Me and COVID plus Imagining a New Place by novelist Chris Hall

‘Sunset over the Berg River ©River Tides Guesthouse’ – where author Chris Hall stayed when she began writing her book, "Song of the Sea Goddess." Owner Mike Harvey is a good friend of hers and the photo is from his website.
‘Sunset over the Berg River ©River Tides Guesthouse’ – where author Chris Hall stayed when she began writing her book, “Song of the Sea Goddess.” Owner Mike Harvey is a good friend of hers and the photo is from his website.

Writers get to build whatever world they please — sometimes our novels bend the truth only somewhat — other times they invent entire new gallaxies.

My works in progress, “Flamenco & the Sitting Cat,” and “Tango & the Sitting Cat,” are set in fictitious towns within Los Angeles during 2002 and 2003. Back then, COVID-19 didn’t exist…

Note: Earlier this week, my husband became feverish and unwell. Turns out he has COVID-19. He’s doing his best to get well while I feel healthy and am awaiting my test results. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve been super careful. I’m letting you know this as a reminder that one can never be too conscientious about avoiding this severe illness and about working civically to help contain it. (Here’s the follow-up, and here’s after that. and here’s the latest.)

Deciding on setting and histories and all that goes into storytelling is chancy no matter what an author chooses to create. There will always be fans and foes. To be a novelist requires enough passion to outrun the discouraging thoughts that can torment us.

Chris Hall has been wonderfully prolific over the last few years. She’s published three novels and a short story collection! Originally from the UK, she describes herself as “a compulsive story-teller, cat slave and hen keeper.” To sample her short fiction, fan fiction, mini-series, and poetry, as well as to follow her on her various social media, check out her website.

“Song of the Sea Goddess,” her most recent novel, is set where she lives now, the Western Cape of South Africa. Here she describes why she decided to depict a South Africa different from how it is in real life…

Author Chris Hall.
Author Chris Hall.

“From the Writer’s desk” by Chris Hall

Writing a novel is not just about telling the story. There are other considerations that come into play. I’d like to share with you why I was motivated to write a book set in South Africa. In particular, why I chose to paint an idealised portrait of the place and why I drew on the overarching theme of environmental destruction, rather than dealing with the gritty issues of race and poverty in my latest novel, Song of the Sea Goddess.

The Setting

When it came to writing this, my fourth novel, I was determined to set it in my adopted country, South Africa. I’d been living near Cape Town for almost ten years and the time had come to give voice to the people around me. I’d also decided it was time to transition from historical fiction. It was time to write in the moment, but at the same time include elements borrowed from the ancient lore of the African continent, which are written on cave walls and embedded in the landscape.

I knew I needed a setting to match the story I was about to tell, although the story hadn’t really even begun. Then, at the beginning of 2019, while staying in a small town on our very beautiful west coast, while I sat by the banks of the Berg River and watched the little boats going past on their way out to sea, I was moved to write a story about a fisherman with a little boat.

Every writer needs a helper as inspiring as Chris Hall's kitty, Luna.
Every writer needs a helper as inspiring as Chris Hall’s kitty, Luna.

The Characters

I’m a lazy novelist. I let my characters emerge and develop and play around in my mind. Even before they are fully formed, they are always desperate to run to centre stage and act out their parts.

But there has to be a starting point.

A few of my key characters are based on people I met when I first came to live in South Africa. People whose backgrounds were unfamiliar to me; people who come from what are euphemistically called ‘formerly disadvantaged communities’ (as if their communities are not still disadvantaged in this country, which has the most polarized society on the planet).

I could have written about some of their struggles, about the conditions in which they live, about the poverty and lack of opportunity that characterizes their communities, of how they’d suffered under apartheid, but as I got to them better, I realised that none of them wants to dwell on any of that.

So I decided I could give them better lives, locate them in a much more pleasant place and put a positive spin on this beautiful country.

I mixed them up a bit, taking a little bit of one and blending it with another, but their voices are true and their characteristics mirror real life in many respects. There’s a nod to some of the darker side of people’s lives with Sam’s flight from the Cape Flats’ gangland and in the history behind Jannie’s tattoos from the notorious ‘28s’ gang.

On the lighter side, several of the comical incidents, like when Auntie Rose loses her false teeth down her pants’ leg, are little events that actually happened. The food that the Aunties make and sell in the novel is based on recipes that I tasted and talked about with people. The love of food and the common ground we found over cookery has cemented several friendships in my new town.

The Theme

Concern for the environment is a theme I continue to return to in the short fiction and poetry, which I write on my blogsite, and while watching a TV documentary about water pollution, an idea began to form in my mind for the backdrop to my novel’s narrative. Water is in short supply in our country anyway, but what if the rivers were threatened? And what would happen if the forces of nature were moved to fight back? Soon my emerging novel would take a new and interesting turn.

My love of the landscape and ancient lore of the country that I now call home will continue to feature in my work. I’m already embroiled in a sequel to Song of the Sea Goddess, where myth and magic will once again be awakened in the little coastal town where the great river flows from the purple mountains into the southern ocean.

Visit Chris' site to order her books, and to find out more about her and the rest of her writings.
Visit Chris’ site to order her books, and to find out more about her and the rest of her writings.

Have you ever created a new world?

Astrology in Novels: Nina Romano’s Inspo

In high school, a classmate who was as passionate about reading as I was sat near me. Best friendship was in our stars!

The carvings with Chinese Zodiac on the ceiling of the gate to Kushida Shrine in Fukuoka (mirror image, to have animals in the correct order). Photo By Jakub Hałun - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64844306 The carvings with Chinese Zodiac on the ceiling of the gate to Kushida Shrine in Fukuoka (mirror image, to have animals in the correct order). Photo By Jakub Hałun – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Her preferred reading was historical fiction, the ancient sort with mythology and astrology mixed in. Thanks to her, I read a bunch by Mary Renault, an English author who lived much of her life in South Africa. Those books depicted lots of buff gay guys from olden days. Ironically, a) in South Africa Renault could live more peacefully than in the U.K. with her life partner who was also a woman, b) she often portrayed women harshly, and c) she criticized the gay rights movement.

My friend also introduced me to “Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs.” (Here’s a rare video interview with Goodman.) For me, Goodman was worthy of extra esteem as she was Aries, the same as me. When it came to Aries, all compliments were correct and unflattering attributes were incorrect. Until, that is, at some point in my so-called maturity when I tossed astrology into the same bundle as my Catholic upbringing. Both harbored too many confounding and disturbing aspects, so best not to fret about either.

Not so much later, though, a new friend entered who was into astrology. Charts, she explained, are how astrology becomes scientific. She introduced me to Angela Louise Gallo, a master at charting the stars. Gallo read and taught from her home in Van Nuys, which is just above Hollywood, hence she garnered a sizable entertainment biz crowd of followers.

Gallo’s monthly talks culminated with “hororary” readings, as in “hour-related” since those forecasts tied her psychic powers to the time of night when she would take questions. From slips of paper handed to her, she’d give quickie predictions. I’d parted ways with my parents as soon as I graduated high school with no plan other than survival. By the time I met Gallo those few years later, I’d collected myself enough to realize that I needed to do better. I asked Gallo whether I should sign up for college. She answered, “Wait a couple of semesters. Soon you’ll be taking a long trip.”

That month my grandmother sent me an airplane-paid invitation to visit her in Argentina! During childhood, my grandmothers and I exchanged many letters. They were fantastic in all the ways that mattered to me: they didn’t sugar-coat life, they wanted the best for me, and they helped foster the writer in me who will eventually publish Flamenco & the Sitting Cat and Tango & the Sitting Cat. I loved them dearly, sight unseen. The one in Spain I first met when I was nine. It wasn’t until my early twenties that I got to hug my Abuela in Buenos Aires.

After that trip, I hired Gallo to do a detailed chart, yet I can’t remember anything about it, including what happened to it. These days, I’d rather not presuppose anyone based on their birthday, and I prefer to bumble along as best I can when it comes to my future.

Yet I still adore stories about astrology!

In this admittedly roundabout way, I present to you, dear reader, today’s poet/novelist guest, Nina Romano, who writes from Florida and Utah. Originally from New York, she’s a world traveler who’s earned degrees and writing awards galore, plus she’s published a slew of books.

Here she generously recounts the way that Chinese astrology figured into her The Secret Language of Women, the first of her Wayfarer Trilogy. Read to the end for an excerpt from it in addition to links for Nina and her writings.

Writer Nina Romano. Writer Nina Romano.

How Chinese Horoscopes Helped Me Develop a Realistic Protagonist by Nina Romano

For The Secret Language of Women, the first book of my Wayfarer Trilogy, I decided my main character Lian’s horoscope would be the Year of the Dog. Knowing her horoscope facilitated my understanding of the protagonist’s psyche for this novel. Since the book is set in China, I used Lian’s Chinese Zodiac sign to learn about her qualities and personality traits intimately so that she appeared genuine yet flawed. She is a warm and caring being, a healer, courageous and intelligent. When a person born under this sign falls in love, they do not ever change.

Loyalty and honesty are two of this horoscope sign’s characteristics. Lian falls in love with Giacomo, an Italian sailor, and remains faithful to that love, despite the fact that she is forced into a loveless marriage. Her quest is a difficult one, but she chooses to follow her path despite menaces, oppositions, troubles, risks, and dangers. She is fierce in her love and faithful to everything she believes concerning it.

Having visited China several times afforded me unique experiences that enabled me to see in person Hong Kong, Beijing, and its fabulous Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, and Lian’s enchanting city of Guilin. I was able to envision Lian’s travels and travails in war-torn China, an era suffused in superstition, intrigue, culture, and history. I incorporated the themes and things I care about, such as love, family, food and recipes, art, dragons and horses. Why? Simply because it’s straightforward to write what I know and have feelings for, and all of these ideas translated well even to a novel set in China during the Boxer Rebellion. My own horoscope is the Year of the Horse, so I made sure I had an important role for a horse in this novel, and I’m positive that my horoscope had an incredible influence on my stars being aligned because I signed a contract for a three-book deal for my Wayfarer Trilogy with Turner Publishing during the Year of the Horse.

While writing this novel, I pictured what happens during the Chinese New Year: careful cleaning of the house, the distributing of red envelopes, Lian cooking on a wok, and serving rice to her beloved.

Since this story takes place in China where live fish, most especially carp, are good Fengshui, which according to Wikipedia, is a “philosophical system of harmonizing everyone with the surrounding environment.” For this reason, I describe a pool with carp in the Summer Palace in Chapter 1, where Lian meets the love of her life. Do I believe in the influence of horoscopes and how they can help round out a character? Of that, there is little doubt.

Cover of

Excerpt from The Secret Language of Women by Nina Romano

The things that test you and are vanquished bring everlasting joy. The differences between traditional written Chinese and Nüshu, the secret language of women, made it difficult for me to learn it. My mother and grandmother could not write Chinese and learned Nüshu when they were young and wanted me to grasp it too. I cannot say they harped on me or were tyrannical, but I will say they were insistent, and for this I am eternally indebted.

My mother said it challenged me because I wrote like a man and didn’t have to rely solely on Nüshu, the way they did to communicate with other women. The ideograms of Chinese correspond to a word or part of one, whereas each of the seven hundred characters of Nüshu represent a syllable— women’s language is phonetic, in Chéngguān dialect 城关土话, adaptable and pliant for singing, poetry and writing with such delicate strokes they appear as lines of feathers.

Though learning was problematical, I mastered it, like I do all things I set my mind to

conquer. At the time, I resented the study of it, yet I knew innately one day I would be grateful to possess the knowledge and skill of this secret language, which would offer me strength and solace for a lifetime. And although I was writing in Nüshu, for some reason, I signed with flourish in Chinese: Wǒ Lián. I am Lian. 

Amazon Author — hardcover, softcover print, and Kindle: The Secret Language of Women & Lemon Blossoms & In America — softcover print and Kindle: The Girl Who Loved Cayo Bradley.

Goodreads & Twitter & @ninsthewriter & Facebook & BookBub

Has astrology helped you with storytelling and anything else?

 

Sheltering = Lovely Guest Recipe: R. Cheadle’s Fondant Peonies

Staying home makes me hungry! How about you? And when I get hungry, my first thoughts are of sweets! Cute ones are all the more enticing…

South African author Robbie Cheadle hosts a blog, has an author page on Goodreads, and Tweets from Johannesburg. For all ages, she writes books and contributes to anthologies. There are her “Sir Chocolate” children’s books (co-authored with her son, Michael Cheadle), and her middle-grade “Silly Willy” series. And there is her preteen/young adult fictionalized bio about her mom’s World War II childhood in England, along with a book of poetry co-authored with Kim Blades. As Roberta Eaton Cheadle, she’s venturing into supernatural and horror stories for adults and young adults, the first titled, “Through the Nethergate.”

Robbie (Roberta) Cheadle writes, blogs, and videos for all ages from South Africa.
Robbie (Roberta) Cheadle writes, blogs, and videos for all ages from South Africa.

“How to make fondant (sugar dough/paste) peonies” by Robbie Cheadle

My husband’s birthday is approaching, and I wanted to make something special to mark the day, especially as we are likely to still be in some form of COVID-19 lockdown. I decided to make peonies in a dark pink and dust the outer petals with edible gold.

Making the peonies was quite a challenge, as I wanted to get the shape right. Peony petals curl inwards, which means that each layer must be allowed to dry completely inside a correctly sized bowl-shaped container. I made these containers out of tin foil, which I pleated and folded to fit the four different stages of the petals.

A fondant peony for Robbie's husband.
A fondant peony for Robbie’s husband.

You will need…

  • Fondant coloured dark pink
  • A large fondant rose cutter
  • A large and a small ball tool
  • Edible sugar glue
  • Peony petal cutters in three sizes (standard pack)
  • Edible dark pink food colouring powder
  • Edible gold dust
  • Two medium-sized paintbrushes
  • A flower veining tool or toothpick

Process

Mix a quantity of dark pink fondant and place it in a lock zip plastic bag. Take a small amount and roll it out as thinly as possible. Use a thin layer of cornflour on the surface of the fondant when you roll it out to prevent it from sticking. Cut out two rose shapes using your large rose cutter.A rose-shaped layer of fondant.
Use a ball took or toothpick to frill and flute the edges of the two rose shapes and use the flower veining tool or toothpick to texture the petals. Place in a small silver foil container pleated to round the petals. Allow to dry to the texture of leather.A silver foil container pleated to round the petals.

Roll a bud from fondant with a fatter base and narrower tip. Use a bit of sugar glue to attach it to one of the rose shapes. Paint a small blob of sugar glue on the bottom part of each petal on both sides and wrap the petals around the bud. Use a toothpick to separate the petals and create a rosebud shape. Use sugar glue to attach the enlarged bud to the other rose shape.Building the layers of a fondant peony.

Wrap the other shape around the enlarged bud. Leave to dry overnight.The other shape wraps around the bud.

Roll out more dark pink fondant and cut out six peony petals using your smallest peony petal cutter. Frill and flute the edges using a small ball tool or a toothpick. Use the toothpick for flower veining tool to texture the petals.Toothpicks help frill and flute edges.

Place them upside down in a sliver foil container and allow them to dry to the texture of leather.Outer petals take shape.

Dab sugar glue along the bottom half of both edges of the petals and place them around the bud, pressing them firmly into place with your fingers. When all six petals have been placed around the bud, place the flower into a piece of silver foil shaped into a cup. Leave overnight to dry. Your flower will look like this…Taking shape after several days.

The following day cut out six middle-sized peony petals and repeat the steps above. Place in a slightly larger silver foil cup and leave to dry overnight.Foil helps the shapes to hold while they dry.

Repeat the above process on days three and four, using the large peony petal cutter and slightly larger silver foil cups.Fondant peony, almost done!

Once the peony is completely dry, use a medium-sized paintbrush dipped into dark pink food colouring power, and smudge it into the centre of the peony. Dip a medium-sized paintbrush into edible gold shimmer dust and paint over the outermost petals until they shimmer and shine.
Your peony flower is now complete.

For step-by-step instruction on how to make more of our fondant artworks, for recipes, and for free audible readings of our free Sir Chocolate books, please visit our YouTube site.

Our YouTube site is a community service project that my two sons and I have started to bring readings of our free Sir Chocolate books and simple recipes to children and their parents to help keep children entertained during the Covid-19 pandemic. Our step-by-step creature videos can be made with children using playdough or fondant.

These are trying times worldwide — perhaps my other posts here and here and here and here and here and here and here will lift your spirits a bit?

Has your eating changed since COVID19?

When it is Our Light, Not Our Darkness that Most Frightens Us by da-AL

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God.

Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.

We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.

As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (South African, July 18, 1918 – Dec. 5, 2013)

After enduring 27 years in South African jail for speaking out against racism, revolutionary-politician-philanthropist Nelson Mandela went on to serve as South Africa’s most internationally acclaimed president. Nowadays, many there refer to him as ‘Father of the Nation.’

Nelson Mandela wearing the colorful 'Madiba' shirts he became known for. Photo courtesy of Wiki
Nelson Mandela wearing the colorful ‘Madiba’ shirts he became known for. Photo courtesy of Wiki

Each time I read his famous quote, I am reminded of the times I’ve shocked myself by seeing how sneaky my fear of success can be. As a kid, I worried that setting myself apart would invite criticism, jealousy, and ostracism.

Those fears persist, but in ways that I have to be extra vigilant to detect. Anyone who is thoughtful and who puts their heart into their work knows that insensitive and sometimes even ill-willed people exist within all realms of one’s life. It’s not always easy to not give a damn, but somehow I must slog through the self-doubts that others trigger in me and that I can supply in generous quantities on my own.

Fortunately, at times I know I’m good, and that there are great people all around me. Good and bad and alternating, Mandela is right to point that that being our best selves benefits everyone.

As an adult, only an hour after I had won an Emmy Award, a stranger asked me how the honor felt. My reply was so awkward that he went so far as to remind me that I had indeed won it. Months afterward, telling people about it continued to be a  confusing affair.

Now when I’m frustrated by not accomplishing my goals as quickly as I’d like, I remind myself of Mandela’s wise encouragement. Sometimes I need to be patient. Other times, I see that I need a major emotional overhaul, which at first glance can appear impossible to achieve. That can involve looking for examples of other people doing what I’d like to do. Talking with people who’s judgment I trust also usually helps. Allowing myself to be uncomfortable with the process is crucial. Patience is always rewarded.

Are there times when you hold yourself back? Are there ways you overcome the ‘shrinking’ that Mandela refers to?

More about Mandela