Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Let There Be Questions - Part II

Now that I'm home for a bit (at least until Saturday) I'm going to work on those Kennesaw State University student questions from September. Remember those?

Natalie E asks, "Can you tell us a bit more about your talk for the Whitechapel Society and the Once Upon a Dark Alley: A Tale of Ripper Fiction?"

Sure can. Lots of dedicated Ripperologists (as they're called) can quote chapter and verse from non-fictional accounts of the crimes. Not a lot of them read fictional works about Jack the Ripper. Why? Most of it is just so bad! A good number of authors don't do their homework, make assumptions about Jack, the Victorian Era, the investigation, or just figure they know everything anyway so why bother read up on the subject. The end result is something that grates on one's nerves if you are aware of the details of the crimes and the times. Why so picky? It's easy. If you're a mechanic and some author puts a blatant mistake in his/her book about how to fix a carburetor, you're going to notice. Make another mistake and now you've pulled the reader out of the story. At this point they might give up on you and put the book down (or toss it across the room if they're really steamed). You've trashed the "suspension of disbelief" that allows a reader to immerse themselves in your make-believe world. That's why most Ripperologists don't bother with Ripper fiction. They know too much about the subject to suspend disbelief.

I decided it would be interesting to see how other authors have treated Old Jack since 1888. A couple good examples fall in 1889 and 1899. From that point on Jack has been portrayed as the ultimate demon, a role model, a "victim" and a hero (!). I certainly couldn't read every bit of Ripper fiction out there, but I did enjoy the breadth of the stories that I sampled (at least most of them). Anno Dracula (Kim Newman) combines Jack and Vlad Dracula in a riveting tale. The Whitechapel Horrors (Edward Hanna) pairs Sherlock Holmes and Jack in a story that really gives you the atmosphere of 1888 London. The Lodger (Marie Belloc Lowndes) is the classic tale of a landlady who begins to believe that her lodger is the infamous killer. Bill Perring's excellent The Seduction of Mary Kelly depicts Jack (and Victorian England) from the point of view of one of his most famous victims.

What I learned is what I suspected: each author brings their own "view" of Jack to the story which, in many ways, mirrors the mindset of the time it was written. Time After Time (Karl Alexander) is a good example. The Ripper steals H.G. Well's time machine and journeys to 1979 San Francisco. Jack quickly realizes he's an amateur in the horror department, an authorial comment on our violent society.

So the talk revolves around some of the different offerings of Ripper fiction, how Jack is portrayed or "revealed" inside the story and how that differs from some of the other Ripper fiction one can read. The talk was well received at the Whitechapel Society (thank heavens) and I'll be presenting a PowerPoint version this Saturday at the Fayette Co. Public Library (Fayetteville, GA). Should be a lot of fun.

Over time, I hope to become an "expert" (I use that term very loosely) about Ripper fiction. Not many people have made a study of it. I figured -- why not? I always enjoy a good story as long as they get the details correct.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

HallowCon 2007

Some conventions are always a good time. HallowCon is one of those. We schlepped ourselves to Chattanooga via The Interstate from Hell (I-75) and it only took 2-1/2 hours when it should take far less than that. You can employ the scenic route and it takes 3. When we come home, we'll do that and enjoy the trees and the mountains instead of the back end of a semi.

Anyway, we checked in, reacquainted ourselves with the hotel and the found some food. Opening ceremonies was had, a Meet and Greet the Guests commenced and then we settled in for some port and chocolate in our room with some old friends.

Saturday went very quickly. A few panels, lots of food and, for me, a whopping ache in my neck. It managed to go weird overnight even though I brought my own pillow. So I was more reserved than usual this year and took a couple of naps augmented with BioFreeze to try to numb down the ouchies. Didn't work.

Though the weekend wasn't as much fun for me because of that issue, it was still great for everyone else. Lots of good food, libations, stimulating panels and strange people to talk with (you know who you are!) Mickey & Dutch (the folks who put on the con) do a bang up job.

If you want to find out what one of their "relaxa-cons" is like, please go here. They do two cons a year (insane!) -- Fantasicon & HallowCon (March & October). Pick one and go. You won't regret it.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Same Wavelength

Everything went without a hitch. We took the train to Manchester on Sunday night, settled into our hotel and found a wonderful Italian restaurant to enjoy our final supper in England. We were off early the next morning to the airport and managed to get ourselves a very chatty cab driver. Once he found out we were Americans, we starting comparing notes.

To sum it up, a goodly number of Brits are keeping a wary eye on our elections. If you don't know why they'd care, I suspect you might want to bone up on our history for the last seven years. They're edgy who will be in the White House, edgy about their economy, the problems with their health care, immigration, etc. Sound familiar?

I found a common theme: We're so screwed and don't know how to fix the mess. We have politicians who couldn't find their arses with four hands and our future is looking pretty crappy. Brits are a stoic lot. They've been through stuff that makes our 9/11 look like a bad road accident. They grumble, but they usually have a sense of the future, that things will get better. I didn't feel that during this trip and it troubled me.

Much like here in America. We're worried about the same things, furious at our politicians who can't seem to do a damned thing right and frustrated about where it's all heading. I didn't travel anywhere else this trip, so I can't say if this is a worldwide malaise or just isolated in a few countries. Contrast this with the Victorian Era, which was full of energy and a sense of confidence, and it's even more depressing.

On the whole, it was a very good trip and I learned a lot, both for my writing and on a personal level. I'm hoping if I make a journey back to England next year I'll find my Brit cousins a bit more buoyant. If not, then I know things are really not going to get much better in the long haul.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The 2007 Jack the Ripper Conference

Many of you might find it quite odd that a bunch of folks gather every year to talk about a serial killer from the 1880's. I admit it is a bit odd, but everyone has a hobby. Of course, to some of these folks the pursuit of the Whitechapel killer isn't really a hobby. Many of them have made a lifetime study of the crime scenes, victims and potential suspects. I stand in awe of them.

For me the conference offers an opportunity to speak to some highly intelligent folks who know just about anything you can ask about Victorian England. This conference was in Wolverhampton (northwest of Birmingham) and focused strictly on Catherine "Kate" Eddowes, one of the women who died on 30 Sept 1888 during the "Double Event." Kate has always had a special place in my heart and I included her in my first Time Rovers novel. It was interesting to hear of her life, her family and her final hours.

The image above is a portion of the backdrop used at the conference. My photo quality isn't that good. The original was superb. The work is by Jake Luukanen, who creates 3D models of the crime scenes based on old maps, photos and anything else he can get his hands on to make the images as accurate as possible. They are incredibly time consuming to create, but Jake has given us a means to visualize scenes that no longer exist. His images were used during a presentation by Neil Bell which laid out Kate Eddowes' last hours and her journey into Mitre Square. Neil also detailed the two constables' "beats" (the set routes they followed each night) around and through Mitre Square. The hours of work involved to do the research, let alone create the artwork, was daunting. The end result was very impressive. If you wish to see more of Jake's work, visit Casebook.org and in particular here.

But not all the time was spent discussing old murders. Saturday evening we did the banquet thing. Alan Sharp, author and all round nice chap, displayed his full Scottish regalia. Husband and I remained a bit more mundane, though we did dress upmarket for the occasion. I think hubby is now regretting not renting a kilt for the soirée.

Sunday brought the opportunity to auction off a character in my next book (Madman's Dance) which is the third in the Time Rovers Series. After a very generous donation to the conference, the part went to Robert Anderson, a fellow American. Now what is ironic is that there was a Robert Anderson involved in the Ripper case -- Sir Robert Anderson. I will, of course, make sure our Robert gets a plumb part. I already have a notion just what that might be.

Sunday evening we were off to Manchester. It's been a very busy and exhausting fortnight. I seem to have acquired a genuine British cold. Thanks for sharing, guys.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Blists Hill - Shropshire

Anytime you can take me into something remotely Victorian, I'm happy. Blists Hill was just such a place. Designed to give us modern folks a glimmer of what life was like in Shropshire during the late Victorian Era, it does the job quite well. The only downside is that it does it so well that school groups were touring the place at the same time as us. One clue: British school kids, at least the younger ones, aren't any better behaved than their Yank cousins. The older kids were well mannered and that was a plus. We just kept working our way around the groups so we could have more time to talk to the inhabitants of this little village.

I spent considerable time in many of the shops taking reference photos. I use them as I write to get the flavor of the time or a particular place. The chemist's shop is a good example. I spoke with the chemist who referred me to a book that laid out practices and procedures for dispensing medications. It included a section on therapeutic and lethal dosages. Contrary to what you read, Victorian chemists were very cagey about how bought poisons from them. They needed to either know the person or have someone recommend that individual before they'd hand over the arsenic or the strychnine. Sales of poisons were logged in a ledger. This chemist shop also included a corner where a dentist could ply his trade on certain days of the week. Now that is a gruesome thought.

We also visited the printing shop where my husband and the printer discussed the finer aspects of typesetting (hubby learned some of that in high school) and then we were off to the equivalent of their grocery store where I indulged myself in even more photos.

Hubby was also tickled to find two of his favorite things at Blists Hill: steam engines and draft horses. He spoke with a couple of the older gents about some of the early engines. Though he is a computer wizard, he does have experience dealing with steam-powered threshing machines in Iowa. And as for the draft horses, we used to own a pair of Belgians. We were pleased to find a pair of Shires at Blists Hill. The younger one (below) was being trained to deal with the noise and such that goes with the visitors. His handler didn't use blinkers or blinders, feeling it was better for the horse to be able to see what was approaching him. Sound reasoning.

It was suggested we budget at least two and a half hours for Blists Hill. It took four. It was a marvelous treat. Tomorrow we're off to Wolverhampton and the UK Jack the Ripper Conference. Now that will be a change of scenery.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Go Forth & Explore!

Today was a transition day. We boarded a Virgin Train (no jokes please) and set off for Telford. The train ride was flawless. They've added new rolling stock since we were last there and though they've adopted the airlines idea of cramped seating, the environment was very pleasant. The continuous rail made the journey quiet and fast. By buying the tickets ahead a two and some odd hour journey cost us $25 each. Not bad.

Once in Telford we took a cab to our B&B in Ironbridge. We arrived a bit early, but our hosts were very gracious, showed us to our room and plied us with hot tea and cake. Yum. After a quick nap, we set off for Ironbridge. Now it's not that far of a walk, but it did involve some back roads (see above). Very rustic and relaxing after the hurly burly that is London. And abundant stinging nettles. Now if you don't know about nettles, let's just say you don't want to be an idiot and think it's mint and run a leaf between your thumb and index finger so you can smell the heavenly minty odor. With nettles, it hurts like hell. And continues to hurt for some time afterward. I pulled this stunt during my first trip to England in '87. I know better now. I glowered at the nettles and they glowered back. Best to leave it that way.

The town of Ironbridge is (obviously) named after the famous Ironbridge that spans the gorge. Build in 1779 it's an incredible work of engineering. Now I might not have been as impressed if the Victorians had built it, but conducting the work in the 1770's sincerely left me in awe of their effort. We were still getting our country in order and they were building massive iron bridges across huge gorges. Amazing.

It proved a great evening to trudge around. The weather was truly refreshing. The leaves are just getting a blush of color. A house (above) had a wreath of ivy that was trending from green to fire red. Very stunning. Hard on the brickwork, but pretty nonetheless.

Tomorrow we're off to Blists Hill, a Victorian village. It'll be a great day for me to take pictures and ask lots of questions. As for the husband, if he gets to see steam engines, draft horses and farm equipment, all will be well.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

From 1666 to 1888

The Great Fire of London. If you've not heard of this particular bit of London's history, it's a riveting story. A fire breaks out in the ovens of the King's baker in the year 1666. Not everyone was worried: the Lord Mayor of Lord deemed it so insignificant that a "woman could piss it out." Not the first time a public official got it wrong in one.

Over 80% of London was destroyed. 13,000+ homes, 87 churches including the great St. Paul's. Supposedly only a handful people died. The truth is closer to hundreds, if not thousands perished as no accurate records were kept of the deaths. I came across the book The Dreadful Judgement while touring through the Docklands Museum. It's an incredible read. Utilizing factual details with a twist of fiction, the story comes alive. I finished it in only a few nights, it was that good.

Efforts were made to improve the firefighting response as there was no metropolitan fire authority at this time. It wasn't until after the Tooley Street Fire of 1861 that things really moved forward. The fire started in a bale of jute and consumed 20+ warehouses. It burned for two weeks (!) and created a slick of burning oil and tallow on the Thames that claimed some of the ships.

Soon after, the London Fire Brigade was created. Today we visited their museum even though it was pouring rain. It was worth it. We toured through different centuries of fire fighting technique, viewed old hand pumps, engines and the latest firefighting equipment. Outside the newest batch of would-be firefighters were busily training with a hook and ladder.

One display (see left) let us see how the firefighters' uniforms had changed over the centuries. The goldish helmet is the uniform from the Victorian Era and the coat was made of wool. A step up from the leather helmet of previous centuries. Other exhibits demonstrated leaps forward in the science of firefighting, usually after a disaster such as the King Cross/St. Pancras Station fire in 1987 where in 31 people died.

After a nice lunch at the Market Porter (yes, I did make it back) we headed toward Whitechapel. By now it is raining steadily, my shoes (of the tennis variety) are soaked as are portions of my legs and arms. I was carrying an umbrella (I detest the things) but it wasn't helping much. Still, the prospect of hiking through Whitechapel spurred me on.

Whitechapel. Once home to immigrants from Czarist Russia, now it's known as Banglatown because of the large number of Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigrants. It's also home to the Whitechapel Society, Jack the Ripper's hunting grounds and a few remaining examples of lovely Victorian architecture.
We spent the afternoon wandering around back alleys, ducking dripping waterspouts and trying not to get drowned by taxis or buses. We splashed around Mitre Square where Kate Eddowes was killed on 30 Sept 1888. Most of the landmarks are gone. So is Miller's Court (Mary Kelly 9th Nov 1888). The Victorian Era is slowly giving way to whatever we deem important at the moment. Still, some of the old buildings are rare gems and should be preserved. The locals are trying their best, but it seems more and more of those gems vanish every week.

Whilst craning my eyes upward (a lot of the really good Victorian bits are now on the second or third floors) I found what appears to be a Sanskrit sign underneath the English one. It's rusty and looks old. It's a bit of a puzzle so I intend to do some research into how that sign got there. It's not the only one, it appears. I love a mystery....

Monday, October 08, 2007

Many Miles Did We Travel

By now we're logging some serious foot mileage. We're ranging between 5 and 10 miles per day according to my pedometer. (Yes, I'm a masochist. I love numbers.) Today we were all over the place. We began our morning by taking an Original London Walks Tour of Southwark (pronounced suth-uk). We were joined by Mary & Tony from the U.S. Tony is a Dragon Moon Press author, as well, and when he said they were going to England we decided a meet-up was in order. Mary is always a kick and her mere presence causes balky UK mobiles (cell phones) to work. Don't know how she does it. Just happens.

Jean, our trusty London Walks guide, was great. She trudged us all over the back alleys of Southwark, visiting places Dickens would have known and relating stories from that time. She would slip into the proper accents and go to it. I always take these walks when I'm in London as they are very informative. They give you lots of tidbits and then you can do further research on your own. We only went on one this year and this was an excellent choice courtesy of Mary & Tony. As we walked, I made a mental note to come back and eat at the Market Porter (left) just across from Borough Market.

We also visited this very strange graveyard. Currently it's a storage area for a business and stacked with pipes and such. Underneath are at least 15K bodies as the site was used during one of the outbreaks of the plague and for paupers and prostitutes. People have attached little mementos and ribbons to the bars along the side of the graveyard, including a tribute to the women who were recently killed in Ipswich. Since ground is so expensive in London, there is a push to develop every square inch. This memorial is a reminder that often ground is too important to be used for the next supermarket or wine bar.

After the walk, we navigated our way across the river to Covent Garden and The Salisbury on St. Martin's Lane. This is a stunning Victorian Pub with cut class panels and mahogany interior. Do check out the link. I didn't get any decent pictures of this and have made note to do so the next time I visit. And spend more time in there. It was like a shrine.

Of course, I got lost on the way to the pub. That's kinda rare as I know Covent Garden very well. So we wandered a bit, whetting our appetite as it were, and then settled in for good food and conversation. Once lunch was over, Mary & Tony were off on their own pursuits and we went to Stanfords to collect yet another 1894 Whitechapel map (I left mine at home) and then on to Greenwich.

Once in Greenwich, we didn't get a chance to visit the Observatory or the National Maritime Museum. Just not enough time. But we did trudge through the Greenwich Foot Tunnel from Island Gardens (north) to Greenwich (south) which goes UNDER THE THAMES. Okay, I'm not good with old tunnels under water. Neither is my heroine, Jacynda. Gee, I wonder where that comes from. So I felt it necessary to make the journey just to experience the "thrill."
This tunnel is "younger" than the Thames Subway (which runs from the Tower of London to Tooley Street on the south bank) and the Thames Tunnel which runs from Wapping on the north to Rotherhithe on the south. The Thames Subway is closed now, used for fiber optic cables and such. The Thames Tunnel (Brunel's invention) is used for the trains. So the Greenwich Tunnel is the closest I can get to "experiencing" what it would be like to trudge under the Thames in the 19th century even though it was finished in 1902.

Unfortunately, we didn't get to make the crossing in peace and quiet. Bicyclists love the tunnel and even though they're not supposed to ride through, they do at breakneck speed. A couple of the younger ones were shouting at the top of their lungs. The sound reverberated like thunder. I kept moving at a very swift pace, partly because of my phobia and partly because I was counting how many steps it was between Island Gardens and Greenwich. Of course the hubby didn't know what I was doing and kept up a steady stream of commentary, rendering it quite difficult to keep an accurate count. I could have stopped at some point and given him a clue what I was up to, but that wasn't in the cards. Besides, there was a loo (restroom) that was calling my name in Greenwich. Some requirements just take precedence over everything else.

After finding said facility and then repairing to the Admiral Hardy for a good dinner and a pint (or two) of Boddingtons, we took our burning feet back to the B&B. At this point I'll do an unsolicited plug for Burt's Bees Peppermint Foot Foot Lotion. Recommended by my massage therapist, this stuff did wonders for our sore feet. Of course, our room always smelled like a peppermint factory, but that couldn't be helped.

Tomorrow is the London Fire Brigade Museum and Whitechapel. And of course, rain is in the offing....

Sunday, October 07, 2007

The Regent's Canal

This was one of those beautiful days in London. It's getting on autumn here so there's a hint of color in the leaves and the air is crisp. We journeyed to a section of the Regent's Canal and then walked from Little Venice (as it's called) to Camden Town. About 3-1/2 miles. We trudged under old bridges, behind some stately mansions, through the London Zoo. All the while canal boats floated by us. If we'd been smart, we'd have taken one of those instead of walking, but somehow I think it would have ruined the effect.

Little Venice is home to a colony of flat-bottomed boats. Some of them appear to be permanently moored here. Each has their own electric and cable service (!). Though small by our standards, I could see how it would appeal. The canals run throughout portions of England so you can actually journey around, tie up for a pint and then head out again. I made note of that for a future trip.

Constructed in the early 19th century, the Regent's Canal was used to transport goods and people around London. There was a tow path along the side of the canal and horses pulled the boats along at a very slow pace. Sometimes a "train" of boats was strung together and towed along by a steam barge. In 1874, there was an explosion under the Macclesfield Bridge as one of the boats contained five tons of gunpowder which detonated as they passed underneath. You can read the account here.

We ate supper at Camden Town, wandered around their eclectic market for a time and then headed back to our B&B, totally knackered (tired) as the Brits would say. One odd thing about the market, however. For a time we thought we were back at Dragon*Con given the large numbers of Punks and Goths hanging around. Seemed surrealistic, to be honest.


The evening at the Whitechapel Society was fabulous. Great people, appreciative audience, very good beer (wink). The talk went well. Only made only one real boo-boo and that got a laugh (never hurts) and folks seemed to like what they heard. We didn't get back to the B&B until half past midnight so this morning was a bit slow. This weekend London's Underground is undergoing planned renovations (in other words you can't get around very easily) so that required a lot of pre-planning.

Today we're off to Camden Locks on a tour to see the Regent's Canal (more research). Then more wandering around the East End. An author's job is never done.


Saturday, October 06, 2007

The Highlight of My Year

For those who've followed my year, it's obvious it's been awesome. Ten award nominations, six wins for SOJOURN. My career is trending upward, as the financial analysts would say. But there is one thing that I've been anticipating beyond almost everything.

Picture this: The opportunity to address an audience in the Duke of Wellington Pub in Whitechapel. Beer at my elbow. The majority of the audience are friends and comrades, fellow Ripperologists. A genuine Victorian pub!

I'm giving a talk on Ripper fiction. 90% of me is wired about this. The other portion is scared out of my mind. What was I thinking? Most of these folks are one, two or more decades into Ripper research. They know WAY more than I can ever learn. Still, I know fiction and what motivates an author to use a compelling character to drive their story. And let's face it, Jack is the ultimate compelling character.

So on Saturday, Oct. 6th I'll be sipping a beer, spinning out my presentation to a group of wonderful folks in an old pub in London. If you're in the area, drop in (Duke of Wellington Pub, Toynbee Street, 7:45 p.m) If not, wish me luck!


Thursday, October 04, 2007

Merry Olde

We've settled into our B&B and since the plane was only half full (or half empty depending on how you view things) we actually got some sleep. Today we wander through a former insane asylum, an old operating theatre and get some shots of London for reference. Tonight it's dinner with a friend who flies in and out of London on a regular basis. We're going to try Wagamama's (a noodle shop). I'll let you know how that works.

Once you get here and sort out the train/Light Rain/Tube and bus connections, you're very mobile. It just takes time. Not quite into the British part of my brain yet, but we're getting there.

And now off to explore. Carry on as you were....

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

And Away We Go

By the time you read this, we'll be on a plane (hopefully) to Merry Olde (England). We handed off our house keys to the housesitter, scritched the cat one last time and then vamoosed. We've done all the sensible things one does when one travels (notify the local neighborhood watch of our sitter, updated our info with the alarm company, polished our wills, all that crap.) Now it's just time to put butt in plane seat and fly for (groan) 9 hours.

It sounds like a long time. It will be. In my heyday, it was nothing. Flying back and forth to Asia from Iowa took an astounding 24 hours, at least 15 of that on a plane from San Francisco (or L.A.) to Hong Kong. 15 hours is PENANCE, even when you're in Business Class. So I will be reminding myself of that during our hours on the way to England. And no, we're not in Business Class, alas. Haven't made it to the "big time" just yet.

The first day there (Wed) is just going to involve getting settled into the B&B, doing recon to find an Internet cafe and finding a pub for dinner. Thurs we hit the ground walking as there is a LOT of research (not just the pub kind) that has to happen during this week in London. How was a court trial conducted in 1888? How were hangings carried out at Newgate? What is the airspeed velocity of a swallow? (Just kidding.*) I have considerable background info on most of my questions, but need more "depth" and you get that depth by trudging through museums, asking (hopefully) intelligent questions and keeping an eye out for that one piece of detail that makes a scene sing to the reader. Sometimes you find it. A lot of times you don't. It's a crapshoot.

I'll post reports as time and connections allow. It's going to be a hectic, but fun trip. Right now that sounds very appealing.

*Monty Python & The Search for the Holy Grail