Saturday, November 29, 2008

No longer a decorating refugee

I have moved back into my study, but still need to figure out which pictures go where. I am also waiting for the curtain rail to go up. The room does look far warmer and I do like coralline as a colour. It contrasts nicely with the white and gives a lovely classical feel.
Coralline was popular in the Kingdom of Naples. The royal palace at Casserta is painted coralline on the exterior, for example.
My current wip is going slowly and I made the mistake of reading a research for another time period. Immediately my daemon started whispering story ideas. But it is also a ruse as my daemon dislikes hard work at times and sometimes, dangles the prospect of a lovely new story, unsullied by words that do not turn out properly. I have learnt to resist such blandishments. BUT I have learnt a lot...

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving plus cranberry sauce

Happy Thanksgiving.
Today is one of the days that I stop and pause and reflect on how many blessings I have in my life. There are so many things to be thankful for -- my family, my friends, the people who read my books, and the people who read my blog. It is so easy to overlook the good things in life.

Some years, we have a big dinner and have lots of people around on a Saturday but not this year. This year, it is just the family and we are having the feast on Thanksgiving.

This year like most other years, I have made cranberry sauce. I learnt to make cranberry sauce when I was five. The produce man from the local supermarket visited my kindergarten to encourage the children to learn about vegetables and to try something fresh. The supermarket had just opened and they had a big fresh vegtable section. He mentioned cranberries and how even children could make cranberry sauce. When I got home, I begged and pleaded with my mother and was allowed to try. A tradition was born -- despite my brother's protests.
Cranberry sauce is very easy to make and you make it -- sweeter or more tart depending on the amount of sugar. The recipe makes more than enough for one meal.
Take one packet of cranberries (at the moment in the UK, they are 300 grams in weight)
Place same amount of water -- 300 ml (approximate 1 1/2 cups of water) and 100 grams (1 cup) sugar in a large saucepan. Stir to dissolve the sugar. Bring to a boil for about five minutes. Add the washed cranberries. Move to a lower heat and bring to another boil. The cranberries will begin to pop. Allow to boil for about five more minutes. Take from heat and pour into a glass bowl. Allow to cool. The sauce will set.
If you prefer a smooth jelly (my brother did), you can push the mixture through a jelly bag but for me this always seems like too much fuss and I like the berries.
Fresh cranberries also make great bread and cranberry apple pie is fantastic. I use the left over cranberry sauce in making a cranberry nut bread.
Wherever you are -- may your blessings be great and your troubles few.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Submitting and changes

Sometimes unpublished writers ask -- if they ask for the full manuscript, does that mean I can edit the first three chapters?

ANSWER: Yes, you want to submit the strongest manuscript possible. If in the interim, you have discovered a better way to show the readers in the first three chapters, go for it. It is vital that the first three chapters grab and hold the reader.

When I get revisions, can I make major changes like the backstory? Cutting characters? Moving scenes etc etc?

ANSWER: Yes, if it makes the story stronger. Revisions are all about making the story as strong as possible and sometimes the problems lie within the backstory or within the structure of the story. The types of revisions you are given is often dependant on the editor's perception of your skill as a writer in doing revisions and the way she can see to fix some of the problems. When you are given revisions, it is because the editor believes in you and your ability to write.
Always ask yourself -- what is the editor truly asking here? And what is the problem that she is seeing? And why?

Ultimately the editor wants the strongest possible book to go out into the world.

Strong stories that speak to readers should be the goal of every writer whatever their stage in their career.

Right now, I hope I write strong stories...My fingers remain crossed that I did the revisions correctly. And I am hoping my new story will be truly powerful. Ah, my old friends -- The Corws of Doubt have come circling.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Secondary characters

Because I have started writing something a bit different, I have gone back to the beginning with looking at craft books etc. I am reminded of the clock face Twyla Tharp mentioned -- how craftsmen have to polish up one skill, and then the next. Anyway, I started to read Donald Maass Writing the Break Out Novel Workbook AGAIN and not just going for the bits I like butthinking about some of the other bits and thinking about how I can apply this. It has highlighted so many areas that I need to work on, areas I thought I knew instinctively. It is the old things you think you know syndrome. And it is helpful to go back to basics.
Last night, I happened to be looking at secondary characters. All too often, Maass point out secondary character's main motivation is to say their lines and get off stage as quickly as possible. He says that it is impossible for a secondary character to take over, but I am not so sure about that -- nearly having had Simon Clare take over A Question of Impropriety. But I do know what he means -- secondary characters need to have a life. They need to have conflicting qualities, extra dimensions and larger than life qualities. They simply have to do in less space. Sometimes a lightening quick sketch can give a lot of insight.
The exercise about choose a character who aids your protagonist got me thinking. How can I add an extra dimension? How can make the motivation different from the easy one? Why is this character with his hopes and dreams going to become real to me? And how can I use him to add colour to the world?
One of the good things that I have done this year is to look at different lines. Some lines have far more characters but about the same line count. It has been interesting to see how a few deft words can really create an impression.

The decorating continues. The plastering is done. The first coat is on in my study. And I like the colour (always a bonus.) BUT it does mean the living room has to be cleared now...

Monday, November 24, 2008

On being a decorating refugee

It is happening today. My study is being repainted. Properly. The painters are arriving. They will also be doing the living room and the sun room (one the builders depart). They have promised to be finished before Christmas. But everything is out of my study and the computer now occupies a corner of my dh's study. It is a cold corner, next to the window and the Arctic air is seeping through. There have already been mutterings about piles of papers and books. So it is the computer and that is all.
Why do we get painters in? Basically, painting and decorating disasters we have known. From spending weeks hanging wallpaper only to discover that we should have taken the old wallpaper off first as it kept falling down to general calamities with paint which meant I have hung up my paint brush. With relief, I might add.
There is a reason these people are professionals and I am not.
So I will suffer the inconvenience and the cold, knowing that I should have a beautifully painted study for Christmas. It is going to be coralline -- a peachy pink coral colour and should be a warm colour. Blue is too cold for a room that never gets any sunlight.
The living room and sun room will stay the same colour, but will be brighter.
Then the entire house should be in theory finished. But first I need to get through this.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Viking Warrior, Unwilling Wife has a book widget

I was very pleased when I learnt that Viking Warrior, Unwilling Wife was going to have a book widget. Although the passion lines in the US have book widgets, HH normally doesn't and it is thanks to the very lovely Kim S that VWUW does. It means you can read the entire first chapter before you buy!

It is a lovely idea. Hopefully, they will start putting ALL the Harlequin Historical offerings as book widgets.

Kim has also put seven writing tips from me on the Harlequin Historical my space page. I believe she will be putting them HH facebook page as well. And I know Kim has all these wonderful things planned for December -- fantasy dinner parties and the like. So if you have not checked out the Harlequin Historical page on my space or facebook, you might like to do so. Kim is doing a marvellous job.

One upcoming event I should mention is the annual eharlequin open house on 11 Dec. There will be lots of free prizes for random posters. Basically, you show up and post a message. HH is having an all day board as are other lines like Presents, Romance, and Medical. This is because the authors are scattered all over the world and they want to be able to attend. Mainly US based lines like Nocturne or Intrigue have intense one hours chats in the evening. Anyway, it is a great time and a great way to celebrate Harlequin and Christmas.

It is Arctic conditions here and this is testing my resolve not to put on the heating. I do remind myself that many people have survived without central heating before and it is not as if we have several feet of snow on the ground...But it does make the early morning interesting, and hot water bottles have suddenly developed a premium in this household...

Friday, November 21, 2008

November Reader contest winners and December contest preview

I drew the names out of the hat today. Jane Armstead won the first prize of her choice of a hardback copy of either A Question of Impropriety or Viking Warrior, Unwilling Wife. And Gina won her choice from one of my paperbacks. Both have been notified by email.

I will be running a contest in my December newsletter where the first prize will be a hardback copy of Impoverished Miss, Convenient Wife as I should be getting my hardback copies then. I will also be offering a critique of a partial for aspiring writers.

This week, I was really pleased to learn that the partial I critiqued for the winner of last year's December contest has gone to revisions on the full. Apparently the editor said much as I had and she is excited at the opportunity. Hooray for Kathleen G. Kathleen has also promised me a copy of her first published novel and I am holding her to it. She has a lovely voice.

My contests are open to anyone who subscribes to my newsletter...

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Hugh Jackman -- Sexiest Man alive

Thanks to Carrie Lofty (whose debut book What A Scoundrel I am eagerly awaiting from Amazon), I discovered that People Magazine have voted Hugh Jackman -- the sexiest man alive this year.
Daniel Craig is number two.

I do think that a number of romance writers, readers of the Pink Heart Society etc would easily agree.
NB, I must remember to use Hugh Jackman as inspiration sometime.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Cookbooks and me

Natasha Oakley has written about the joys of cookbooks on thePink Heart Society today.

I will cheerfully admit to having too many cookbooks. However, I also find it very fun to get new cookbooks. I like to have cookbooks from places I have visited (or want to visit).Cookbooks from restaurants I have been to (or sometimes want to go to). Cookbooks from certain television chefs. Cookbooks that celebrate certain types of cooking -- we have a lot of Mexican/New Mexican books as Middle Eastern and Italian cookbooks. Because my husband has gone through a curry making craze, we also have a load of Indian cookbooks.

I also tend to cook with the cookbooks. My husband uses the books for inspiration purposes but I tend to follow recipes. I also like reading about the history of recipes or an area.

My latest acquisition Francesco's Kitchen details a lot of Venetian cookery plus has a lot of interesting info on Venice. We are going to Venice in March, so I am interested in learning about the city. I have also been reading John Julius Norwich's History of Venice (but that doesn't have any recipes) and am about to start A Thousand Days in Venice by Marlena de Blasi which apparently does. However, as that book has been lent by a friend, I shall have to be careful. It is one of her comfort reads.

I do not tend to get general cookbooks or how to cook cookbooks.And therefore do not have any Nigella or Jamie Oliver. A good cookbook is one where I can two or three new recipes...

Anyway, I believe my husband has decided that we do have too many cookbooks...that is until I happen to find the next one...

Monday, November 17, 2008

Philistine with a capital F

When I first came to the UK as a Junior Year Abroad student, the professor in charge of the group used to say that we were philistines with a capital F. In other words, we were so ignorant about culture that we could not even spell the word philistine correctly.

The phrase came back to me when I read Barbara Ellen's column in the Observer yesterday. She went on about how disappointing Pompeii was and how when she went she wanted to see the plaster casts in situ and all there was was a few crumbling frescoes etc. Really dull and why would anyone want to go.

Her remarks were up there with the 18th century traveller who complained that there were no dancing girls or gaming and thus little to hold his interest!

She obviously did not go to Herculaneum as there are bones in situ -- and they are almost unbearable to see. Three people -- a man and a woman aged about 20 and a boy in his teens -- all found together in an upper room. The woman's head was resting against the man's chest when the volcanic mud over took them. We do not know if they were slaves left behind or the children of the house. They were about the only bodies found in Herculaneum until the discovery of the 250 plus in the boat houses. The boat houses are not open to the public. You can just make out the bones in this picture, but trust me when I say that I was glad to leave the room.

Personally I found it very easy to imagine the people in Pompeii and had no wish to be ghoulish. The plaster casts in the locked up area were enough. There was one where the man had sunk down and put his hands up in front of his face. Another was of a dog. But I was glad to leave them behind and to explore the site.
The major problem with both sites is the looting. Even today when people should know better, it is possible to see places where unknown individuals have tried to lift mosaics. I understand that a large museum is planned for both sites, but this is Southern Italy and these things take time. But all you have to do is look with half closed eyes at the great and terrible beauty, then back up at the Destroyer glowering behind.

Neither Pompeii or Herculaneum are dull, but they do take a modicum of imagination. I note that Ms Ellen is also not overly fond of Mills & Boon books either.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Reading like a reader

One of the reasons why I became a writer is that I love to read. However, because I wanted to know a lot about the process of writing, I also learnt to dissect writing. I love craft books. I love learning how and why writing works (or how or why someone thinks writing works). It became a rare book that I could read without dissecting. And I valued those authors highly. Reading on the whole became less enjoyable and this was not good. Why did I have to make a choice between the two?
But when I was at lunch with my then editors last year, it was pointed out to me that editors are trained to read as readers first. To paraphrase Isabel Swift -- they are looking at the doughnut and not the hole. It is only after they have their reactions as readers that they try and dissect and discover why their reaction is not the correct one. Could I do that I wondered? Had been far too focused on what was wrong? Or what techniques were used?
So I have been busy retraining myself. I read first and capture the enjoyment of reading. THEN, I dissect. Reading is an exercise in feeling and tension. Later, if I need to, then I go back and see why I had those feelings. But sometimes, great writing isn't technically perfect. What it is about is those feelings that are engendered and the page turning ness of the read.
So now rather deciding if I am reading as a writer, or simply reading to learn more about the craft, I read first as a reader and allow the story to sweep me away. If it works, why should a writer fix it? If it falls flat, then that is another case entirely.
The other thing I have been doing recently as I am in the prelims and early stages of my next wip is to go back and read Donald Maass and other books on craft that made sense. are they still making sense? Have I become complacent about my skills? It is helping to make connections.
A major bonus is that I can enjoy reading once again.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Cataromance Review of A Question of Impropriety

As regular readers of this blog will know, I wait for Julie Bunello's reviews. I know that Julie loves romance, in particular series romance, and is a highly experienced reviewer. Her reviews are always a joy to read. It is part of my ritual when I get my author's copies to send one off to Julie and wait for her verdict. She never fails to disappoint.
The part of the review that I loved was:

A Question of Impropriety is another terrific novel from a writer who never fails to deliver dramatic, evocative, enthralling and poignant historical romances. Michelle Styles can make an era of history come vividly to life and in A Question of Impropriety she once again sweeps her readers off to the Regency and makes them fall in love with her gorgeous hero and lovely heroine!
Spellbinding, passionate and captivating from start to finish, once I started A Question of Impropriety, I couldn’t put the book down and I ended up devouring this delightful concoction of intrigue, adventure and romance in a single sitting!
4.5 stars.

It is wonderful to think of any reader devouring one of my books in a single sitting, let alone Julie. So this was a real boost to my day. You can read the whole review here.

Yesterday, I had a lovely time at the RNA Northumberland Christmas lunch. One of the chapter members kindly told me that she had been shopping in WH Smiths when she noticed the woman in front of her buying my latest. She lent over and told the woman that she knew me. The woman glowed and said that she loved my books and had read every single one! It is moments like that makes writing worthwhile...Writing is a lonely profession and so often the author does not hear about the pleasure her books give.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Article in the Hexham Courant about me and my books

As a result of the BBC Radio Newcastle interview, a journalist from the Hexham Courant contacted me and a piece has appeared in the paper. The article is positive and the photo cheerful. You can see the new bookcase in the background.
It appeared on page 3 of the news section rather than in the arts section.

Mole reaction

When informed of our velvet coated gentleman caller, my husband became absolutely delighted. He is hoping to see Mr Mole...In the meantime, we shall just be stamping down the molehills. As my husband pointed out, the lawn can never be called perfect... How long this state of affairs lasts, we shall have to see... there again can a mole do more damage than a flock of free range ducks and hens? As long as Mr Mole keeps out of the veg patch, I think he will be left in peace.
My youngest saw a barn owl on the way up from school. My fingers are firmly crossed that we have one in the village and I get to see it. We do get tawny owls, but barn owls are something special.

Ginger Simpson kindly included me on her I love the blog roll of 7 blogs.
7 blogs that I read every day include:
Unusual Historicals
Tote Bags
Pink Heart Society
Carrie Lofty
India Grey (who is currently trying to choose a new hero)
Donna Alward
Nell Dixon

I also read other blogs but these will do for the moment.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


I have just opened the curtains and a horrible thought struck me -- a mole has invaded the garden. The back lawn now has several piles of fresh dirt. Mole hills. You could never say that the lawn is prestine -- the ducks and hens are often on it, but we have never had a mole invasion before. It is slightly disconcerting to have a velvet coated gentleman come to call.
The question will be how to discourage his return visit. I have no wish for Mr Mole to set up a permanent residence in the lawn. It is supposed to be a lawn after all.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Indoor Rowing update

It has been nearly three months since I started indoor rowing. Somehow the Olympics seems a long time ago. This means six weeks to Christmas is a blink of an eye btw -- a very scary thought.

So what has happened since August? My energy levels have gone up. I am losing inches and have started to fit into jeans that I had given up on. I have stopped weighing myself. I dare say that I could lose more weight, but I like to eat. I have noticed that my appetite in general is less greedy and I am less likely to start raiding the fridge when I am working. The fact that my clothes are either getting looser or are starting to fit again, shows that my over all body shape is going in the direction I want it to go in.

My mind is working less sluggishly. And there is a certain amount of satisfaction in rowing.

It was hard in many ways to come back after being holiday. Getting an airplane cold did not help. But I did noticed the increased energy level on holiday and want to keep up the rowing.

The other good thing is that because we are keeping our central heating off, I have found rowing raises my core temperature. This means not only am I warm during the workout but I feel warmer for hours afterward. Surely this is a good thing as well.

Because I have a bad back, I have kept the resistance low (3) on the machine and this appears to work. I am getting a lot of benefit from it. Too often I think people are tempted to put the resistance up, thinking that they will get a better workout. Low impact workouts that involve aerobic exercise can be great. The key is NOT to get injured.

Also I would advise getting the deluxe padded seat. It may be plastic, but goodness, it does help.

The key to this getting fit is in finding something that I am willing to do often. I am very aware of how easy it is to give up on things and to let things slip. So it is onwards towards Christmas.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Turning in revisions the second time

Yesterday, I turned my revisions to the latest Viking in -- please God let me have closed all the plot holes and not made any ones. Please let me have made my characters strong and compelling enough. This is a prayer from the heart.

Personally I think the book is a far better one now and I can understand why my editors saw what they did. It is always far better to have someone point out the problems...

Today I am going to attempt to get my latest newsletter out. I wanted to get it out last Friday but really the revisions took up a lot of my time.

The house is a complete and utter tip though. And there are unconfirmed rumours that Christmas is about 6 weeks away.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Remembrance Sunday 2008

Today is Remembrance Sunday. It is 90 years since WWI ended on the 11 th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

It is good to stop and consider those who paid the ultimate sacrifice so that we might live in freedom.

I know when I went to Monte Cassino and saw the huge Polish graveyard and then the British Commonwealth cemetery, the magnitude of the sacrifice was brought home to me. You can just make out the cross shape of the Polish cemetery from this picture.
Many of the graves had simple words -- like died without a stain on his character, or we will remember him. At one grave, someone had placed a picture of the man and the fading photograph of a brave young man in WW2 stared back at me.
Death in war is equal opportunity. Some of those who fell and were buried there were majors, and lt colonels, others were privates, several were simply listed as drivers.

When my eldest went to the WWI battlefields last year, part of the school project was to look up those who fell from our village. Again, they came from all walks of life, but most were farm hands. One had gone out to South Africa but returned when his country was in peril.

There are only at most 31 villages in England who do not have war memorials from WWI. These are the villages where all the men and women came home and they are called the Thankful Villages. 24 have been positively identified. None are in Northumberland. The sheer scale is impossible to comprehend sometimes. But when you realise the norm was for villages and towns to have lost someone, then it starts to become clear. Equally I think finding out about one or two who died helps. It means that they cease to be just a name or just a memorial. And visiting one of the cemeteries also helps bring home the sacrifice these men and women made.

There are many brave men and women who are fighting now and I salute them and hope they all come home.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

The unexpected

Yesterday, I finally watched Consuming Passion: 100 years of Mills & Boon. What the BBC did was to look at three women's lives and the way M&B books made an impact. The stories were intertwined. They followed the real life story of Mary Boon (which I thought became the most interesting), the fictional account of an unmarried woman in 1974 whose disappointment in love leads her to become a M&B author and in 2008 a university lecturer who is teaching M&B books in a course on the romantics. All three women end up becoming empowered by their experience and their lives take a different direction.
However, I let out many excited squeals of delight when the opening credits rolled. The producer/art director had cleverly used real book covers with the actor's names in place of the authors. Suddenly I saw my book -- An Impulsive Debutante. The actor O T Fagbenle was listed. I had thought perhaps it was because he was a newcomer and therefore it was a slight inside joke, but have looked him up and see that he has been acting professionally since age 14! He has also appeared in Dr Who and something called grown ups. Anyway, he did play his part of the provocative love interest to the university lecturer quite well. (Although I will admit to wondering -- what else did the Emilia Fox character see in him, what was it about him that challenged her) But I was very honoured to have his name on my book cover as it were. And I suspect that he will have a very long career in front of him.
Later in the programme, the Emilia Fox character gives a lecture using M&B covers to illustrate how the heroes have changed. It was lovely to see Anne MacAllister's cover for The Nanny and the Playboy (Anne's latest has just been released in the UK btw) and one of Kate Hardy's.
It is a fun programme and so fingers crossed that it is repeated on BBC 2 and on BBC America.

Realms on Our Bookshelves have reviewed A Question of Impropriety. The reviewer said many lovely things. But one of the things I was proudest of was: I used to enjoy historical romances like these but have been sidetracked by intricate and intense historical, contemporary and paranormal romances. Reading this book I remembered what true Regency is all about and I enjoyed it immensely. With Michelle Styles’ keen eye for historical details like clothing and food and her knowledge of subjects typical to the time-period, like horses and engines, she took me on a journey back in time to the 19th century.

Regular readers of this blog will know how hard I worked last year on the book, and the revisions. So I am very pleased when I am to connect with readers and reviewers.

My newsletter should go out in the next couple of days. but currently I am trying to get the revisions done for the latest Viking. Right now I am far happier with it. I really want this one to be totally excellent. It should go to my editors on Monday.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Excursion from Sorrento: Capri

To get to Capri from Sorrento -- you take a ferry from the Piccolo Marina. The Piccolo Marina is the larger of the two marinas and it is where the cruise ships, yachts and ferries go in and out of. But because the Grande Marina was there first, it gets the grander title.

The state run ferry is slower but much cheaper. When we took this ferry, it was supposed to arrive at 9:25 but eventually came in at 10:30. The sea was very rough indeed. We took the smoother, faster more frequent ferry back from Capri.

Capri reeks of glamour with numerous boutiques and restaurants for the well heeled. It has long been a favourite holiday destination for the rich, famous and eccentric. The mad Roman emperor Tiberius had his villa here and there is a rock where he apparently dispatched people who displeased him. For Noel Coward -- in a bar on the piccolo marina, life called to Mrs Wentworth Brewster. Even the taxis are glam -- convertible limos. The sea is the most wonderful torquiose blue and air is softly scented with citrus and flowers.

From the ferry, one can either walk, or take the funicular up to the main square. There are 995 stairs on the pathway to Anacapri. Although the central piazza can be come crowded, it is relatively short work to get away from the crowds and head down one of the winding lanes towards the piccolo marina. Along the way, one passes the house where Gorky lived in 1910 -1913. Lenin and Stalin (amongst others) visited him here. And it seems incredible that they dreamt of revolution in such an idyllic place.

The Piccolo Marina was basically empty and looking back up, I was struck how much like Portmerion (where the cult tv series -- The Prisoner -- was filmed) Capri is. The lanes are far too narrow and the people for the most part seem to go around in carts. There are lots of lovely tiled signs, many hand written by artists. Some point the way to a variety of walks, others simply give the name of a hotel or house further up the lane. But they are always in yellow, blue and green, showing the Spanish influence.

We took the bus back up to the main town. The route went along the Via Augusto which the industrialist Krupp built. When our bus met another bus, it was very a tight squeeze indeed and it was immediately obvious why most people leave their cars on the mainland.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Excursions from Sorrento: Herculaneum

We took a guided tour to Herculaneum, partly because I did not know the site as well and it is a far smaller site. Plus, the costings were not too bad.
Now, Herculaneum is in what is now one of the poorer parts of Naples. In the 18th century, it was the glitzy part -- the so called Golden Mile where neo classical palaces were built and furnished, mainly with items from the various digs. In fact, it was when in 1709 Prince D'Elboeuf, an Austrian purchased some land for a villa and had an artisan well dug. The digging of the well uncovered some fragments of the theatre and thus, Herculaneum was rediscovered.
On the way out, we saw the bags and bags of garbage lying in the street. Naples still has its rubbish collection problem...But the site itself is clean.
Unlike Pompeii, Herculaneum was covered in volcanic mud. This means it is far harder to excavate, but certain things like wood were preserved. Also, Pompeii's covering was far less. Herculaneum lies under something like 25 -30 metres of tufa. In some places, white hot lava from the 1644 eruption also lie on top. There are no plaster casts from Herculaneum as such things only happen when people/animals are covered in ash. There are bones (mostly discovered in the boathouses) and some other organic matter survived in the sewers. Thus, a clearer picture of what life was actually has appeared.
No one is quite sure how big Herculaneum is. They know the south boundary was the sea and they have found the western wall, but the north and east lie under a built up area. And while tunnels have been dug, not all is revealed.
One of the most famous early excavations -- The Villa of the Papryii still lies underground. After initial investigations, the tunnels were sealed in 1765. They were reopen and the are was re-excavated in the late 1980's. Among the finds are the carbonised remains of one of the greatest libraries in the ancient world. The Hewlett Packard foundation is working with the Italian government and it is hoped that some day, some more of the scrolls will be able to be read. The whole thing intrigues me -- what is there there? Why were the tunnels sealed? The Getty Museum in LA is a reconstruction of the villa.
Anyway, what is there is magnificent. Staircases remain intact. Roofs have been reconstructed. Many more frescoes are there. The mosaics glitter with brilliant colours. The photo to the right is a mosaic.
You can tell a shop, rather than a dwelling as there were grooves in the stone where the sliding doors were shut at night. Good ideas stand the test of time. The left photo is of a fast food shop, Roman style.
Again, like Pompeii, Herculaneum surpassed my expectations. I would not like to have to make a choice between which of the two to visit, but suspect that Herculaneum is more digestible.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Viking Warrior, Unwilling Wife -- Sexy Stud

I was amused and more than a little relieved to see that Viking Warrior, Unwilling Wife made the sexy stud promotion at eharlequin. It is even featured on their weekly newsletter as such.
It means that I did do something correct in the revisions. One of the points I remember was that I needed to up the sexual tension in the early part of the book. It is a relief when such things work.
And given that I am in the midst of revisions (second round), I do need to think positively. These things can be altered.

Excursions from Sorrento:Vesuvius and Pompeii

Rather than taking a guided tour, or going on the train and hiring a taxi to get to Vesuvius, we hired a private car for the day. Given the number of people in the family, it made sense, particularly as I do know a little bit about Pompeii. It does not make sense to drive in Southern Italy -- opportunities for fender benders abound. The roads are narrow and the driving appears to be controlled anarchy.
We chose to go to Vesuvius first. Most of the tour companies, I believe do Pompeii in the morning. The other problem with the tour companies is that they do not always give you enough time to do Pompeii...
In any case, given the narrow windingness of the road up to Vesuvius, I was pleased the road was quiet. The road built after the 1944 eruption snakes through lava fields where waves of lava rest, bend and twisted. Foments forever frozen. Here and there bits of green have colonised.
The road stops, and you are forced to continue the journey on foot. A few metres in, a man shouts -- no charge, no charge as he hands out walking sticks. He does expect a tip on the way back down.
The steep climb snakes up and up until you reach a kiosk selling carved lava, wine from Vesuvius, drinks and guidebooks. Beyond lies the crater. Various guides mill about, but you are not forced to join a tour. You can simply walk to see the crater. And what a crater it is.
The power that created the huge hole is staggering, but there is comfort in thinking that the volcano has been quiet....However rounding the next bend, steam pours from the ground and a distinct sulphur smell hangs in the air. Vesuvius is most definitely only resting.
Vesuvius is well monitored for any increase in activity. Given that the most densely populated part of Europe lies well within its path, this is good. BUT if anything should happen, the evacuation is going to be chaos. It should be noted that although Sorrento is built on tufa (volcanic mud), it is far enough away from Vesuvius.
After coming down, we were driven to Pompeii. I had just admonished my youngest to put on his seat belt when we were involved in a very minor crash outside the entrance to Pompeii. The car in front of us suddenly stopped and our driver hit the rear bumper. It was quickly sorted.
We did not stop for lunch but went straight in, ignoring all offers for guides.
I have been to many Roman sites before but nothing like Pompeii. The forum was built so that Mount Vesuvius dominates the axis. Just off from the forum, a large shed hold amphora as well as several plaster casts of people who perished. The vast majority of things are now in museums.
This is just as well as it is quite obvious that they still have problems with theft.
The streets are all laid out, and it feels a bit like walking in a silent town.
The new excavations are done to show how the town might have looked and have preserved the graffiti and the various shop front frescoes. Several of the roofs have been reconstructed.
There is a lot of EU restoration work going on and so some of the houses like the House of the Vettii which I had wanted to see were closed. But there is more than enough to see in any case.
The main problem with Pompeii is that you can not see everything on one visit. You can get a taste, but not much more. It is a large town, far larger than say the Williamsburg historic district.
We simply looked around Pompeii proper, rather than tramping out to the Villa of Mysteries, for example. After three hours in the heat, the children was starting to flag. There is only so much you can take in.
However, it more than lived up to my expectations and it is somewhere I have wanted to go since I was about 7. Totally enthralling.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Excursions from Sorrento -- Monte Cassino and Caserta

The first excursion we went on was the guided tour to Monte Cassino and Caserta.
My dh had long wanted to see Monte Cassino, a view reinforced when he read Italy's Sorrows by James Holland about the Italian campaign earlier this year. As I knew we would be doing the Roman bit, I readily agreed once the I knew the excursion was possible.
The abbey at Monte Cassino is famous for two things. First of all, it is the resting place of St Benedict and Saint Scholastica. St Benedict who is the patron saint of Europe founded the abbey and formulated his rules here. The abbey has a commanding view over the plains.
In 1944, during the Allied advance, it was mistakenly thought that the Germans were using the abbey as a lookout point. In a badly coordinated attack, the abbey was reduced rubble. This enabled the Germans to hold the mountain much more easily and it was only at the cost of many thousands of Allied troops that the mountain was taken and the way to Rome and the North secured.
After the war, the Germans were put to work restoring the abbey and today, the abbey is completely restored and it is hard to believe that such a beautiful place was ever the scene of such destruction.
From the windows of the abbey, it is possible to see the giant Polish cemetery. The Poles were the first ones up the mountain.
After the abbey, we went to the British Commonwealth cemetery at Cassino. It is the largest in Italy. Those who fell in the area are buried here and there is a memorial to those soldiers from the Italian and Sicilian campaigns whose final resting place is unknown -- 12 upright black slabs with the names engraved. The headstones give details of the soldier and in some cases families have added their own personal thought. Because Donna Alward, my critque partner is Canadian, I made a special point of visiting the Canadian graves. Off to the far right are the graves of the Indian Army. several simply said -- a soldier from the Indian Army lays here. Muslim and Hindu graves have different inscriptions. And over all towers Monte Cassino.
After lunch, we went to the royal palace of Caserta. I will confess to not knowing much about the Kingdom of Naples (or the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies as it came to be called after the Napoleonic era) but it was thoroughly interesting. While people tend to focus on the repressive and corrupt nature of the final years, the 18th century and very early 19th century produced a large outpouring of culture. Charles Bourbon started the palace before leaving to become King of Spain. His son Ferdinand and Ferdinand's wife Maria Carolina (daughter of Maria Theresa, sister to Marie Antoinette) continued the building. The palace was eventually finished in 1832.
It shows baroque at its height as well as the Neo classicism that was so prevalent in the time period. Charles, of course, was the monarch responsible for the initial excavations of Herculaneum and Pompeii. The palace incorporates a good deal of silk, inlaid wood and marble as well as gold overlayed wood.
At the end of the tour, there is a 1200 figure crib (nativity set) that originally belonged to Maria Carolina. The nativity set of course is one of the great traditions of Naples and these figures who are mainly dressed in 18th century Neapolitan costume are simply superb.
The gardens are modelled on Versailles and are one of the last remaining 18th century large scale gardens in Southern Italy.
Today the palace is used by the EU and only the Royal Apartments are open.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Where to eat in Sorrento...

I will get to the excursions in later posts but I wanted to mention the food. I adore Italian food and going to Sorrento was a chance to indulge.
The restaurant at the hotel was lovely. The set menu is good value and does include wine. It is overseen by Don Alphonso who also runs a Michelin starred restaurant at little ways away, but there are a ton of other choices.

O Parrucchiano was started in 1868 by a man who fell in love and therefore failed to become a priest. He opened a wineshop and restaurant instead. The restaurant is still a family business and a number of the staff have worked there for over 50 years. They invented cannelloni in the early 19th century. And I must say their version is excellent. The restaurant is huge and stretches back and back in a variety of glass houses.

L'Antica Taverna is next to Il Davide (Davide does excellent ice cream -- over 100 flavours.When I only wanted limone, the proprietor put an extra scoop of orange free so I could taste the difference). The food is a bit more sophisticated and the service is excellent. They have a strolling mandolin player, a tasting menu and several set menus. It is melt in the mouth.

La Basilica is a pizzeria and restaurant near Piazza S'Antionio. They do a wide selection of tradition Italian dishes with generous proportions. The mussels in a marinara sauce was particularly good. They have a strolling guitar player who has a lovely voice.

L'Abate which is on the Piazza S'Antionio had some of the best pizza made in proper wood burning oven. If you sit inside, you can watch them make it. They also do a selection of handmade pasta. Portions are generous and the staff friendly.

Da Emidia is over in the Marina Grande. They belong to the slow food association and do not take credit cards. They specialise in fish -- freshly caught. The wine comes from barrels and is served in decanters. Very cheerful. Huge portions. Inexpensive.

Museum Caruso Restaurant is where we went for our final meal. It has a certain reputation for good food in a special place and more than lived up to it. The walls are hung with photos and memorabilia from the tenor's life so it is also a museum as well as a place to eat. The food has an added twist. For example, my eldest had black squid pasta. The wine list goes on and on and the waiters are very knowledgeable about what will and will not work with your menu choice. We ended up with a delicious bottle of Taurausi and there is a reason why it is considered the best wine of the region. The desserts are pure fantasies of spun sugar. They employ the same guitar player as La Basilica but here he is a bit more attentive and gives you a list to choose from. I chose Turrno a Sorrentio. My dh bought the cd and it is a lovely compilation album and a fitting memory of a glorious place.

The photo is from Capo di Sorrento where we walked out to the ruined Roman villa on the Sunday. I unfortunately made a wrong turning and the walk took longer than planned. We did however eventually walk through olive groves with nets stretched over our heads as the olive harvest was not yet complete. In the nets like strange bird nests, collections of olives hung. Totally peaceful.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Back from Sorrento

The next few posts are going to be about my magical holiday to Sorrento Italy. I make no apologies. It is somewhere where I have wanted to go for a very long time and I managed to visit some of my all time wish list -- Pompeii and Herculaneum.
We travelled with Citalia (part of the Thomson Group) and stayed at the Imperial Hotel Tramontano. The hotel first open its doors in 1812 and has had such illustrious visitors as Goethe, Byron, Scott, Shelley, Keats, Longfellow, James Fenimore Cooper, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henrik Ibsen who finished Ghosts. Turrna a Surrento was composed on the hotel's terrace. The poet Tasso was born in the earliest part of the hotel in the 1500's.
We had a sea view French balcony rooms with a perfect view of Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples. The piccolo marina where the ferries goes to Capri and Naples is located to the right. It is also where the cruise ship dock and occasionally very large yachts. The rooms were well appointed.
The restaurant ( I will go on more about food in another post -- you have been warned) is also located overlooking the sea with panoramic views. The waiters are attentive and they have been there for years. On the first evening we were there, the head waiter made a point to personally greet returning guests. In subsequent days, he made apoint of greeting us, and making sure that the children wanted hot chocolate for breakfast and that we wanted coffee. The waiters also exhibited the same amount courteous care. The reception staff were effieicnt and well trained. Nothing appeared to make them flustered, not even several well oiled guests from a very posh wedding.
The public rooms of the hotel are splendid -- inlaid wood, tiled floors and comfortable seating.
The private beach closes in September but there is a fantastic pool in the garden. The garden is full of rare and exotic plants -- bananas tower over your head and a wide variety of blooms tantalise your nostrils. There is also a terrace bar where you can order light snacks and drinks.
The hotel is often used for wedding receptions as the Cloisters of San Francisco are next door. Apparently they do up to 6 civil wedding per day at the Cloisters. Many wedding photographs show the unforgettable view over the Bay of Naples from Sorrento's public park. This is the same view that we had out our window...
The weather was warm, and for the most part sunny. There was some rain but mostly at night. In any case, we were never bothered by it. It was simply a wonderful wonderful holiday. And I would say -- go, go to the Imperial Hotel Tramontano if you like old fashioned comfort and surroundings to die for.
...I returned to yet more revisions for the third Viking, but these are tweaks.