Friday, November 30, 2007

Telephone to Jesus

I am now in the U.S. (My agent tells me I am the most traveled author she knows.) Last week was our Thanksgiving holiday, a time to be thankful for more than just turkey and dressing.

I am amazed at my little granddaughter, who just passed her first birthday. Bella’s laugh bubbles over with joy and innocence. She has never known pain worse than bumping her head on a chair as she toddles around the room, or loss more than a few hours separation from her mother. She sleeps cozy in her own crib, tucked in her clean pajamas, confident that when she wakes Mommy will be there with milk or Cheerios or pieces of Graham cracker. Daddy will be there to play or give her a clean diaper. Bella makes weekly visits to the library and has a whole shelf of board books at home that she can look at any time. (So far she is more interested in turning pages than in listening to the story, but she already recognizes her favorite illustrators.) She has a membership at Como Park Zoo and will probably have another at the Science Museum in a couple years. She is surrounded by two parents, four grandparents and uncounted friends who adore her.

Bella doesn’t live in a group home with twenty-five other children vying for adult attention. Nor does she have only a big brother or sister to find food for her. She doesn’t go hungry on Wednesday before Thursday’s distribution of groceries at the center. Bella’s trips to the doctor are for check-ups and vaccinations, not to treat the skin sores or thrush so common with HIV. She takes a multiple vitamin once a day, not frequent antibiotics or foul-tasting anti-retrovirals.

A lot to be thankful for.

Bella lit up when I sang “Telephone to Jesus” for her. It’s a favorite with the orphans at Saint Francis.

Telephone to Jesus;
Telephone to Jesus;
Telephone to Jesus every day.
Jesus says he loves me;
Jesus says he loves me;
Jesus says he loves me every day.

The children draw circles with their index fingers as though they were dialing an old fashioned rotary telephone. It doesn’t matter that none of them has ever seen any phone but the mobiles everyone carries in South Africa. The children hold their imaginary phones to their ears as they grin and sing ‘Hello?’

Their world is so far from Bella’s. Lord, may the children of South Africa and the children of Minnesota ‘telephone’ to you today and feel your loving arms around them.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Research and Imagination

Sometimes I am accused of having a vivid imagination. At other times I feel like I have no imagination at all. I don’t come up with these story ideas on my own. My imagination requires an outside stimulus. Like the rainy day a group of Ramblers took me to see Water Break-its-neck Falls near New Radnor (‘new’ meaning in the eleventh century). A mossy rock hung over the ravine and immediately I knew that was where she was when… But in that case… and suddenly there was a whole part of the story that I hadn’t known about before.

From my reading, “Sir” is not an inherited title, and there were very few in Wales at this time who bore it. But I’m stuck with Colin’s father being “Sir Stephen Hay” since I called him that in Glastonbury Tor. So how does a brute like him come to have the title, and what does it reveal about the man he once was, or might have become? My imagination is still working on that one.

Being in Wales has been very stimulating. Words and phrases come to me, and I write them down—things like “Bits of blue shone like satin through rents in the dirty rags of cloud.” (I missed the exit to Llancaiach Fawr trying to remember that one and ended up in Merthyr Tydfil, which I always think of as Minas Tirith even though they aren’t anything alike.)

On the coast near St. David’s I wrote: "It was something in the quality of light that I noticed first, something more open and exposed that said somewhere in the last few miles I had stepped off the porch of the world and onto the front lawn. Beyond the meadow that sloped away to my left was not a mere valley before another green, grassy hill, but something completely Other--the Sea." Since Colin’s story doesn’t have anything to do with the sea, I’m sure I won’t be able to use that one. Sigh.

That will be the challenge—to let all that I have researched inform the background of my story without taking over and turning the book into “See what neat stuff I learned in Wales?” It can be hard for a writer to leave out the pet passages whose only fault is that they don’t happen to be relevant. It’s the story that must come first, and in all this spectacular country, it is the story that my imagination must find.
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Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Stone Table

As soon as I arrived at Pentre Ifan on the west coast of Wales, I thought, “Aslan’s stone table.” You will remember in C.S. Lewis’ children’s fantasy The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, that the great lion Aslan is sacrificed by the witch in the place of Edmund, the traitor, on a stone table. Then magic “from before the dawn of time” brings him back to life.

The stones of Pentre Ifan have stood in this meadow overlooking Newport Bay in Southwestern Wales for 4000 years, guarding the communal burial mound of a Bronze Age community. The 40-ton megalith rests on three vertical stones, two at one end and one at the other. A forth stone stands between the two verticals but doesn’t reach the table. Originally a mound of earth would have risen over the stones, and a circle much like Stonehenge surrounded the site.

The next day I found my way to Tinkinswood in the southern Vale of Glamorgan. Tinkinswood boasts a gracefully curving entry and has a small room underneath for Prince Caspian and the others to conspire for the freedom of Narnia. (I always had trouble picturing them meeting under a dining room table even if it was made of stone.)

A mile or so away, Maes y Felin (or St. Lythan’s) Burial Chamber stands dramatically on the horizon. Some sources say it’s more modern—only about 3000 years old, but others date it from the Stone Age 6000 years ago. There is a “spirit hole” in the back of one stone although we can only guess at its meaning or purpose.

All of these “tables” come from before the dawn of time—or at least the dawn of history. Which is your candidate for C. S. Lewis’s inspiration for the Stone Table? Or would you like to suggest an alternative site? Did Lewis ever tell us? So far my internet search has not discovered the “right answer.”

Once again, you can see more pictures of these sites and others in my research in Wales at .
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Sunday, November 4, 2007

Researching in Wales

I’m in Wales for three weeks to research a sequel to my novel Glastonbury Tor. The students I'm staying with have given me lots of insider information, gotten me a library card, provided a city map, highway atlas, directions to the bus and train and Sunday lunch with a family from the local church. Besides, there is someone at the end of the day who asks how it went and rejoices with me. Much better than a hotel. (In case you are wondering how I got such a good deal, I met the mother of one of the girls in Ethiopia in April, and she offered the house.)

Research has taken several forms:

The public library has much more relevant information than anything I have found in the U.S. or Johannesburg, where Welsh history after they lost their independence in the thirteenth century is assumed to be the same as England’s. Here I have found a couple books specifically on Tudor Wales and one (Land of my Fathers by Gwynfor Evans, originally published in Welsh) gives an enthusiastically Welsh nationalistic point-of-view.

Saint Fagan’s National History Museum of Welsh Life is a fantastic open air museum full of houses and other buildings from throughout history. I was glad to be on my own so I could linger over the seventeenth century and earlier, taking detail pictures and asking questions of the interpreters. I skimmed, or skip altogether, the nineteenth century miners houses and a twentieth century pre-fab. Six hours at the museum was enough to miss the last bus home, but not enough to see everything. I intend to return if I have time.

The Welsh Banquet at Cardiff Castle proved to be more eighteenth century to modern than I had hoped, including a very funny Tom Jones routine. But the food was great--honey mead (traditional Welsh staple), seaweed wrapped in bacon (“Welsh sushi”) and the lamb cawl (broth) I have been reading about. I arrived early and asked lots of questions of the presenters. One told me to use her name to see the attic and cellars (not usually open to the public) at the sixteenth century house where she used to work.

The Ramblers Association has groups all over the country that organize walks on Britain’s wonderful network of country lanes, national parks and public right-of-ways. While searching the internet for ancient hill forts and standing stones, I found a group walking yesterday from Cefn Onn Park (two stops up the rail line) over the Ridgeway to Rudley and back—a total of six miles. They were twenty or so, very friendly and full of information about where I should go and what I needed to see. The morning was gorgeous with views of Caerphilly (Caerffili) Castle and Pen y Fan (the highest peak in the Brecon Beacons) in the distance. I kept stopping to use my digital camera or take notes on red hawthorn berries and green, mossy trunks, etc. I soon had a reputation as that American woman who is researching a book. I think they were disappointed that I’m not rich and famous, but over lunch in a seventeenth century pub, I got the names of several must-see places to go when I rent a car next week.

I rounded out the day meeting a group of international students for the Guy Fawkes fireworks at Caerphilly Castle. Twenty-five thousand people stood on the wet grassy bank to watch the extravaganza reflected in the moat with the lighted castle in the background. Nothing to do with the sixteenth century, but lots of fun.

Then there are the flights of inspiration that occur, walking down the street to catch a bus or train. Of course. Why didn’t I think of that before? It’s so perfect. I’m praying for lots more of those inspirational moments as I carry my explorations further into the Vale of Glamorgan and beyond next week. Confession: I’m scared to death of navigating these narrow twisty roads on my own. At least I am already used to driving on the left.

(You can check out some pictures at . I haven’t yet figured out how to incorporate them into a blog.)