Elementary, my dear Watson

Even though I love reading—I do watch my fair share of television. One of my favorite shows is Elementary. What’s not to like: Sherlock Holmes, Lucy Liu and murder mystery all in one neat package. But what I like most about it is that at least once per episode I have to look up a word Sherlock uses. The man is British you see, with a vast vocabulary. But then, it’s a TV show, so it’s possible the screen-writers are assisting.

The other day (I confess I’m a bit behind with watching) Sherlock used the word “quisling.” The guy he was talking to didn’t blink—obviously, he belonged the quisling-is-part-of-my-vocabulary cohort of the population. I guess it’s just me and my husband who have been under-educated.

Every time this happens I am a little annoyed. It’s nothing but envy really; I’d love to be able to string sentences together like Sherlock. Still, the question remained: what on earth is a quisling? Turns out, it’s not something you want to be called.

Vidkun Quisling was a Norwegian politician, who founded the fascist party in Norway in 1933. He was the prime minister of a pro-Nazi government from 1942-1945. After the war, he was sentenced to death for high treason, amongst other charges. A quisling therefore, is a traitor—a collaborator with the enemy.

“Quisling” is an eponym: a person, thing or place after whom/which something is named. Our language has many of them. If you’re lucky, and you invented something cool, your name may live on forever. Like the Diesel engine, the Jacuzzi, a leotard, or pasteurization.

Back in the day, a physician could describe some terrible affliction and lend his/her name to it. Like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease. Even though these people did important work, it’s not the most pleasant way to be remembered. When you’re suffering from a bout of salmonella, you won’t be interested in knowing it was named after a vet called Dr. Salmon. Actually, according to Wikipedia it was his assistant who discovered the bacteria, but Smithella doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

I couldn’t find many examples of words like “quisling” – where the name itself becomes the type of person you’re referring to. (And to answer your question, yes, I actually waste time thinking about stuff like this…). One can be a Don Juan, or a Casanova—or a Sherlock for that matter. It must be pretty awesome to have written a book that’s so well-known, one of your characters becomes the eponym. Like Jekyll and Hyde, or a Scrooge. We refer to an Odyssey, a Faustian bargain, or Big Brother, and even though we may not have read the books in question, the meaning of the words is ingrained in our language.

Not many writers will accomplish this, but don’t let that keep you from trying. Your next literary work could provide us with a new addition to our language—and as a writer, I think there are very few things as cool as that!

 

 

 

Think Spring

Think Spring

That’s what I told myself as my kids had a snow day earlier this week. But it’s not easy when you look outside, and everything is white.

“Think spring,” I said, when I took the trash can down the driveway two nights ago and had to lug it through inches of icy slush. And why not? Obviously, my plowing service is thinking it’s spring as well.

“Think spring,” I tell my children, when they complain of still having to bring their snow pants to school mid-April. They are sick of winter. And frankly, so am I.

I have relatives in the Netherlands raving about their beautiful tulips and their magnolia trees bursting with blossom. Instead, my daffodils still have to find their way up. I don’t blame the poor flowers; if I didn’t have to, I wouldn’t want to come out either.

The birds in my yard have been out of sorts. Most have now returned for—yes, spring—but building a nest in this weather must be an uncomfortable task. My dog is miserable. She freezes her paws off, as well as her you-know-what, every time she has to go pee. We are all done with winter, yet it keeps lingering, like that unwanted guest you so desperately want to leave your house but can’t get rid of.

But yesterday, the most amazing thing happened. The sun came out, the temperature hit a balmy 50 degrees Fahrenheit, snow started melting, and despite the unfortunate hailstorm shortly after that, I am pretty certain that finally, spring is starting. Why? Because I looked at the calendar (it is mid-April…) and at the weather forecast. It’s coming. And those few sunny hours reminded me that soon, my children will want to go outside again.

There’s only one problem; I am writing the next book in The Dunnhill Series, and it’s set in…right, winter. And even though I am so done with the cold and snow, I still have to write about it.

I’m not sure what I was thinking when I decided that winter would be the right season for book 3. Maybe because when I started writing, it was winter, and I wasn’t yet sick of it. Besides, Dunnhill is in the mountains, and winter in the mountains is much better than winter in Michigan. And maybe I imagined I would write faster and be done by now, but with three antsy children—let’s just say it’s not going as fast as I hoped.

You could argue that as a writer the season within a book shouldn’t pose too much of a problem. Just “think winter” right? Normally I would agree, but here in Michigan, when spring finally arrives, something strange happens. Suddenly there’s flowers everywhere, as spring rushes like mad into summer—lush, green and warm—it truly is glorious. And during that time, the idea of winter becomes like a whiff of smoke, elusive and fleeting. The moment the weather warms up, most of us Michiganders seem to get hit with collective amnesia and forget about winter. If we’d remembered, we’d all leave this state for good.

This is why I need winter. You know—to hold on to what winter really feels like. My lawn is turning green and I am already starting to forget. The truth is, I have no desire to remember. I am ready for spring. Book or not.

Over the next few months, I’ll try my best to think winter while sitting on my deck, enjoying the sun and the only thing cold will be my drink. But if spring in my book happens to arrive a little early, I hope you will understand.

Quills and Pencils

I love writing. Modern technology, and specifically the DELETE-key are good friends of mine. My writing process involves a lot of delete-rewrite-delete-rewrite. Can you imagine writing four hundred years ago—without that DELETE-key? So, no complaining here, we have it easy.

I assume Shakespeare used a quill. Quills were often made from the wing feathers of a big bird, like a goose. I suppose you didn’t have to wrestle one for it, but still. Then you had to prepare the quill, after which you could write with it after dipping it in ink. The metal dip pen, which replaced the quill, made an entrance in the nineteenth century. It didn’t require sharpening, or chasing a goose, but you still had to dip.

So, which ink would you use? The most popular one was something called “iron gall ink”, which, to me, sounds quite unappealing, since it reminds me of a gall bladder.  It actually has nothing to do with that. The oak gall, or oak apple, is an 1-2 inch “apple” on an oak leaf that arises from the secretions of the tree reacting to the gall wasp larva, after the wasp lays an egg in the leaf bud. Apparently, the gall contains tannic acid, which you can extract by crushing and soaking the dried galls. After you strain the extract, you add some ferrous sulfate and voilá, you have ink. Quite honestly, I am still baffled someone thought this one up—making ink from oak galls?

Roald Dahl, whose books I am extremely fond of, wrote (and rewrote) many of them with a pencil. I can feel my hand cramping up just at the thought of it.

Speaking of pencils, for the past two years I had to buy pencil lead for my son’s school supplies, which always left me a little confused as to why it’s called “lead.” It never made sense to me, since it’s obviously made out of graphite.

Perhaps I’m a bit of a nerd, but I like to know where words come from. Apparently, after discovering a large graphite deposit in England around 1500 AD, people first thought it was a form of lead. They noticed the lead, or “black lead” as they called it, was excellent material to write with. The wooden holder was invented, because graphite is rather soft and brittle. The name “graphite” wasn’t given until 1879, and comes from the Greek “graphein” — to write.

The pencil, if you are dying to know, comes from the Latin word “penis” (which means tail) or more precisely, the diminutive “peniculus,” which referred to the artist’s fine brush of camel hair. I don’t think I will ever look at a pencil the same way. Or a tail for that matter.

Obviously, being a writer in current times is great. I think I will return to my laptop and delete-rewrite some more words…

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Our Basque Experience (with kids)

I have a great passion for traveling. Nothing is as fun and exciting as discovering new places, food, people and, yes, stories. Every place has its own stories, some from the past, some from current events, and some from imagination. I love going places, seeing places, and reading or hearing about them.

A while ago, I visited Basque Country, in Northern Spain (and Southern France). With vistas that are beyond stunningly beautiful, friendly people, wonderful food, it was a fantastic experience, both for us and the kids. And the stories, ah, the stories, were plentiful!

Basque Country has a turbulent history, and I do not presume to know the place well, or to fully understand its struggles or know its people. The Basques have their own language and culture, despite being part of Spain (and France). And in case you forgot while being there, the Basque flag is visible in so many places it will quickly remind you that first and foremost, you are in their territory.

Basque Country has so many things to offer—too many for this blog post.  The Camino de Santiago, of course, is famous, and something that is still high on my list of things to do. But for now, my children are too young, so we had to find different entertainment. A beach is always a great place to start. And Basque Country has plenty.

Its northern Atlantic coastline is breathtaking, with sandy beaches, steep rocky cliffs, lush vegetation and scattered old villages and towns waiting to be discovered. One of my favorite trips was to the chapel of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, and old chapel on a small peninsula connected to the mainland by a walkway with ~240 steps. The site goes back many centuries, but the chapel has been demolished few times. According to tradition,  when you get to the chapel and ring the bell three times, you can make a wish and it will ward off evil spirits. Let’s face it, we can all use some of that while traveling.

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Fun fact on the walkway: if you are a Game of Thrones fan, you may recognize the walkway to Dragonstone, where Daenerys Targaryen walked up to the mighty castle. Even though there is no castle, and no dragons either, the walkway is very real!

While exploring some of the villages in the rolling foothills of the Pyrenees, we came across Zugarramurdi, a pretty village tucked in between the hills, where time appears to slow down to a snail’s pace as you wander through the streets. It’s very peaceful now, but has a tragic history. The village was the site of the ruthless persecution of witches, during the time of the Inquisition. There is a small museum dedicated to the women who were taken away, some of them never returning. My kids thought the museum was a little scary, but they did like the witch cave, which is also near the village—presumably the site where the women came together to do whatever it is that witches do. There was a short but appealing hike to the cave itself (many steps, wet slippery rocks and a bridge over a stream), with the cave having plenty of opportunity for them to explore and let their imagination run wild.

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Zugarramurdi

More inland we visited the charming town of Oñati, which means “place with many hills.” The city sports many frog images as logos, and one of the stories in our guide book explaining this referred back to a count from long-ago, who apparently had a black and white checkered tile floor in the entrance of his estate. Annoyed at the villagers, who were muddying up his white tiles when visiting his castle, he ordered them to only stand on the black tiles. Thus, the villagers hopped from black tile to black tile, after which he mocked them and called them frogs. Even so, the town has adopted the frog with pride.

Oñati also has an ancient, extensive and beautiful cave system (the Arrikrutz caves), albeit a very chilly one. An English-speaking guide took us on a tour deep down in the earth, escaping the sweltering heat outside. The caves with all its stalagmites and stalactites, as well as the prehistoric finds, were telling their own fascinating story. Nothing makes a vacation as precious like a good reminder of your own short life-span.

For me, when I travel, it’s the stories that make a place come alive, give it that little extra, and paint my memories more vividly. When I think back of Basque Country, I think of all these places, and many more. But mostly, I think of sitting at the sea-side with my family, eating an unidentified fish-dish with a name I can’t pronounce, drinking a bottle of txacoli, and telling stories to my children. And I hope they will remember.

Don’t Wake the Bear

It’s that time of year again. Schools are out and summer has started. I am all for long holidays—since I love traveling—I just wish adults would get the same amount of time off as the kids…

Summer holidays are a great time to get away, but here I find myself in a bit of a dilemma. You see, Michigan is so pretty in summer that I don’t want to go anywhere. This time of year, the weather is finally gorgeous, everything is green, flowers are blooming and Lake Michigan and its beaches are beckoning. Why leave?

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One of my favorite spots in Michigan is Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. We have been there a number of times, because, well, it is beautiful. Lakes, nature, small towns, islands…and of course, the dunes. The dunes are an impressive sight, sitting on top of glacial moraines, they tower 400 feet over Lake Michigan. A sign on top of one of the dunes warns you that, if you feel bold enough to bound, roll or slide down to the lake, you had better be able to make it back up.

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Down, down, down…Those tiny specks on the far left near the water, those are people…

I love to tell my kids the origin of the name “Sleeping Bear Dune”—after all, I do like a good story with a bear in it. Sleeping Bear Dune is named after a legend from the Ojibwe (Chippewa), a Native American tribe that lived in this area. “Michigan” comes from the Chippewa word Mishigamaa—which means “large water.”

The legend goes as follows:

Across Lake Michigan, on the Wisconsin shore, a raging wildfire broke out, trapping a mother bear and her two cubs. To escape, they plunged into the water and started swimming east. They swam and swam, until finally, they could see the Michigan shore. The cubs were getting tired and started lagging behind. The mother bear made it to the beach and walked up a high bluff to look out for her cubs. In sight of the shoreline, the exhaustion on the cubs took its toll. One cub drowned, and soon after, the other as well. Grieving, the mother bear lay down, refusing to leave, waiting for her cubs to return. The Great Spirit Manitou, who witnessed the cubs’ courage, commemorated them by raising an island on the location where each one went under. Then, he placed a slumber over the waiting mother bear and covered her with sand.

The islands from the legend are North and South Manitou Island, which you can see from the shore. Apparently, Sleeping Bear Dune used to have a vegetation-covered knoll on top, that resembled a sleeping bear. It has much eroded since. A beautiful version of the legend, with wonderful illustrations, has been published by Kathy-jo Wargin. It’s called The Legend of Sleeping Bear Dune and was named The Official Children’s Book of Michigan.

This legend has been retold over many generations, preserving the story and the landmarks, even though the actual “bear” may not be recognizable anymore. Hopefully, parks like these will endure as well, and continue to amaze our future generations.

If you find yourself in Michigan this summer, do visit this beautiful area. It’s worth it.