On Writing A Novel: A Vacation of Research

96 Me at Amelie's House

Sometimes you just have to pack your bags and go there…

My husband and I have taken a week of vacation and driven to Kaysersberg, Alsace, France. As I’ve said so many times before, it is my favorite Alsatian village. The people are enchanting! It’s the perfect place to set a novel in the Middle Ages, which is just what I’ve decided to do.

97 Our 3rd Floor Apt98 Window view of Chateau Ruins

1. Restaurant LE CAPUCIN, 60, Rue du Général de Gaulle. 2. View from our window.

We found this fantastic apartment online. The ground level is the restaurant. The next three floors are apartments to rent. Our apartment is on the top floor. The views are amazing, enchanting, transporting. I look out the windows and am taken back to a much earlier time. When there were no cars, no telephones, no internet. At first this can seem fantastic until I take a deep breath and remember there was no sewer system, and I see the woman below me dumping the waste from her bed chamber pot onto the street below. The horses have left their deposits in the streets, as well. Hmm. Snap out of it. Back to the enchanting view.

99 Window with Church Tower View

View from my writing spot.

As I sit and write this post, the church bells are chiming. They’re beautiful. A few days ago, it was Pentecost Sunday, and the bells rang long and loud. It’s was a beautiful call to prayer. This is sweet music to write by. When we first arrived in Kaysersberg, our landlady met us at the bridge to show us the way to the apartment. We parked on the street, which was filled with tourists (It being Saturday.) and quickly unloaded our things. After finding a parking spot nearby, we returned to the restaurant and met the owners in their private garden in the back for a glass of wine. This was the only warm sunny day we’ve had. It was perfect. Gabrielle speaks English quite well. She’s delightful. Her husband, Jean-Jacques, grew up in Kaysersberg in this very building! It was his home, and he has inherited it. They turned the garage into a restaurant. And his father’s dentist offices into apartments. Their family living quarters are also now apartments.

When I told them I’m a writer, and I’ve come to research and write, they got very excited. Gabrielle said, “Oh, my husband will be so happy. He started a book about this area, but his computer died, and he lost it all. You must talk to him and help him.” And, talk we did. Over several glasses of wine and as many hours. Jean-Jacques’ English is not as good as Gabrielle’s. But that didn’t stop him. He did drink quite a bit of wine. He said he also speaks Chinese, but only after the 7th glass of wine can anyone understand him. So as our conversation went along, he would pour himself another glass of wine, saying, “Oh, I need another glass to lo0sen my tongue so my English will improve.” It was such a fantastic afternoon. He told me that Arthurian legends really began here. Lancelot in particular was from here. I gasped when he said this and told him I had already written this into my novel. They both looked at me and said, “We have been waiting for you to come!” Magical!

102 Wee Delivery Truck

Local delivery truck.

So you’re asking yourself, Is everything in this village cute? The answer is a resounding YES! Even the delivery trucks are cute. I wish I would have stood next to this one so you can see how tiny it really is. And it has a stork hanging from the rearview mirror, a symbol of good luck in this region.

When I wrote my first novel, The Stone Manor (which will be published at a date soon to be announced), I had been to Scotland before, but not to the Isle of Skye, which is the location of the novel. I did all my research from books, libraries, online, and memory from my first trip. Then, when I had finished writing we took a trip to Skye, and I retraced the steps of my novel to make sure it was all accurate. Or as accurate as a work of fiction should be. It was wonderful walking through my novel so to speak.

This is a similar feeling but in reverse. I’ve come here many times. But I’ve written very little so far. This week is a “jump start” for my novel. It ‘s incredible to sit here in this village and write my story. To hear the characters speak to me as I walk through the narrow cobblestone streets. I love living in the middle of my story. I’d love to bring you along as I write and explore. Stay tuned for A Night at the Museum.

Young Life Macedonia Service Project 2013: Crossing Cultures Through Service

90 Me and Macedonian Girl's Dance Troup

(Such beautiful girls! And you should see them dance!)

On the last day of our trip, the mayor of Strumica put together a celebration from the city for our group. It was incredible! They have a huge plaza in the center of city, and that’s where it was held. Lots of music, lots of dancing, lots of celebrating!

91 Kandern:Basel Worksite SP 2013

(This is the Kandern/Basel/Croatia group.)

This is the beginning of what we were celebrating. Kids and their Young Life leaders building a playground at an elementary school. They also painted the mural on the building in the background.

92 Completed Service Project 2013

(Here’s the final product! And the children are loving it! So fun! This is one of the two Munich sites.)

We built six playgrounds, painted and repaired fences, painted murals on school buildings, to name a few of the things that happened during the week. The kids that came on the service project are from international schools in the London area, Munich, Brussels, Kandern, Basel, and Croatia. These are all areas where Young Life is taking place. At the end of each work day we had Young Life Club! It was a great week.

93 Me and Macedonian kids

(Rachel Miller, Lucie Crighton, and myself with Macedonian kids from the middle school in Strumica.)

94 Service Project Macedonia 2013

(All 280 of us in the Strumica Town Plaza!)

The above photo was taken Friday afternoon. We had our final Young Life Club that evening back at the hotel. Then it was time to begin packing up. Jim and I had an 8:00 am flight out of Thessaloniki the next morning. We, along with about 10 other staff, loaded back onto the same small bus we had arrived in the week before. Bad news being it was 2:00 am. We rode the two hours, which turned into four hours plus one because of changing time zones, back to the Thessaloniki Airport. Checked in and waited another two hours for our flight to take off for Munich. I’ll close with the final photo of me at the airport just before boarding. This is where the two hours I lost in the last couple of months due to “day-light savings time” comes into play. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

95 Me at End of Service Project

Young Life Macedonia Service Project 2013: Where the Old Ways Thrive

84 Horse in Valley SP Macedonia 2013

(A typical means of transport in villages.)

We stayed in the village of Bansko, near the city of Strumica, Former Yugoslavia Republic of Macedonia. (That’s a mouthful.) This valley is covered with green houses growing vegetables. I’ve never eaten so much cabbage salad in my life. Just sayin’.We drove up into the mountains to get to our hotel. The area is breathtaking.

But let me digress for a moment. I do need to say something about the flight over. It was a first for me, in that my seat mate was holding a dog carrier complete with dog. The problem was it was too big to fit under the seat, which was not allowed. So, we crammed it in as far as possible and the teenage boy and I shared the crate at our feet. The sweet little dog kept escaping which made the flight attendant very upset, and she kept looking at me and speaking very, very sternly. I would just point to the young man, who was Greek, and smile. Okay, I must admit, I did laugh. She didn’t think it was funny at all, so Jim got up and moved toward the back (he was sitting in the aisle seat). Then I climbed up out of my tight little economy sized seat and retrieved the dog. This was all before take off. The boy then took the dog out during our climb up, up, and away because he was whining. The dog, not the boy. He pulled out a little bowl and hit the button for the cabin attendant. He obviously did not know the rules about seat belt signs and take off etiquette. So, being the kind person I am I poured some of my Evian into his bowl. The minute the seat belt light went off the attendant came to see what we needed, and again I was in trouble because the dog was out of his crate. I knew right then this was going to be the longest 2 hour flight EVER.

85 Puppy Seat Mate on Way to SP 2013

(Yes, that’s a dog crate.)

Our bus ride from the Thessaloniki Airport to Bansko was a two hour drive that took about four. The border crossing took over an hour, and there were only 20 of us. I knew when the buses of 50+ kids arrived in a couple of days it would be a bit crazy. We had 232 high school kids and their Young Life leaders arriving from all over Western Europe to build playgrounds and do work projects in the villages around Strumica.

Our hotel was a spa site for people with “ailments.” They had a hot springs fed pool and various rooms in the basement area for “treatments.” We took every room and every bed, and then some, for the week. However, the locals continued to come to the pool and for other things. I had a delightful conversation with an older gentleman who’d lived in New Jersey. He had returned home after suffering a stroke and was enjoying the pool.

86 Me and Brent at Hotel for SP Macedonia 2013

(Our home for the week. Shown here with Brent Wolff, camp director.)

Because of the hot springs, there was a Roman Bath ruins to the right of the hotel. And when I said to the right of the hotel, I mean you step off the sidewalk and there it is. The government is restoring the site, but we were able to walk all around inside the ruins. It was fascinating.

87 Me and Jim at Roman Ruins at SP 2013

(Jim and I in the Roman Bath ruins.)

The weather was beautiful most days. We had a wee bit of rain, which was a nice break. It also gave us beautiful clouds streaming through the valley between the mountains.

88 Clouds at SP 2013

(The building in the photo is the pool.)

There were cars, buses, motorbikes, bicycles and …horse drawn wagons everywhere. I tried all week to find a way to catch a ride on one of the wagons. But alas, it was not meant to be. Next trip.

89 Horse Carraige SP 2013

I would like to brag on the hotel staff and the people of this amazing country, in general. The hotel staff fed us delicious food all week. Our rooms were cleaned ever day (remember we had a hotel full of teenagers who spent the day on worksites, and were staying 4 to a room that was meant for 2). There were 280 of us in all. Everyone was so accommodating and the people in the villages where we did the projects were wonderful. Beautiful children! I will talk more about this on my next post, with more photos.

I would like to end this with a teeny rant by mentioning a few days after our arrival, the country experienced a time change. Yes, that’s right, day-light savings, where we fell backwards. Which I did, literally, at the end of the day. What I need to let you all know is that I had already done this earlier in Texas. So, have you already ascertained, I have now lost two, count them, two hours of my life. At my age, not a good thing. There it is. I just needed to get it out there. This, along with the long hours will help explain the picture at the end of my next post. You’ll see what I mean.

Back in Bavaria: An Elusive Spring

78 Ralph's Yard in Spring

(Woke up to snow.)

I woke up this morning and there was a dusting of snow in the backyard. It has continued to snow off and on. We should have several inches by tomorrow. Coming over from Texas, where things are blooming and sunshine is plentiful, the snow is actually lovely. For our dear friends who have been here all winter…not so happy.

80 Wall Decor at Mellows Restaurant Starnberg

(Wall decor at one of our favorite restaurants.)

We had lunch with our Young Life staff friend, Erin, at Mellows in Starnberg. It’s a Cuban/American restaurant. There are pictures of Che and Fidel hanging on the walls and lots of memorabilia. It’s quite fascinating, and the food is good. I had pizza, the quintessential cuban cuisine.

81 Frog Sign Germany

(Look what time it is!!!!)

We were driving to Berg to pick up our former neighbor, Barbara, to take her for kaffee und kuchen and look what we found! It’s time for the toad crossings. You see they know it’s March, and romance is in the air…as is snow. This is my favorite road sign of all time. Just so you know.

82 Frog Fence Season Germany

(The little toad fences!)

Just past the sign, they put up the little green fences to catch the toads before they cross the highway. Then there is someone called a liebekröte, toad lover, who takes a cup and picks up the toads at the little green fence and takes them safely across the road to the other side and releases them. Is this not the cutest ecological event on the planet! My spring is complete. I arrived in time for the Toad Crossings.

83 German Easter Candy

(Easter candy by Lindt.)

Our sweet neighbor, Barbara, gave Jim and me this delightful and delicious Easter Candy when we picked her up this afternoon, after our toad crossing extravaganza. The three of us, drove down the hill to the Starnberger See to the Hotel Schloss Berg for afternoon coffee and cake. We sat in the warm restaurant next to the large windows overlooking the beautiful Alpine lake, snow gently falling, ducks swimming, and enjoyed life, friendships, and chocolate.

As darkness falls, I am content. It’s been a good day, and I’m grateful.

On The Road Again: The Packing Ritual

76 Packing for Germany Spring

Almost finished! Packing is a process for me. Especially when I’m packing for three months, three seasons. We’ll leave Dallas where it will be in the 70s and sunny and land in Munich where it has been snowing and raining. It will be in the 30s when we land. Hmm. Even dressing for the flight over is a challenge. Winter dies hard in Germany.

A week after we arrive in Munich, we’ll leave for Macedonia for the Service Project with International School students from all over Europe. The weather will be unpredictable, warmer during the day unless it’s raining, cool at night. Maybe. Then, we’ll return to Munich and drive to our apartment in the Black Forest. Hopefully, the sun will begin to shine and Spring will arrive. By June, we’ll be in northeastern Spain for training. Summer begins, It will be quite sunny and warm.

So you see my problem. I know. I know. You’re saying, Poor you, traveling to all those places. It’s true. I have a great job. But seriously, packing takes thoughtful planning. (Was that redundant.) I first lay out EVERYTHING I think I might wear in piles on the bed. Then, I leave and do something else for awhile. Later, I come back to my piles and rummage through them, pulling things I really don’t need. Again, I wander to the kitchen for chocolate and a coke. Finally, I return to the bedroom and make a final run through, holding up each piece of clothing and asking myself, is this really necessary, or can I pack an extra package of flour tortillas in its place? At this point, I put everything in the suitcase and weigh it. Now I can decide what shoes/boots will fit. I, of course, will be wearing the heaviest pair on the plane!

77 Books for Research

Now to pack my carry on. What books will I need? I’ll be working on my new novel. (I MUST BUY A KINDLE.) Then, the DVDs, chocolate, more books, laptop, more chocolate, pictures of the family, additional chocolate, passport, deck of cards… Done.

I know what you’re wondering. Isn’t there chocolate in Germany? YES. Amazing chocolate, but hey, it’s a long flight.

I’ll try to take pictures and do a better job of documenting our journey while we’re at home on the other side of the pond. Auf wiedersehen!

Prague: Medieval Magic and Majesty


40 Charles Bridge Prague Night

(Walking across the Charles Bridge.)

One of my favorite European cities is Prague, Czech Republic…

I love standing in the center of the Charles Bridge at night with smoke rising from the rooftop stacks and mist hanging heavy in the air. Medieval spires pierce the darkness evoking a sense of magic and mystery to the night. I imagine the yellow light cast upon the rooftops to be from oil lamps. Is there any wonder, Prague has been the setting of cryptic legends and espionage through the ages?

41 Lennon Wall Eye

(John Lennon Peace Wall near Charles Bridge, Prague)

It’s also a city of love with the hope of peace. The John Lennon Peace Wall located at Mala Strana across from the French Embassy is a symbol of this sentiment. It is ever changing, a living work of art and personal expression. It began during the 1980s, when Czech youth covered the wall with lyrics of peace and freedom from Lennon’s music. They also wrote anti-communist words of protest. It became a war for freedom of speech in a time and place where there was none. The authorities would white-wash the wall only to find it full the following day. The Velvet Revolution brought about freedom for the Czech people…and the graffiti continued with words of love and peace. Check it out and leave your own message.

42 Me and Jim Kissing at Lennon Wall

(Jim and I making our magic.)

Or if you’re fortunate, you’ll share the experience of this awesome place with someone you love. I did!

Amelie: From Castle to Cottage

39 Kaysersberg Chateau Tower Roof View

(Castle tower in Kaysersberg, Alsace, France.)

When a character introduces herself…

Following my last trip to Kaysersberg, I began researching names from the region. I wrote out a list, mostly from the Middle Ages. As I began to read each name aloud a character began to form, with a story to follow. My Alsatian Tale is taking shape. No doubt, it will shift several times before finally settling on the printed page.

But for now, she has a name…my heroine. Amelie. Her life began, as is fitting for this fairy tale, in a castle. But as fate would have it, at fifteen, she  finds herself living in a small village, in an even smaller cottage.

Life in a castle may appear charming, but for Amelie it is among the timbered houses and along cobblestone streets that the real story begins.

An Alsatian Tale: Now and Then

36 Fall View of Vineyards Kaysersberg Cemetery

(The cemetery in Kaysersberg, Alsace, France.)

It’s fall in France. Everywhere I look, from the once green ivy blushing red to the golden vineyards, life is preparing for winter. I look at the cemetery and wonder who’s buried here? I don’t think so much about how they died, but I find myself imagining how they lived. What must life have been like to live and work in this small Alsatian village?

All work and no play makes for a really, really long day. Yesterday, Jim and I decided to break up our work day with a short trip across the Rhine.  I returned to Kaysersberg on a three-fold mission. First, to find the sun and enjoy a piece of quiche-Lorraine for lunch. Success on both parts. With tummy full and skin soaking in the Vitamin D, I embarked on my second task. Shopping. Success again.

37 My Favortite Kaysersberg Clothing Shop

(This is my favorite clothing shop ever, well it’s right up there with Anthropologie.)

There is a shop I step into every time we visit Kaysersberg. Many times I leave with some new weird and wonderful piece of clothing. The couple who own the store are really cool. He has long gray hair, and she has short magenta hair. Very artsy looking. I think we might be good friends if we lived there. And if I spoke French. They speak no English. But we somehow manage to get along quite well.

Yesterday, something crazy happened. After making another fun purchase at their shop, we walked down a couple of stores and stepped inside a shop that had watercolors, prints, and drawings of various Alsatian villages. The owner began speaking English with us (How did she know?) and explained about the artists, and then said she knew we come here every year. (Of course, we’d been there twice in as many weeks as of late.) It appears we’ve become known! Can I just say, I LOVE THIS. Who knows what they say about us. One can only imagine!

I’ve gotten carried away with the shopping, but just one more thing about this part of my mission. I was determined to buy two cookie tins I’d seen in a bakery with cute Alsatian children painted on top of them. Hansi style. (If you’re not familiar with this artist you should check him out.) They were 6.90 Euros. I thought this was very reasonable. What I didn’t know was the only way you could purchase said tins was to fill them with the gourmet cookies sold in the shop, it was after all a French Bakery. Just let me say the final cost of the tins was more than I would normally spend in a month on cookies, but the tins were so cute and the cookies, well…gourmet. Yum.

38 Me at Chateau Gate by Bridge Kaysersberg

My third and final reason for returning to Kaysersberg was to wander around as if I were my latest character and try to see things from her eyes. I walked down alley ways and took more pictures of town. I looked up at the woods on the hillside and wondered if she hunted wild mushrooms there.  I looked at the small stream running through town and imagined she might have washed her clothes there.

I left Kaysersberg feeling excited about writing her tale. Armed with more photos and story ideas, we drove home to the Black Forest. As we left France, the sun disappeared behind the low-hanging clouds and the multi-colored leaves of the forest covered hills welcomed us back to Germany. And, I wondered…

An Alsatian Tale: Letting the character tell her own story.

35 Jean Dietrich House

(Kaysersberg, Alsace, France)

How characters tell their own stories…

One of my favorite places to be in the writing process is when characters are introducing themselves to me. I’m walking through Kaysersberg (my favorite Alsatian village) and stop on the bridge. Looking at my favorite house, a young woman appears in my mind. My imagination engages and a story begins to form. I smile and begin to walk back through the village, following my new imaginary friend, looking carefully at the cobblestone streets and the timbered houses, wondering where will she take me? It’s exciting, always.

I’ve been to this village quite a number of times and have lots and lots of photographs. Three of our four adult children have accompanied my husband and I on some of these trips. The photos I have were taken by each of us. The village seen through different eyes. Always a good thing.

Next, I will chose some of my favorite shots and print them. Then, I’ll pin them to one of my cork boards and set it up on my desk while I write. I often listen to music when I write. It helps transport me and hold me inside my story. I’m listening to some of my favorite Celtic music right now. Alasdair Frasiers’s Dawn Dance. I know this isn’t French, but my new friend may have a bit of Celt flowing through her blood. I’ll know soon enough.

This is a process. For me, at the beginning especially, I wander up and down different paths trying to find just where to start. It’s not always the beginning of the story. Often, the beginning comes when I’m deep in the middle of a tale and my characters let me know more about themselves. I love making new friends. I love telling their stories.

After writing for a bit, just becoming familiar with painting a picture of the village with my pen, I’ll do a bit of research, about the history of the place, the people who have lived here, legends that might already exist. She’ll let me know if one of these suits her fancy or if she has her own tale to tale.

So here we go. As I look out my window the fog sits heavy on the hillsides, the brilliant fall colored leaves peeking through. It’s a great day to write.


Living in Europe: Ancient Voices

53 Lowen Apotheke

(Lion Pharmacy in Kandern, Germany)

One of the many things I love about living in Europe is being surrounded by ancient civilizations. Every where I go there is evidence of those that lived and walked here before me. Roman ruins are exciting, but there are ruins here that pre-date Rome. Amazing.

The fact that our pharmacy has been here since 1665 gives me vertigo! On every hilltop there is a castle ruin, some dating back to the 600s. And, beneath some of those ruins there is evidence of a BC site. Crazy.

With these antiquated civilizations come rich lore and ancient voices. My mind hears them all and stories are beginning to form demanding a home on paper. There are so many, I’m not sure where to begin. But begin I will. Exciting.

I’ve decided to write them down as short stories and let them sit on the page for a bit to see which one has the strongest voice. Or maybe I’ll write an anthology of short stories from this region, the Black Forest. But then, I drive across the border to Eastern France and more voices fill my head. So I jot down more stories. Next, I discover Frankenstein’s Castle further north in Germany, and there are whispers now, dark voices. More stories. In a few weeks I’ll be in Prague, Czech Republic. Bohemian voices have spoken to me on past trips there. They too will ride my pen onto the parchment. (A poetic way of saying: they will ride my fingers onto the keyboard. See what I mean, this doesn’t sound quite so romantic.) As you can see there’s a lot of writing to be done. Daunting.

Let the writing begin!