdant carpet and the stories of the heart of the battle, when trenches were dug and yards were gained and lost. A small village named Fleury changed hands a heartbreaking number of times before being wiped from memory, existent now only in plaques and in honour. You can walk the two main streets of what was once Fleury, now forested and green. You can still see some rubble in the uneven, cratered land. Markers tell you where the baker shop stood, the butcher, the shoe-maker, the well, the farms. It is a ghost town in the truest sense. On that ground families shot bullets from their basements- when there still were structures for shelter. It is nearly impossible to reconcile these disparate realities, but through imagination one can layer images upon one another like two separate photography slides; one slide reveals the loud destruction, exploding shells, rubble as far as the eye could see, dead bodies, the heart of a village ripped open and destroyed. This plate you struggle to place atop what is really staring you in the face; a quiet forest of pine, the sound of birds chirping – hardly a more peaceful place, the din of war seems impossibly far. Only those unnatural pockets and furrows of a ground landscaped by pummeling bombs remains to link these two disparate architectures together.

In Verdun I learned a new word. Ossuary. Visiting this repository, a tomb of the unknown soldier housing at least 130,000 unnamed bones, I would never be the same.

A field- a tunnel- a hall- a wall- a pit- a vast mansion of bone. Staring at the femurs stacked to my height for a countless number of square feet, carefully interlocked like log cabin timbers, I knew, staring into those square panels at the base of the monument that if I took a moment, even one moment to then process what I am writing now I would have broken down before countless other similarly stoic, awed, somber, stunned tourists. All of us putting our hands out – first to shield the sun and the light so that we might see into the pit of anonymous bone, and then the hand out became a distancing tool. Perhaps a primitive instinct to detach, to keep the disturbing vision at literal arm’s length. Trying not to imagine our own skeletons in such pieces, added to the mass, our hands remain out trying not to imagine that flesh once decked those bones. The pure essence of life that once animated those hundred-thousand bones would have taken a monument twice the size were the pit filled with bodies... It is hard to reconcile the flesh with the bone when we see them so separated. It is foreign, not of us, of an entirely separate time and place, it takes time to separate flesh from bone- through a horrifyingly organic, disturbing process. We see these bodies now pure, stripped of their flesh and in pieces they are dehumanized and yet we all can recognize them as the building blocks of ourselves.

Some bones are more of a trigger than others. For me, the interlocking femurs. For my father, the jaw bones, separated from the skull and tossed in a silent heap, baring their teeth to the stagnant air of their mass grave. The mind separates these images, compartmentalizeds them safely to assure that sanity and sense remain intact.

Was this the same France as golden fields and sunflowers? I read about France, I knew a deal of Paris and about art. I know what Victor Hugo wrote and Debussy composed. One feels one knows a country by its art, its books, its dance and music. But knowing its bones is another country entirely. The 'undiscovered country' indeed. All of it France, and all French beauty may be found in Verdun, the banks of the Meuse no less beautiful for the monument of bones. More beautiful, perhaps, for the contrast. And as it appears to have been intended by the Ossuary's founders and builders; a reminder. A cautionary tale of war, whether world leaders hear it or not. Those who visit do.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Paris is Magic

Anyone who would say otherwise has not visted the same city I did. You think you know monuments from post cards and stock photography. I felt this same amazement when visiting the Grand Canyon; that just nothing can prepare you for the real thing. So when you stand beneath something like the Eiffel Tower, you are stunned. And you are thrilled like a child, your heart is beating rapidly with wonder, realizing that something familiar was far more special than you could ever have expected, now that you stand under its eaves and wonder at its engineering and prowess. Paris and I, much like London and I, have had an interesting relationship through the years. I've felt I've long known Paris, and in certain ways I have. I knew a bit of French from high-school (and I am proud to say I used it as best I could). I'd long ago fallen in love with the great 19th century French writers, artists, composers, etc. So visiting Paris was, much like London, greeting a long lost friend. I said hello to the gorgeous Garnier Opera house and at long last ascended its grand staircase. The palace that inspired The Phantom of the Opera, Leroux' novel and Webber's musical combined in a seminal childhood obsession that began my fascination with the 19th century. I owe this building much, one of many sacred places on our tour. Paris is a city of magic. A 'city of light' indeed, a city endeared to me long ago. But in walking its streets, in praying hard and long at a Notre Dame mass, it will remain a city forever in my heart, not just an acquaintence but now a friend. The view from our hotel windows proved that the grandeur of Paris exists for the whole world to celebrate; Gare du Nord station an impressive palace at our doorstep.


I believe a gauge of a famous, historical city's spirit is by traveling upon its waterway. Understanding where the Thames is in relationship to London is critical, as is the Seine in Paris, the Meuse through Verdun, the The Rhine through Germany. One of my priorities in this course of travel was to feel the beat of that particular vein, for in understanding a city's body of water you understand a key to its history, a key to its magic. Water and graveyards, these were my priorities. Thankfully my family humored my mission to examine the many necropolis quarters housed withing the cities on our tour. Pere-Lachaise is a stunning necropolis not to be missed. I would not have traded my tearful moment at the grave of one of my most beloved authors; Oscar Wilde, for the world. I left a prayer with Oscar, asking for his blessing towards my future project. I hope someday soon to be less cryptic about that, but all in good time.
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A city of light in every way, Saint Chapelle certainly did not disappoint, with its walls of coloured glass...
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Upon the rails, heading east, I felt and saw a France outside of its superstar capital city. Just as charming and lovely in its own right. And full of stories to tell.
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Next, I will write about Verdun. And my entry recounting Verdun will be unlike anything I have ever written on this blog. I shall leave cute and bouncy recollections of adventures behind in order to talk about one of the most sobering, complex moments of my soul and my writer's imagination. Until Verdun, au revoir.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Ah, homecoming. London 2010

Oh, London, how I love thee. Returning to London is the homecoming of my soul. The only thing missing was the love of my life, but he had to remain in NYC as our work schedules just couldn't make a joint trip possible. But my incredible family were more than wonderful to have as traveling companions, and made the trip possible in the first place. I'm so grateful.

The London part of my trip 'across the pond' was all about recharging. A trip to London means indulging the invigorating surge that overtakes my mind and heart while walking the streets; returning to the inciting inspirations that first birthed the Strangely Beautiful saga. This trip wasn't about packing in moments of tourism, this was simply about happily wandering and paying homage. First of these blissful days had me returning to the Bloomsbury district and strolling along the paths Alexi and Rebecca would have done in a promenade route to my fictional Athens Academy. Here's a specific shot down Grape Street in the heart of Bloomsbury, which looks quite similar to what the alleys around Athens, and indeed Athens itself would appear to be.

A further course of meaningful wandering included Hampstead Heath and Highgate Cemetery, two places of particular importance and magic. Its no surprise that graveyards are particularly fascinating to me, they hold a distinct energy not replicated in any other context. Eternal crossroads, these locales are both sacred and alluring- particularly to a paranormal author. A garden-style graveyard like Highgate is the epitome of aching beauty, a paradox of life and death; eternal monuments, temporal humanity, cold stone and soft flower. You know Hampstead and Highgate well from my books. The Rychman estate is just off Hampstead Heath and Highgate Cemetery, built in the first half of the 19th century and seen pictured here, is a focal point of ghostly unrest in the Strangely Beautiful saga. In my Highgate pilgrimage, from the moment I slipped inside the gate, I again saw my Guard darting among the monuments. I paid my respects to beloved authors Douglas Adams and George Eliot among others, ever marveling at the beauty of sculpture, stone, verdant ivy and flora. Wandering nearby Hampstead Heath and looking down over London in the distance, I was transported by walking the childhood haunts of Miss Violet Rychman, who will be the star of Strangely Beautiful #4; Miss Violet and the Great War, and for whose book the bulk of the research on this trip was dedicated. I ate wild blackberries and my mind's eye watched her and the hero, William Page, doing the same as children.
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The Imperial War Museum was a day in and of itself. I spent countless hours learning about the details of World War I. It is not something I can begin to summarize in a blog post. It is sobering, terrible, incredible tales, millions of tales, millions of lives affected and lost. I will but scratch the surface in my book as I continue to learn about this behemoth struggle that was supposedly The War to End All Wars. You will hear much more about my complex response to the research when I post my Verdun, France entry later this week.
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Ghost and Jack the Ripper expert Richard Jones was kind enough to reserve a place for my family and I on his Jack the Ripper walking tour, led by Ripperologist Philip -, an expert and author on the matter. His tour was entertaining and informative and while I had gone on this tour once before, and doing so inspired me to use The Ripper in The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker, it was meaningful to do so again as certain forthcoming changes to the London streets will block certain murder sites from visitation. So paying one last homage to Mitre Square, the site of Catharine Eddowes' murder before it is irrevocably changed was important.
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An exciting signing at Forbidden Planet brought my London adventures to a close. I will have more pictures forthcoming. There couldn't have been a nicer staff and attending managers, the store is one of my favourite places on earth, a haven for all things I love, and after a rousing Doctor Who discussion, one of the managers there, Jon, gifted me with a Tom Baker (Doctor #4) action figure that now holds a sacred place on my awards shelf. I was attended there by blogger extraordinaire Hasna from The Bookpushers, ever grateful for her presence and support. It was such a delight to meet her in person. And Richard Jones himself dropped by! I was so honoured that my foremost resource on the Ghosts of England and on Jack the Ripper came by in support of my work. As you know, all the ghosts I use in the Strangely Beautiful saga, other than spirits I've created inside Athens, are real London haunts that I plucked from Richard's accounts in his many books on the subject. Please look for his next work; Haunted Britain, releasing in October. It was so thrilling to meet this kind and generous inspiration of mine in person. Having dinner with him and Hasna was such a treat, there couldn't have been a better way to say goodbye to London. If you'd like a signed copy of The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker and / or The Darkly Luminous Fight for Persephone Parker, Forbidden Planet has them ready to ship to you!
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While it was goodbye to London, it won't be for long. A girl gets too homesick for her soul's native land otherwise. Then on to Paris! And that's another entry entirely. Stay tuned. Blessings!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

RWA 2010: Miss Percy and her Prism Awards

In which I squee loudly about shiny-happy things and also promote my friends.

The 2010 RWA National Conference! A time for panels, workshops, signing books for literacy, discovering new authors, visiting old friends and making new ones. And also time for various genre and chapter awards.

First off was the literacy signing where I signed The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker and The Darkly Luminous Fight for Persephone Parker and had a lovely time chatting with readers and authors alike. Plus the signing raised $62,000 for literacy! Isn’t that cool?!

And then I had to play hookie for a bit and visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Because if I didn’t, I’d not only lose House Points… but I’d regret it forever and ever. It was AWESOME. Mind you, I’m easily pleased when it comes to HP. But the ride in the castle was spectacular, really felt like you were flying, Hogsmeade was beautifully rendered and exactly as imagined, Olivander was wonderfully played, the shopping was squee-worthy and the BUTTERBEER. OMG. Worth the price of admission. Like nothing I’ve ever tasted and yet exactly how I imagined Butterbeer. Genius. I was vibrating with happy.

Back to business: The great thing about RWA is that I’m constantly reminded how much I like the people in it. My fellow authors and pre-published authors are some of the neatest people in the world. It helped that my beloved Marianne Mancusi was one of the first people we saw in the hotel (I’m still trying to adjust to her living in Texas). Soon met up with the lovely Atlantis star Alyssa Day, hugged my dear Cindy Holby / Colby Hodge and met Cindy Dees over some cheese fries and the conference was off to a great start!

My friend and roomie extraordinare Sarah MacLean facilitated hanging with some wonderful people throughout the conference. Like Sophie Jordan (How excited am I for her RT Top Pick FIRELIGHT, a YA novel about Dragons?! So excited. Gorgeous cover, fab book trailer, and she's an awesomely nice person too!) and Gwenda Bond who won RWA’s Veritas Media Award for excellence in covering the genre, also got to see Tara Lynn Childs again, very excited for her next in her series too, not to mention the aqua highlights in her hair.

In a gathering hosted by Tessa Dare and Courtney Milan, (along with NAL author and buddy Sara Lindsey who I’ve not yet forgiven for moving out of NYC) two really great authors who I hadn’t previously gotten a chance spend time with, I was thrilled to find them as lovely hostesses as they are writers, which just makes me enjoy their books even more. I finally met Twitter buddy and fellow Gothic Romance author Erica Ridley who is as much of a live-wire as I am, and who uncannily understands me and my sense of humour- total soul-sister moments of awesome. I was reminded just how delightful Diana Peterfreund is, and we all lusted after Gwen Hayes' gorgeous cover for Falling Under with all the black roses. Gwen happens to also be exceedingly kind and sweet, which lessened the sting of cover jealousy. :) Are your TBR piles growing with this blog post? They should be!

Attended the PASIC soiree with my dear Delilah Marvelle where we waxed rhapsodic on many things, including her gorgeous new Harlequin covers. Chatted with former PASIC prez and unparalleled bestselling Thriller author Allison Brennan, who is ever a delight, and enjoyed chatting with the fabulous Jessa Slade over dessert, laughing at war stories over book covers.

Two panels of particular note were the Steampunk Panel facilitated by Suzanne Lazear of the Steamed! Blog, who was dressed in beautiful Steampunk regalia the whole time. So thrilled she’s found a great home for her Steampunk YA in Flux books, look for it next year. Cindy Holby / Colby Hodge was a panelist and fellow “Steampunk Lolita” kind enough as to mention my books as an example of using established characters from history in your re-envisioned Victoriana. Shelley Adina dressed in incredible regalia herself. Jennifer Jackson of the Donald Maas agency, who is one of the very best in the business, had great things to say from the agent perspective. Her opinion is sage, awesome, and uncannily correct. The core message was that Steampunk is still growing in popularity and visibility, and while it’s taken hold more strongly in Sci-Fi/Fantasy, crossing it into Romance still has a lot of possibility. Want to know more about Steampunk? Be sure to visit Steamed! and also make sure you get the whole Steampunk world-view by visiting Silver Goggles and Beyond Victoriana for multi-cultural Steampunk featuring amazing resources and people.

Carrie Lofty, Zoe Archer, Sherry Thomas, Jade Lee and agent Kevan Lyons put on a great panel about Unusual Historicals. Visit Unusual Historicals for the pulse of this most exciting part of Historical Romance / Fiction. Core message here is that you might be carving out a harder road by using unique and untried places / settings / scenarios, but a good book will out, as each of these women have awesomely proven.

Had a lovely Dorchester soiree where I got to catch up with Liz Maverick who's also now working at Macmillan in audio marketing – I know, we both live in NYC but its funny how it takes conferences to catch up, met Jennifer Ashley and had a fan-girl moment, met new Dorchester authors such as Kerri Nelson and Alicia Dean (very excited to read Heart of the Witch), she and I traded books and talked about our love for the horror genre.

And then it was time for The Gathering; this year a Steampunk costume party for the Prism Awards. Sponsored by the Futuristic / Fantasy / Paranormal Chapter of the RWA, the Prisms are awarded each year for excellence in the genre and broken down into the various subcategories supported within the chapter, so essentially, for those of us that write it, it’s a jury of our peers and means a lot to us. Jeffe Kennedy is an absolutely wonderful president (check out Petals and Thorns!) and our Web-Diva Allison Pang (whose debut comes out from Pocket next year!) was there as quite literal wing-woman to the awards. The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker finaled in the Fantasy Romance category and was eligible for the Best First Book category. I was up against authors that I know and love. As you all know, Miss Percy and her tale is the ‘book of my heart’ – and so... when she won the category… and then won Best First Book… there were some tears, some screams, some dancing and lots of jumping up and down. And a lot of thanks. Thanks to the FF and P chapter, and huge thanks to my editor Chris Keeslar at Dorchester, who took a chance on me and this oft hard to categorize book – and who was there to cheer me on. It was so meaningful to win two Prisms when he was there to see it. I met so many wonderful FF and P members, was really impressed by all the costumes, and cheered wildly as one of the nicest ladies in the business, Cynthia Eden, also took home two Prisms. It was an incredible night to say the least. I think my crazed-thrilled expression says it all. I’m still reeling from the honour – I’m humbled and so grateful, because it means so much for a book that struggled to find its way in the world.

When all was said and done, I got the chance to celebrate with just about everyone I’ve mentioned above, with the awesome addition of Serena Robar. My roomie Sarah MacLean in particular made sure I was well taken care of, and Gwenda made sure I was treated to some champagne – thanks ladies! Got a chance to see my Lady Jane’s fellow co-founder Maya Rodale looking lovely in a tiara and enjoying her fellow Avon ladies, like Tara, Sophie, and Katharine Ashe.

And then in fine fashion, we closed down the very Dolphin itself with the likes of Shiloh Walker, whose books I so enjoy, so it was a thrill to meet her and she was gracious enough to tweet a picture of me and one of my pretty Prism statues. Thrilled to run into Stacia Kane (always one of my favourite people to see and to party with because I so dig her style and she makes me laugh). She also writes a damn good book. People, if you don’t know her Chess Putnam series starting with Unholy Ghosts, get on it. Really incredible Urban Fantasy.

And now I’m off to England! I’m so excited to be signing at Forbidden Planet August 5th at 6pm! So excited to return to my soul’s home and drink in some atmosphere and research! I turned in Strangely Beautiful #3, THE PERILOUS PROPHECY OF GUARD AND GODDESS to my editor just before traveling, so now as I let those edits percolate, I’ll be on a mission for Strangely Beautiful #4 details. And remember, you don't have long to wait for more Strangely Beautiful goodness! Sept. 28th - A Midwinter Fantasy releases, including #2.5 "A Christmas Carroll" - Preorder!

Strangely Beautiful blessings!