Tuesday, February 24, 2015

From the fury of the Northman, O Lord, deliver us.

Although this exact phrase never appears in any surviving written document, the monks living the British Isles in the eight and ninth centuries likely prayed using similar words. The first Northmen (Norsemen) were searching for plunder, and the monasteries along the coasts of England and Ireland made ideal targets. Not only were these settlements poorly defended, but they possessed great wealth.

Christian artifacts made the ideal booty for these dark age pirates. Items such as crosiers (a staff), psalters (a prayer book), chalices and reliquaries (a cask for holy relics) were not only portable but “liquid”. The gold and silver of these objects could be melted down and reused in brooches or other jewelry, or they could simply be re-fashioned, like the reliquary that became a Norsewoman’s jewelry box. Sometimes the pieces were simply chopped up to become “hacksilver”, the currency of the time period.



The Norse raiders not only stole these precious sacred objects, they also dealt with the monks in brutal fashion, slaughtering them, throwing them into the sea to drown or taking them prisoners to face a life of slavery.

The written record of these raids accounts for much of the fearsome reputation of “Vikings” handed down to us today. A tenth century poet describes one Norse raider: "Blond was his hair, and bright his cheeks. Grim as a snake's were his glowing eyes."


 
But for all the brutality of these early raiders, they did not have much impact on history. It was the later waves of Norsemen who truly reshaped Europe. They weren’t seeking plunder and loot, but looking for places to settle and farm. As their homeland grew crowded, younger landless sons sought their fortunes across the seas.

As much as they were savage pirates and land-hungry farmers, the Norse were traders. That was really how they came to control a far-flung empire stretching from Ireland, England and Scotland to Russia and Constantinople. They traded ivory and furs from the far north for amber and gold from the Baltic. Wool, wheat and hides from the British Isles for wine and pottery from the Mediterranean. And slaves from almost everywhere.

Perhaps because they were traders, the Vikings didn’t seek to impose their culture on the territories they conquered. Instead, they tended to absorb the culture of the people they subdued. After centuries of despoiling Christian settlements, they become Christian themselves. Out of the priceless artifacts they stole, they developed their own artistic style, with fierce mythical animals and elaborate interlaced lines. It was similar to Celtic knotwork, but less symmetrical and static, as befitting their restless lifestyle. They used it on ships and buildings, carved into wood, rather than on stone or metal artifacts.  


 
When they settled on the coast of what is modern France, they eventually ended up speaking French and adopting the feudal system. Living in a realm where “land was power” only fueled their rapacious lust for more territory. It was a man of Norse descent named William who would lead his countrymen across the sea to seize control of England in what is now known as the Norman conquest.

From a distance, it is easy to admire and idealize the Vikings. We remember the “blond hair” and “bright cheeks” and forget the “grim eyes”. For a romance writer, these fair-haired giants make the ultimate alpha hero. My first Viking book, Storm Maiden, features a Norseman who is captured during a raid on Ireland. He is tall and fair, bold and fiery. But as the book progresses, we find that despite his ferocious exterior, he can be kindhearted and compassionate. And his real gifts are as a trader, rather than as a warrior.

The hero of Storm Maiden is based on my husband. In many ways he’s the quintessential Irishman. But there is something about his fine, narrow nose and deep-set eyes that seemed Norse to me. And so I wrote this poem about him, which became the preface to Storm Maiden:

He says he’s Irish
But I look into those eye
Blue as the North Sea
And know he’s an immigrant like all the rest.

I see him
A few centuries ago
Riding his bird boat
Seaspray halo
Gold-red hair glinting with the sunset
His bones are as white and strong
As the seafoam
His smile a bright, fierce
Sea monster of passion.

He’s come to plunder my heart
Ravage my soul
Take me away to sleep
In the Northlands
Where the gods still thunder
And we can dream in endless twilight.
 
Storm Maiden is on sale for 99 cents through March 8!
 
 

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Call Down the Moon

I'm participating in the Sneak Peak Sunday blog hop. 



Here's an excerpt from my latest book, a reincarnation/time travel story entitled Call Down the Moon:


He went into the kitchen and pulled a dusty bottle from the wine rack, then dug in the drawer for a corkscrew. His hands shook as he inserted the corkscrew and worked it down. He couldn’t believe this moment had come. Aisling was here. After all these centuries. It was…magic. He took a deep breath. She was the whole center of his world, his reason for existence. He had to make certain everything went perfectly.

Pulling out the cork, he poured each of them a glass of wine and took the glasses into the living room. She was sitting on the couch, looking so beautiful it made his chest hurt. He handed her a glass and sat down beside her. Not too close. He didn't want to distress her. But if he didn't touch her soon, he would lose his wits.

She took a sip of the wine. The tip of her tongue poked out in an unconscious gesture as she tasted the wine. Connar sucked in his breath. He couldn’t endure much more. He was overwhelmed with desire. It was torment to be so close to her. To watch the rise and fall of her breasts beneath the tight fabric of her dress. To observe the pulse of life in her slim neck. To feast his eyes on the silken perfection of her skin. Every nuance, every detail of her body aroused him.

"It's good wine," she said. "I mean, I'm hardly a connoisseur, but it's very mellow." She looked at him, a shy flash of blue eyes. His mind went blank as he focused on her lips. Full and ripe, and moist from the wine.

He put down his own glass and cleared his throat, struggling for control. "Yes, it's good wine. I've been saving it."
 
"Saving it? For me?" Her voice was breathless, soft and light. Her pupils were huge, the black centers consuming the blue irises.
 
You can guess what happens next. Maybe this blog hop should be on Tuesdays and be called "Teaser Tuesdays!"
 
To enjoy more intriguing excerpts, go to : http://sneak-peek-sunday.blogspot.com/
 

Monday, December 29, 2014

Time to... CALL DOWN THE MOON

Recently I've been blogging about my trip to Ireland and Scotland. I've been to Ireland twice before and Call Down the Moon, which releases as an ebook today, was inspired by a lot of what I saw on those earlier trips. Although the book, a reincarnation/time romance, takes place mostly in contemporary Denver, it begins (and ends) in Ireland. But a far different Ireland than the one I saw this last trip.
 This is dark age Ireland. People have lived here several thousand years already, and the land is dotted with tombs and stone monuments from long-forgotten cultures. Some of their ancient beliefs linger, although most tribes have converted to the new faith of Christianity. Years of human habitation has already dramatically altered the land. 

 
 
But there are still wild places where few people venture. Deep valleys, dark forests, hidden caves.
    

 It's in this timeless realm of trees and rocks and water that my heroine Aisling grows up, among a sect of priestesses, the Nine Sisters, who honor the old ways and preserve the ancient magic. By tradition, they are healers, and that's why Irish prince Connar mac Donal dares to venture into their hidden world. His foster brother Fergus is near death from a hunting injury, and Connar knows the Sisters are his only hope.

When Aisling and her birth sister Siobhan greet Connar and lead him to the Sisters' cave, the connection between Aisling and Connar is immediate and profound. Connar knows he is entering a forbidden, haunted realm, and normally he would be terrified. But Aisling's gentle manner and tranquil beauty reassure him. They reach the cave and older Sisters begin to work their magic. During the unsettling ceremony, Connar focuses on Aisling and feels the link between them grow stronger, so strong that he will be compelled to defy his father and seek out Aisling again and again.

They are soulmates, their spirits so deeply bound together that Connar believes nothing can part them. And when the conflict between the Sisters and his tribe results in Aisling's death, Connar is desperate enough to do anything to be reunited with her. Even use magic to travel to the future to reclaim his beloved.  

The story then switches to 21st century Denver, a distinctly less mystical and, except for the majestic Rocky Mountains on the horizon, less picturesque setting than dark age Ireland. But even in Denver, the magic of that ancient world still lingers, and when Aisling, now Allison, meets Connar, the memories of her long-ago life begin to return to her, sometimes with terrifying clarity.

 As for what happens next, you'll have to read the book!
 

 

 

 

Sunday, December 28, 2014

It's in the the colorful details

 
 Although exploring beautiful scenery and historic sites is wonderful, sometimes the best part of traveling is simply learning how other people live. I'm always enthralled by the quirky details of foreign cities, like this life-size dog in a shop window in Dublin who can apparently walk through walls. His front and back ends are in two different windows of a display selling housewares. I'm not really sure what the point is!
And there is food, a lot like ours, but with some odd little differences. French fries become chips, and are served with vinegar instead of catsup (my daughter used both).  
 My daughter and I often bought ready-to-eat food for our supper and even buying groceries was an interesting experience. We always spent time going around and looking at all the weird foods you never seen in an American supermarket:  blood pudding, a kind of "salad" that is really flavored, finely-minced cabbage, and all sorts of baked goods and sweets with unique names. And who knew that pancakes were American!

And you always discover things you love and then find out you can't get at home: like raspberry-favored cider and the perfect handcream.
In addition to traditional sightseeing, my daughter and I both love just walking around and looking at things, marveling at sites you'd never find in this country. From the old... This is a department store in Edinburgh:

                   
To the new... a hotel in the Temple Bar district of Dublin.
 And then there is street art...
 And ordinary things transformed... like this lobby in a Dublin hotel that is totally purple!
  And pubs and restaurants with an exotic feel.
Cities are also where you see scenes that remind you of the cruel disparities of life:  a homeless man sleeping on a piece of cardboard on the sidewalk of a massive bank building, a pregnant woman with despair in her eyes begging for change in an area of posh shops and elegant restaurants. These images are a reminder that for all our progress in some ways, humans have a long way to go.

Most trips end too soon, about the time I finally stop getting lost constantly, and also about the time I figure out what I really want to see and do. Oh, well. Now I'll know for next time!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Giants, Vikings and Gold

A bout with the flu (despite getting a shot) and preparations for Christmas have kept me from blogging the last month. But now I am back to share some more highlights of our trip.
The last two days were spent in Dublin: shopping, people watching and absorbing the atmosphere. I did get to the archeological branch of the National Museum of Ireland. I visited it ten years ago when I was in Dublin for the first time and remember the awe I felt at some of the exhibits. The main floor is devoted to the ancient eras: iron age, bronze age and Neolithic. The displays of gold and amber jewelry are as massive and incredible as I recalled.

 

For perspective, the golden spheres are the size of baseballs, the twisted gold torcs over a foot in diameter, the amber beads the size of birds' eggs and the "cloak pins" are about ten inches long and big enough to fasten the garment of a giant.  And maybe there were giants living there, as there is a display at the museum of bog body called Old Croghan Man, which is the remains of a male in his twenties who was six and a half feet tall. The body is dated to the third century b.c., a time when most men were at least a foot shorter.
These amazing, oversized objects actually ended up being part of the plot of my book The Dragon Bard.
The museum also houses more traditional examples of Irish metalwork, like these dazzling gold torcs and the famous Ardagh Chalice.

But as much as I delight in the beauty and craftsmanship of these priceless objects, what I find most intriguing in this museum are the displays of everyday objects. There's something very affecting about viewing combs that actually smoothed the hair of people living in Viking Dublin, seeing the weapons they used in battle, the rings they wore and the gameboard they played games upon.

All too soon I had to leave the delights of the museum and return to the hotel. And there are two other branches I didn't have time to visit at all, the natural history museum and the museum of decorative arts and history. I've never even gotten to the decorative arts one, although I did visit the natural history one ten years ago, where I had one of the employees take this picture of me with the skeleton of the giant Irish elk displayed there.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

 
                               
"Come hither, Oh man, and take in the prospect of the land of immortals!" -- My great-great grandmother wrote, or more likely, paraphrased or copied, these lines, when she lived in this house in 1834. The poem, entitled On Immortality, Judgment and Eternity is about death, judgment and the afterlife, quite grim subjects for a nine-year-old girl to be writing about. But she was raised as a Quaker and likely taught to shun the pleasures and joys of "this earthly realm" from an early age. And perhaps she already had some personal experience with death and loss, although both her parents, according to the family genealogy records, lived to see her reach adulthood.

It's hard to imagine the inspiration for her impassioned words, reading them over 150 years later. But awe-inspiring to be able to see the actual house where she lived nearly two centuries ago. Her daughter, my great-grandmother, would emigrate to America in the 1880's, learn dressmaking in New York City and then come out to Cheyenne, Wyoming and start a dressmaking shop with her sisters, where they made gowns based on the latest Paris fashions for the wives of the wealthy cattle barons.

Wyoming is a world away from the green, rain-drenched hills of County Armagh, Ireland, and I can't help wondering if Lizzie Walker Logan, my great-grandmother, longed for her homeland and that is part of the reason she kept her mother's poem and passed it on to her daughter, my great-aunt, who copied it so future generations could share this connection.  
The sense of the past and the many, many generations who have come before us is part of what draws me to Ireland. Finding a little bit of my family's history was one reason I chose to visit Northern Ireland on this trip. Another reason was to find what is supposed to be a remnant of the ancient oak forest that once covered much of this island. It's part of the Breen Wood, located somewhere west of Glen Shesk, one of the Nine Glens of Antrim. I tried to find this forest on my first trip to Ireland in 2004. Although we searched most of an afternoon, we never found it. But we did see some magical scenery that inspired my book The Dragon Bard, which was set in that area.
For this trip I again researched the forest. It looked like there were two ways to reach it, and since we going to be staying near the coast, I chose the northern route from a little coastal village called Ballycastle.  
  
 

It was a beautiful walk, but almost straight uphill. My daughter kicked my butt, setting a grueling pace. (Even though she smokes!) But long before we reached the top, I had the sense that unless we were up to hiking another three or four miles, and then back the same distance, we weren't going to find the forest. It was late afternoon and we'd already put in a long day of sightseeing, so I resigned myself to having to search for that elusive patch of native oakwood on another trip.

Despite not finding the forest, we saw some spectacular coastal scenery, including the Giant's Causeway.
 
 Visited one of my favorite villages anywhere, Cushendall. Where they have an intriguing landmark in the center of the town called the Curfew Tower.

 Took pictures of the ruins of the Bonamargy Friary outside Ballycastle.
And thrilled to the moist air, the glorious light, brilliant greenery and charming vistas that make Ireland such an enchanted place.