Inspire Me! blog

Christmas trees & memories

Today was Christmas tree day in my household. We have as big a Fraser Fir as we can fit in our drop-ceiling rec room, and the fresh evergreen scent fills the room.

It’s going to be an awkward holiday this year, for millions of people around the globe, so we must all do the best we can to share the light with each other, through patience and kindness as we buy our groceries and gifts. Early decorating has been trending here in Ontario — I saw some house lights up early in November, and some Christmas trees in windows too.

While we may not be able to share our holiday with many people, for my hubby and I our tree is a lot more than just an annual decoration. On our honeymoon in the U.S. Virgin Islands we came across a blown-glass sea urchin ornament in a shop, and from that day onward we started bring back some memento(s) from each trip for our tree. They may or may not be actual ornaments — anything that we can hang will do. From our trip to New Zealand, on our rocky crossing via ferry from the South Island to the North Island across the Cook Strait I bought a small paperweight in the onboard shop; it has a tiny version of our boat bobbing on blue liquid inside a plastic cube, around which I wrapped a strand of fishing line to knot and loop into a hangar of sorts. The ornament just naturally hangs at a bit of a tilt, which immediately reminds us of crossing the strait in gale force winds and 9-metre swells.

The photo today shows one of my most prized ornaments. It’s a little stone replica of the Sun Gate at the highest ancient city in the world, called Tiwanaku (or Tiahuanaco, you may see it either way in books). This big ruin is so remote that most travelers will probably never see it, but ever since I first read about the mysterious ancient city I wanted to go there one day, and so the tour of Peru that I chose included a final couple of days crossing the border high in the Andes mountains into Bolivia and stopping at Tiwanaku on the way to our final destination of La Paz.

I’ll return to the rest of the tour, including Machu Picchu, a far more famous but far less enigmatic ruin, in a subsequent blog post. For today, I offer this little escape from the stress of the 2020 holiday season.

Tiwanaku is located a few miles from Lake Titicaca; when it was built it sat right on the shore, but the lake’s waters have receded since then. The high, flat, windswept Altiplano surrounds it, well above the tree line, and looking at the barren landscape you’ll immediately wonder how anyone ever managed to live in such an inhospitable place.

But the ancient builders had many secrets up their sleeve, including an ingenious system of agriculture that consisted of raised beds which lifted the plants off the cold ground and created stopped micro-climates.

The next question would be how they built nine- to ten-foot high walls and statues out of massive stone blocks weighing up to ten tons, with no logs around to roll these blocks from one spot to another.

Mysteries abound at roughly 13,000 feet up in the snow-capped mountains — why this location, where did the stone come from, how was it cut so precisely?

Tiwanaku began to attract attention after a Spanish conquistador named Pedro de Cieza de Leon found his way to it in 1549. To this day no one knows who built it, but when de Leon asked the locals if the ruins had been built in the time of the Incas, they “laughed at the question…that they were built before they reigned, but that they could not state or affirm who built them.”

Archeological excavations began in the 1900s, and continues to this day. Funding and the conditions at the high altitude have kept progress slow, and it’s currently estimated that less than one-quarter of the ancient citadel has been revealed so far.

One of the mysteries remains how old the place is — suggestions range from about 1,500 to thousands of years. An Austrian naval engineer named Arthur Posnansky, working on the site in the early 1900s, used astronomical measurements to determine that the main temple, the Kalasasaya, on a raised mound and surrounded by a great stone-block wall, would have last been aligned with the Sun at about 15,000 years B.C.

In the middle of the temple, barely excavated, sits the massive Gateway of the Sun.

On one side the capstone is carved with a central figure of Viracocha, the South American creator god, surrounded by numerous carvings, one of which is an animal that no longer walks our planet.

To me it looks like some kind of raptor with a horn protruding above its hooked beak, but apparently in the 1930s biologists identified it as a toxodont, a creature that hasn’t existed since the last Ice Age, about 11,000 years ago. That would mean the Tiwanaku people predated the Incas by thousands of years, with building techniques arguably just as advanced.

The site is littered with a variety of oddly-carved stone blocks with precision cuts. There are even more of them at Puma Punku nearby; if you’re a fan of the show Ancient Aliens you’ll likely have seen theories that Puma Punku was an alien landing site.

One of the strangest parts of Tiwanku, to me at least, is the ‘subterranean temple’, just beyond the Kalasasaya, sunken into the ground and lined with a stone wall studded with dozens of stone heads. It’s quite eerie to walk around.

The entire site feels very mysterious, out in the middle of nowhere high enough to touch the clouds. Rain clouds were looming overhead when we arrived, and by the time we made the longish walk to the Akapana, the stepped temple you first arrive at, we had only a few minutes with a guide with poor English before the skies let loose.

Everyone ran back to the visitor centre to have lunch, and I’m not sure the rest of our tour had gotten any idea of the importance of what they’d had the rare opportunity to see.

Then the sun came out and I asked if I could take another look. Our tour guide gave me twenty minutes, so I legged it back (my hubby’s knees were bothering him and he decided to remain near the bus to make sure it didn’t leave without me) and hiked along the long stone wall of the Kalasasaya, closely followed by a yellow bird that accompanied me the entire way — perhaps I picked up a spirit guide for a short time.

I was the only person in our group to see the sunken temple, and it was worth the frantic hike to get there. I wish we’d had more time to spend there, but at least I got a short look at what may be the oldest temple in South America, way up in the rarefied air of the Andes on the roof of the world.

We have ornaments from a lot of places, but this one, which I bought at a string of little open-air shops spreading out along the small town that tourism built just outside the archeological site, is always hung close to where I sit on the rec room sofa in the evenings so that I can see it every day. It’s a very special memory for me, from one of those places that rise out of the mists of time to haunt us today.

The final push

It’s the final five days of the November writing marathon. Some writers have already reached 50,000 words; others haven’t commented for days and I wonder how they’re doing. I have only a little over 6,000 words to go, so I’m on the home stretch as far as the contest target is concerned. The finished book will be quite a bit longer, though, so I have more work to do. On November 1st, though, I couldn’t picture myself getting this far, so I’m pretty pleased.

NaNoWriMo has been a great exercise in perseverance, and it’s shown me that I can actually produce a novel. There will be editing and beta readers down the road, but for now I’m looking forward to typing those golden words, “The End”, in the near future.

While I’m plugging away this week to reach the finish line I offer this tiny peek into my book’s first draft. It’s a dream sequence my heroine has one night after a strange and unsettling experience in an old library. Let me know what you think.

Out of the mind’s eye

It’s week three of the NaNoWriMo writing marathon and some participants are feeling frantic. I’ve seen comments from writers that they’ve got lots of words that in total feel like a confused mess, or they’re just now getting down to the brass tacks of writing after spending the first two weeks laying out the plot. We’re not supposed to worry about editing, but some people feel they need to in order to get back on track.

There are as many writing styles as there are participants. I went into this with a lot of background research already in the can – I’ve often used that type of research to spark ideas – as well as a pretty solid outline of my first book’s plot with threads that will tie into Books Two and Three. I also created detailed diagrams of two key locations in Book One, a small town where the bulk of the action takes place, and a college campus within that town. To me these places are vivid in my mind’s eye, but laying them out on electronic paper in a way that made them work logically solidified them. Now, when my heroine is exploring these places, I can describe her exact path as if she was navigating a real town or college campus, and I’ll be consistent every time the action takes place in these locales (I hope 😊).

Writing reminds me of taking photographs. For a long time on my travels I took photos of the famous places we visited. My slides of Egypt, for example, where my hubby and I went early in our marriage, are pretty standard shots – the Pyramids, each of us sitting on a block of the Great Pyramid, the Sphinx’s enigmatic face, the Nile, cruising up the Nile… Well, you get the idea.

But as time went on I began to use more of a painter’s eye, to capture more scenes that told a story. Paintings by the old Masters like Rembrandt are tiny novels in paint form – you have to study all the components to understand what they’re telling you, from the choice of colours, the use of light/shadow/emphasis, and the artist’s decision of what to include both in the foreground and in the background. Every single detail was put there for a specific reason, and so it is with good photographs, especially travel photographs.

I began to realize that most of my viewers would never actually see or experience what I was standing in front of at that moment, whether it was beautiful or ugly, so I wanted to be able to bring it to them virtually, through my photos.

A couple of years ago my hubby and I visited Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, a microcosm of the American Revolutionary war. The docents were exemplary in explaining in unflinching detail what life was like for residents on both sides of the conflict. Walking through one of the original houses from the time period, that of a wealthy landowner, I was struck by this document in the home and had to take a photo of it.

It lists the family’s possessions and their monetary value, and included in that tally were all the slaves. Along with items of furniture and garden tools, each slave was assigned an amount in pounds sterling, the currency in use in the colonies before the Revolution. Each of these humans were valued as pieces of property, and not even of equal value. If you were a strong adult male, for example, you were worth more than someone aged who couldn’t do as much work any more. There right in front of me was something that brought to life the awfulness of the slave system in a way more compelling than many shows I’ve watched, because it wasn’t just a portrayal, it was a real thing. Any person who sees this photo will likely be able to feel the same emotion I felt standing in front of that piece of paper.

As writers it’s our job to do the same thing as this photo or a piece of art, to create a scene which is in our head so vividly that our readers can see it too, and can feel the emotions of the characters, whether love, fear, anger, revulsion, lust, hope, despair. If we’re writing about something that really happened it’s easier, but if we’re creating an entire imagined world in a book we have to be able to see it as if we’d lived it before we can share it with you the reader. So I empathize with my fellow marathoners in trying to get that out onto paper. We do it because there’s a story that simply must be told.

The distant shore

Well, I’m about one-third of the way through my NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) goal of 50,000 written words by the end of November. I’m out in the middle of the lake hoping to reach the half-way point soon, and the far shore is in sight.

I can’t speak for everyone who’s determined to finally write their first/second/fifth novel this month, but so far for me it’s been incredibly rewarding.

Writing stories was my first love when I was growing up, but in my first year of high-school I fell in love with Biology and decided that’s what I wanted to study in university. I came by that honestly – my dad would have done the same if he’d had the opportunity, but when he was a young man in Europe he was expected to help out on the family farm. It was a waste of a great mind, and he supported me fully in pursuing the same dream. Although he’d already passed away by the time my hubby and I were able to go to Africa, I felt like maybe he was watching happily as our safari vehicle took us through so many fascinating landscapes filled with wonderful wild animal encounters.

All through adulthood I continued to want to write a little bit, jotting the beginnings of many different novels. Life got in the way, though, and I never finished any of them. A few years ago, however, I started homing in on an idea I’d had for a long time. I began doing a lot of background research and outlining some plot points.

Research and plot-tinkering are great ways to put off actually putting fingers to keyboard, though. I shared the same fear as many starting writers: can I write well enough to bring this story to life, or will I be wasting my time?

The great thing about this month of marathon writing is that it frees you to just write what’s in your head without worrying yet about getting it just right, and 30 days is not a very big chunk of time out of your life to give it a shot.

I had all the chapters worked out beforehand – the sequence of events that will take my (one-day) readers from the Inciting Event (the event that changes everything for the protagonist) to the (hopefully) thrilling Climax. And in my case, I also hope the first book will be enthralling enough to make my readers want to continue on the rest of the journey through books two and three.

What’s especially interesting about this process is that I started out worrying about how I was going turn my bare skeleton into a seaworthy craft, and then take myself on the actual journey with my heroine. What I’ve been finding is that the ship is in many ways building and sailing itself. When I sit down to write, the ideas are all falling into place. I guess that’s a good sign, and time will tell.

But more than that, the words are – mostly – coming out the way I want to express them. I’m not spilling out a confused mess just to get my word-count in, I’m writing paragraphs and scenes that I’m quite pleased with.

That’s not to say that I may not want or need to do a lot of editing and perhaps some rewriting before I let some beta readers have a look at it, and then some more tweaking based on their feedback. But I see the far shore, and there’s a landing site. And the journey to get there is a revelation.

So for all of you who have a pet project you’ve always wanted to try, just start doing it. You may find, as I am finding, that it’s like a snowball rolling down a hill that keeps gathering more and more snow and momentum as it goes until it becomes a fully-realized snow-person. It’s never too late to start one, and even if it doesn’t become an award-winning snow-person, in the end you can have the satisfaction of saying that you finally did it!

A new chapter

Sadly, Halloween has passed for another year. Our ‘Dr. Frankenstein’s Lab’ candy table turned out well:

We only had about ten kids come trick-or-treating, although apparently that was a good number compared to other neighbourhoods. The kids who did visit our house got quite a kick out of it, and my hubby and I did have a lot of fun handing out (touch-free) treat bags that way and sending puffs of fog out to drift eerily around the circle in the still cool night; we may turn it into a permanent tradition. I have to admit some disappointment that more people in our neighbourhood didn’t hand out candy — granted, my hubby and I have a lot of props on hand from various parties we’ve thrown over the years (in fact, he suggested we could probably have decorated our entire circle) — but this seemed like such a cute and fairly safe tradition to hold up this year, a much-needed breath of lightness into a dismal year.

No one has any idea so far regarding what the December holidays may bring, but in the meantime, this year I’m participating in the annual National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) event this month. If you haven’t heard of it, you can find out much more about it here. Each year thousands of writers attempt to pull a novel out of their heads and put it onto paper (real or electronic, whatever suits their style) with at least 50,000 words. The idea is to just get it written, a first draft unencumbered by worries about making it the perfect book of our dreams. As someone who’s been researching, jotting ideas down and drafting the odd orphan paragraph for years, I can attest to how freeing this process is.

We earn badges along the way for things like updating our word count each day, and we can connect to other writers through different groups with a specific focus, or during “write-ins” (short dedicated marathon writing sessions that encourage us to put more words down).

Personally I’m finding it rather liberating to just let ideas flow wherever my mind’s eye takes me and worry at a later date about which ones I want to keep for the final product, and so far, just sitting down with my fingers on my keyboard seems to bring all kinds of interesting ideas to mind. Maybe at some point I’ll run into writer’s block, but I’m content to enjoy the journey.

If you’re wondering what I’m writing about, for now I’ll just say that it’s an urban fantasy with some touches of sci-fi, about a woman who discovers that, far back in her ancestry, she is descended from a race on another planet, and that her progenitor was placed here for a specific purpose because of certain abilities inherent in her bloodline. The concept sprang from my family’s annual road trips to northern Ontario when I was a child — every time we passed an exit ramp leading away into the mysterious unknown, I’d imagine what it would be like to one day explore those other roads. From there my imagination, inspired heavily by Roger Zelazny’s Amber series, extrapolated to roads that led to other dimensions or other planes of existence.

For now I’ll continue sending my heroine on her warrior/hero journey. I know where she’s going and how she’ll end up by the close of the third and final book, but I’m having a blast getting her there and I hope that one day in the near future you’ll be able to read her story yourself. Today it stands at 6467 words, more than 10% of the ultimate goal. Stay tuned for more, and if you feel so inspired yourself, it doesn’t cost anything to sign up for NaNoWriMo.

Dark and Dangerous

Our neighbour remarked the other day, smiling, as he watched my hubby and I string eyeball lights along the roofline of our front portico and hang a moaning ghoul on one corner, “There’s another sure sign of fall – the two of you putting up Halloween decorations!”

Just two days until all of us pretend-ghosts and other creatures of the night (or whatever your favourite alter-ego might be) get to have a little fun. There’s been a lot of debate about whether Halloween should be celebrated this year, and I’m firmly on the side of Absolutely! There are so many ways that it can be done safely, and this year in particular I think we need to celebrate whatever we can to bring a little lightness into our lives.

We’ll be out front handing out treat bags with ‘mad-scientist’ tongs while fog creeps out from our bushes and a Bluetooth speaker spins out my favourite Halloween playlist in the background.

I’ve been bingeing on old sci-fi movies all week, but on Halloween night it’s time for something special – something like the best remake I’ve ever seen, the 2011 version of an old cult favourite, Fright Night.

If you’re not familiar with either, the 1985 original told the story of a teenager, Charlie Brewster, who notices that a mysterious gentleman has moved into the old Victorian house next door. Eventually he becomes convinced that his new neighbour Jerry, played deliciously by Chris Sarandon, is a vampire. Unable to convince anyone else of that, and terrified for his life, Charlie enlists the reluctant help of an aging horror movie actor and late-night host named Peter Vincent (played by the superb Roddy McDowell) whose persona was that of a vampire hunter. A young Amanda Bearse (Marcy in Married…with Children) played Charlie’s pretty girlfriend, who catches the dangerous eye of Jerry as well. With quirky charm and a credible plot of a likeable teenager faced with evil who can’t get anyone to believe him, plus the dark and sexy Jerry, some gore and mounting suspense, and an atmospheric music soundtrack, the movie became a cult hit that showed up regularly on television around Halloween.  

Fright Night (2011) did an amazing job of updating the plot to modern-day Las Vegas, where Charlie and his mom, played by the fabulous Toni Collette, live in a remote suburb in which half the residents have night jobs on the Strip and no one really pays any attention to the new neighbour who never appears during the day. Charlie, trying to be cool for his girlfriend, one of the class hotties, brushes off the vampire ravings of his geeky former friend Ed until he begins to notice all the classmates who’ve started disappearing, including Ed one day. This time Colin Farrell is a sexy but very sinister Jerry the vampire, and Dr. Who no.10 himself, David Tennant, is delightfully outrageous as Peter Vincent, a dissipated and blasé Las Vegas illusionist. A hip and edgy soundtrack, clever plotting that upends quite a few horror clichés, a fair bit of humour and some truly frightening scenes make this a much better movie than the 6.3 rating posted on IMDB. Chris Sarandon even makes a surprise appearance, but you’ll have to keep your eyes peeled – I didn’t spot him the first time around.

If you’re a fan of vampire movies and you have the time, you may want to watch them both – there are enough differences between the two that you won’t be bored. Turn out the lights, pour yourself some red wine, and enjoy Halloween!

“For ‘Fright Night’, we really want to convey the fun attitude of the movie and show the intensity of Colin Farrell as a predator. He’s not a brooding vampire – he’s dark and dangerous.” Stacey Snider