Novelist Alice Renaud’s COVID-19 Inspo: Animals + Publishing

Quarantine: I enjoy staying home, but only if it’s by choice.

Yet I must admit, living at a slower pace has offered me more space to work on finishing “Flamenco & the Sitting Cat,” my novel. Make no mistake, COVID is awful, as I’ve discussed here and here and here. However, silver linings exist such as those I wrote of here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here.

Read on for how staying home and animals inspire fantasy romance author Alice Renaud, a Londoner. She also details how she published her award-winning books!…

Novelist Alice Renaud.
Novelist Alice Renaud.

Our Furry and Not-So-Furry Friends by Alice Renaud

As we begin to emerge from our third lockdown in a year (and boy was this one painful – over four months, and in winter) I’m reflecting on what I learned during this extraordinary year.

One thing I’ve discovered is that animals and nature are even more essential for my well-being than I thought. I’ve always loved the natural world, but during the lockdowns it has proved a lifeline. Admiring fresh flowers, lying on the grass on a sunny day, and watching birds, have injected pleasure into otherwise drab days. I’ve realized that even insects are fascinating. I’ve enjoyed observing the butterflies, ladybirds and bees as they emerge from hibernation and launch themselves into the world (which is a little bit how I feel right now as I learn to go to the shops again and dare to have a coffee at a terrace.)

Photo of a butterfly by author Alice Renaud.
Photo of a butterfly by author Alice Renaud.

I’m not the only one. Many people in the UK have discovered the joys of nature during the lockdown. Long may it last! Many have also adopted animals. My favorite pet is the cat, or The Cat as I’m always tempted to write, because The Cat is an animal that would definitely write its name in capitals if it could write (and maybe they can but are hiding it from us). We don’t have a Cat at the moment, since our last pet went to the great basket in the sky, so I content myself with the neighbours and family’s Cats, like Tabitha, my aunt’s tabby, shown here staring at the neighbour’s feline.

Photo by author Alice Renaud of her aunt's tabby and a neighbor.
Photo by author Alice Renaud of her aunt’s tabby and a neighbor.

Animals and the natural world are a big source of inspiration for me and play a big part in all my stories. My Sea of Love series, which won its category in the Paranormal Romance Guild Reviewer’s Choice Award, follows the lives and loves of shape shifting mermen and mermaids. In their aquatic form my merfolk have a tail but not a fish tail. They’re mammals and look quite a bit like dolphins or porpoises. I grew up by the sea and love all marine creatures. I’ll never forget the day I saw a porpoise for the first time. I was amazed by the power and grace of that big animal, and the ease and speed with which it swam through the waters. I’m also fond of seabirds, even seagulls which a lot of people in the UK don’t like. They can make a nuisance of themselves by stealing chips and cakes, but they’re sociable, tough, highly adaptable, and fantastic airborne acrobats.

Cover of Mermaids Marry in Green, a fantasy romance novel by Alice Renaud.

My books feature both real animals and fantastical ones. In my latest release Mermaids Marry in Green (also a winner in the Paranormal Romance Guild Reviewer’s Choice Award) there is a shifter mermaid, a warlock who can change into a cat, and also a mythical Welsh water monster, an afanc. Part beaver, part crocodile, he possesses magical powers and brings the hero and heroine together. Welsh legends are full of marvellous creatures and I enjoy putting them in my stories. As well as the afanc, there is the Ceffyl Dwr, the Water Horse, and the Giant Cat of Anglesey. Now that’s a feline I’d like to meet!

Wherever you are, I hope you are keeping well in these strange times, and I hope that like me you will find comfort in the company of furry (or not so furry) friends and in the beauty of the natural world.

My Publishing Journey

I started writing at the age of 14, but it’s not until many years later that I got my first short story published in a UK mass market magazine. I carried on writing and publishing romantic and family-themed short stories for several years before trying my hand at longer fiction. My first three romantic novels did not find a publisher, then I discovered that witches, mermen and angels were a lot more fun than sheikhs and billionaires. My first paranormal romance novella didn’t find a publisher either, but then I joined a writing group and met my wonderful tutor and editor, Laurie Sanders. She helped me whip another story into shape, and in 2019 A Merman’s Choice was published by an indie publisher, Black Velvet Seductions. Since then I have published two more novellas with them, and have contributed to several collections of short stories. I enjoy working with BVS very much. Ric Savage, my publisher, gives his authors plenty of freedom, I can write the story that I want to write without having to worry about conforming to strict pre-defined criteria. The other BVS authors are a great bunch and very supportive. Our anthologies are a great way to discover the writing of all these talented authors. The latest, Cowboy Desire, is out now in ebook and paperback.

For more about Alice, visit her site here.

How’s your creativity going?

Scams: 8 Steps to Protect Yourself and Others with Videos

Graphic of flames under "Scam Protection and Videos"

“This is Alex, calling you from the refunds department…”

“This is the Federal Bureau of Investigation. You must call us back…”

“This is the Internal Revenue Service. You must call us back…”

“Your computer is dead. You must telephone us to fix it and recover your info…”

Ever receive such a message or one pop up on your screen? Have you been scammed or know someone who has?

A computer engineer based out of Ireland who goes by an alias, Jim Browning is a true hero. When he learned someone close to him was swindled out of money, he got curious. The next time scammers called him, warned him that his money and his computer were in danger, he turned the tables on the thugs!

First he got into their computers. Then he took control of their office cameras. He continues to record of their actions, online and physically. When he can, he warns their prey before they lose their life savings.

This post is a departure from my usual bookish, artsy, cooking, travel, pet-loving type. When I read of this information in AARP Bulletin, I wanted you to know about it — and to pass it along to everyone you know who might be vulnerable to scammers or who knows others who could fall victim. Those over 60-years-old are five times more likely to be hit. Here the New York Times also covered these types of crimes in depth.

DIY: Protect Yourself & Others

If anyone calls to say you — or anyone else is — in grave danger unless you mail cash or gift cards (and most likely even instructs you to not discuss it with anyone):

  1. Hang up on them. If they left a message, erase it.
  2. Definitely don’t call them back.
  3. Never, under any circumstance, mail cash or gift cards.
  4. If there’s some remote chance you believe they might be legit, ask them to first mail something to you.
  5. Never deal with people who want your money and prohibit you from telling your bank, your store, or anyone you know.

If your computer flashes alarm lights, locks up, or beeps at you while a message urges you to telephone a number:

  1. Don’t touch your phone!
  2. Instead, turn off your computer, wait a few minutes, then turn it back on.
  3. If it isn’t as good as new, take it to a reputable repair place such as a computer store.

Below, in four video segments, Jim shares what he learned. For more on him and his findings, check out his YouTube channel.

 

 

 

What do you know about scammers? Have you been scammed or know someone who has?

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?

DIY Podcasting: 15 Tips by Fiona Livingston

Reading… writing… listening! Hey, if “seeing is believing,” why doesn’t the same go for tasting and feeling and smelling — and hearing too?

Ancient Egyptian Seshat is goddess of writing and a host of other amazing things! Photo: Jon Bodsworth.
Ancient Egyptian Seshat is goddess of writing and a host of other amazing things! Photo: Jon Bodsworth.

When’s the last time you tuned into your fave radio show? Same as radio shows, podcasts are story readings, performances, interviews, and monologues. Radio shows are often repackaged into podcasts that allow you to dictate when to tune in.

When my first novel, “Flamenco & the Sitting Cat,” is edited (and then its sequel, “Tango & the Sitting Cat”), I’ll podcast it to create a buzz for when it’s published. Here’s an experimental podcast episode I produced borrowing a friend’s short story. A video version of it is on Youtube as well.

Creatives who want to control their work and keep 100% of their profits must become their own promoters. Podcasts are one way to get the word out. First, though, people need to know you have a podcast.

Here to clue us in on how to do that is London-based Fiona Livingston. She blogs about marketing and podcasting on Medium, and produces The Culture Bar, an  arts and culture-related podcast…

Blogger/podcaster Fiona Livingston is a content and digital marketing specialist.
Blogger/podcaster Fiona Livingston is a content and digital marketing specialist.

“15 Tips on Promoting Your Podcast Series” by Fiona Livingston

You’ve poured your heart and soul into creating and recording your podcast series on a subject you are knowledgeable about. Now you need to get your podcast in front of audiences who are as passionate about the subject as you are.

But how do you get your podcast in front of listeners when there are 850,000 active podcasts out there in the world? 

This article covers the best, easiest, and most effective podcast promotion ideas to help you build your audience and market your podcast.

Fiona's illustration of "eau de marketing" trends makes me smile.
Fiona’s illustration of “eau de marketing” trends makes me smile.

First, let’s make sure you have some key podcast staples under your belt before you start promoting your podcast:

  1. Podcast cover artwork. My top advice for creating cover artwork is to be clear. Once uploaded onto your podcast distributor, the size of your artwork will reduce a lot, so you want something bold, simple, and eye-catching. You can create your artwork by using templates on Canva, or if you have a mac you can use Keynote which is a very powerful design tool. Here are some great cover artwork examples to inspire you.
  2. Episode titles. The way you title your episodes has a big impact on your total download numbers. My main tips for you are to NOT use a naming system such as ‘Episode 4’ or ‘XYZ Podcast: Episode 4’. You need to let your audiences know at a glance what the topic is so, your title should be as descriptive as possible.
  3. Record 3-5 podcasts before your launch/start of your next season. This will ensure you have a regular schedule of events planned out and also gives you time to record future episodes. Make sure you have a launch schedule in place. For example, in the first week, you can release 2 or 3 podcasts to keep audiences hooked.
  4. Create a dedicated podcast website. This can either be a section on an existing website or you can create a podcast website for free using providers such as WordPress, Wix, or Squarespace. These sites give you a valuable presence on search engines and act as a home for your podcast so audiences can find out more about you. This also gives you further opportunities to supplement your podcast with more content to show your expertise and passion. 

Ok so now you have a great podcast recorded, fantastic eye-catching cover artwork, and launched a dedicated website. Let’s start promoting your series with these top tips (this list focusses on free marketing actions):

Fiona produces an arts and culture podcast.
Fiona produces an arts and culture podcast.
  1. Add your podcast to a distribution platform. Upload your podcast MP3 file to distribution sites such as Podbean (free and priced programmes) and Anchor (free) and they will automatically send your podcast episodes to a variety of podcast sites such as Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and Amazon Alexa. Apple podcasts capture 32% of podcast listeners and downloads so your podcast must appear here.
  2. Meta-tag your podcast. On your chosen distributor and website, make sure you complete the meta-tagging options. This is the place to add keywords relating to your podcast, so it shows up in search results and makes you discoverable.
  3. Create a promotional trailer. This helps audiences understand what your podcast series is about, and you can embed this on your website and social media channels. Find tips on how to make a trailer here.
  4. Add show notes and include hyperlinks for each podcast episode. It is good practice to give a short summary and overview of what is included in your podcast episode. This is also a great place to add links to your guest/s or any resources that you mention in the episode.
  5. Leverage guest audiences. Make it easy for guests to share your podcast by creating audio snippets, quote cards, or prewritten tweets for them so they can easily use these on their social media channels.
  6. Create podcast artwork for each episode. Using your main cover artwork template, adapt it to show the title of each episode, and change the imagery to give each episode an identity and theme.
  7. Create a dedicated podcast social media channel. Set up a Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Instagram profile to promote your podcast.
  8. Create quote cards in Canva or Pablo. Select attention-grabbing quotes from each episode. This gives listeners great insight into what’s to come.
  9. Share rich media. Create extra content such as soundbites, audiograms (using tools such as GetAudiogram), behind-the-scenes photos, or teaser video clips to build excitement about your episode. Also, Twitter has an embed feature using Soundcloud so you can play the audio directly from a Twitter stream.
  10. Tease the episode 24 hours ahead of time e.g. 3x on Twitter and 2x to Facebook/Instagram. Talk about behind-the-scenes content in Instagram Stories.
  11. Create an audio-video to share on YouTube. If you use a provider such as Podbean they will automatically create a video for you and send it to your YouTube page. YouTube is a huge search engine for content and should be included in marketing your podcast. Or you can create a video using a tool such as Screenflow (free trial period) and use free video clip assets from Pexels.
  12. Audio transcription. To ensure your podcast is accessible and aid SEO discovery, you can create an audio transcription and add it to your podcast website. You can use audio transcription tools such as Otter.ai (free for up to 40 minutes, otherwise it’s $9.99 per month) to help you do this.
  13. Include your podcast in your e-newsletter. You can easily create your own e-newsletter using email service provider such as Mailchimp, Flodesk or Campaign Monitor to manage your subscribers and send them notifications about your latest podcast. Mailchimp and Flodesk have free basic tiers, and Campaign Monitor starts at $9/month. 
  1. Publish podcast-themed blog content on your website. A useful way to keep your website content fresh and to also include extra in-depth content on your podcast theme.
  2. Be a guest on other people’s podcasts. A great way for you to showcase your knowledge and build awareness of your podcast.

Here is a list of other important Podcatcher sites your podcast should feature on to generate greater visibility:

  1. Overcast
  2. Stitcher
  3. Podcast Addict
  4. Podcast subreddit
  5. PodcastLand
  6. TuneIn
  7. Bello Collective
  8. Deezer (great for French/EU audiences)
  9. Podcast Listen notes

Is there a radio show or podcast you enjoy? (And btw, did you notice the new header pic of Ms. Black Dog Cuteness?)

Edinburgh Art: U.S. + Notorious Lesbian Book + U.K. Landform by da-AL

Tourists 1970, by Duane Hanson 1925-1996, constructed of polyester resin, fiberglass, and mixed media.

“A thousand roads lead men forever to Rome.” (Believed by some to have been penned by Alain de Lille in 1175.)

Bunches writers of stacks novels borrow and twist that proverb. The way it relates to this dilemma is — have you ever returned home from a trip and waited so long to sort your photos that you no longer remember where you saw what? Worse, did a pandemic come along and toss your blog posting plans to the winds? Those, my friend, are my excuses for this post.

Do you, like me, find yourself measuring time as ‘pre-pandemic,’ ‘early pandemic,’ etc.?

Not all that very long ago, in pre-pandemic Scotland, I was pleasantly reacquainted with a couple of fellow Americans, both of them artists. Remember Cabbage Patch Kids (o-m-g!!! I just Googled them — they’re still manufactured!?)? The dolls, IMHO vomitous as they are, remind me of Duane Hanson’s art, who respect tremendously. He started as overtly political. Later he segued into depictions of sorely neglects folks and subjects, this way and this way. His life-casts here are portrayed as a couple, yet in real life they never met. Incorrigibly Floridian, they stand out in Edinburgh…

Tourists 1970, by Duane Hanson 1925-1996, constructed of polyester resin, fiberglass, and mixed media.
Tourists 1970, by Duane Hanson 1925-1996, constructed of polyester resin, fiberglass, and mixed media.

“The subject matter that I like best deals with the familiar lower and middle-class American types of today. To me, the resignation, emptiness, and loneliness of their existence capture the true reality of life.” (Artist Duane Hanson)

Rain and more rain; that’s what we got in Scotland. Wetness and all, it was marvelous! The people were kind and down-to-earth, the food was good… a welcome change from the So Cal droughts! There was so much to see that I’m forced to must split Scotland into more than one post. We’d landed in London and had fun at the British Museum here and here and here. Then we drove to Bath, then admired Avebury and a bit of Wales on the route to Stokesay Castle. Later, the Kelpies of Scotland were amazing! Scotland alone had so much wonderfulness that I’m forced to split it into more than one post!

Now this same Edinburgh gallery (or maybe it was at another place, perhaps in Glasgow?) also featured work by my fave modern artist, he of the Campbell’s soup cans and he who may or may not have said that thing about everyone getting fifteen minutes of fame, Andy Warhol

Shoe and Handbag, 1960, by Andy Warhol (1928-1987) Graphite and gouache on paper. In the 1950s, before Andy became a pop art icon, he was a mega-successful commercial artist. By the note on the bottom right, even he had probs with picky bosses like this one who hated this purse.
Shoe and Handbag, 1960, by Andy Warhol (1928-1987) Graphite and gouache on paper. In the 1950s, before Andy became a pop art icon, he was a mega-successful commercial artist. By the note on the bottom right, even he had probs with picky bosses like this one who hated this purse.

 

A Field of Blue Children, 1951-52, by Andy Warhol (1928-1987) Ink and dye on paper. Andy and I agree that Truman Capote was an amazing writer. This is the only surviving piece from Andy's solo exhibition of fifteen drawings based on Truman's work.
A Field of Blue Children, 1951-52, by Andy Warhol (1928-1987) Ink and dye on paper. Andy and I agree that Truman Capote was an amazing writer. This is the only surviving piece from Andy’s solo exhibition of fifteen drawings based on Truman’s work.

 

Here Lies the Heart, 1957, by Andy Warhol (1928-1987) Ink and graphite (a.k.a. pencil) on paper. Only later was this used for the autobiography of Mercedes de Acosta (1893-1968). Of Spanish/Cuban descent, she was known for her poems, plays, and novels. And also for romancing the likes of Great Garbo, Isadora Duncan, and Marlene Dietrich, to name but a few!
Here Lies the Heart, 1957, by Andy Warhol (1928-1987) Ink and graphite (a.k.a. pencil) on paper. Only later was this used for the autobiography of Mercedes de Acosta (1893-1968). Of Spanish/Cuban descent, she was known for her poems, plays, and novels. And also for romancing the likes of Great Garbo, Isadora Duncan, and Marlene Dietrich, to name but a few!

 

Foot with Cat, 1955-57, by Andy Warhol (1928-1987) Ink on paper. A page from one of many books Andy made, some for himself, some to showcase his talent to clients.
Foot with Cat, 1955-57, by Andy Warhol (1928-1987) Ink on paper. A page from one of many books Andy made, some for himself, some to showcase his talent to clients.

Here’s Landform by Charles Jencks beyond rainy windows (rain-less view here) of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh…

Landform, 2002, by Charles Jencks (b. 1939)
Landform, 2002, by Charles Jencks (b. 1939)

Have you ever mixed up vacation pix? Or completely lost them? Ulp, I have… And do you, like me, find yourself measuring time as ‘pre-pandemic,’ ‘early pandemic,’ etc.?

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?

 

16 Reasons Pigeons Need Celebrating n Kathleen Rooney’s New Novel!

Doves get loads of love.

Pigeons get nada. Make that less than nothing.

Why?

As an animal lover since birth, the kind who was severely bitten by a dog when I was six yet who still never feared them, pigeon haters have always mystified me.

Hmmm…

Doves: white

Pigeons: colored

Hmmm…

Doves: a little trimmer

Pigeons: a little stouter

Hmmm…

DO NOT TAKE A LOOK AT THIS LINK that elaborates on what I’m getting at if you’re offended by ribald humor with liberal use of the f-word. FOR EVERYONE, THERE’S THIS LINK.

What do a penguin and a pigeon have in common? Sure, they’re both birds, and one might consider what I mentioned about doves vs. pigeons. In their case, however, that’s not what I’m getting to.

Marvelously, Penguin Books is publishing Kathleen Rooney’s most recent novel, Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey, about a heroic pigeon!

Kathleen’s Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, sent me into such complete nirvana that I invited her to guest post on Happiness Between Tails—and she did!!—in this prior post.

Today she’s back to tell us about the inspiration behind Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey and 16 reasons pigeons need to be celebrated.

This is a link to buy Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey from your own favorite local bookstore.

Kathleen Rooney and a friend unbox her latest novel, Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey.
Kathleen Rooney and a friend unbox her latest novel, Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey.

On the Under-Appreciated Marvelousness of Pigeons by Kathleen Rooney

My novel Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey—a World War I story narrated in the first-person alternately by a homing pigeon and an American military officer, both of them real-life heroes—has just been released by Penguin. The fact that the publisher for this book is named after a bird delights me because penguins and pigeons seem like an auspicious pairing.

Of course, the story of World War I has been told often but never from the perspective of the courageous messenger pigeon who saved the Lost Battalion and helped to determine the war’s outcome. Cher Ami was so famous in her day that when she died as an indirect result of the injuries she sustained in the conflict, they had her taxidermied and put on display in the Smithsonian. You can still visit her there today in their Price of Freedom exhibit, where she sits in her glass case among other important communication equipment. My hope is that if you love pigeons and decide to give this book a read, then you’re in for a treat, and if you don’t, then you’re about to change your mind.

Cher Ami, WWI heroine, at the Smithsonian.
Cher Ami, WWI heroine, at the Smithsonian.

Penguin understands that not everyone shares my admiration for pigeons, so as part of their marketing campaign, they asked me to come up with a set of pigeon facts designed to endear the birds to other people as much as pigeons have endeared themselves to me. Thinking fondly of the pigeon couple, Coo d’Etat and Walter Pigeon (as my spouse and I named them) who moved in under the eaves while I was writing my book, I set to work compiling those facts.

Pigeon couple, Coo d’Etat and Walter Pigeon.
Pigeon couple, Coo d’Etat and Walter Pigeon.

Coo and Walter and their babies Feather Locklear and Molly Wingwald have long since moved on with their lives, but the pigeon facts remain, and I hope they’ll inspire you to look more closely at these remarkable birds and also to give my novel a read.

Coo and Walter's babies, Feather Locklear and Molly Wingwald.
Coo and Walter’s babies, Feather Locklear and Molly Wingwald.
  1. The word “pigeon” is a French translation of the English word “dove.” There’s no scientific difference between the two; they’re the same.
  2. The common city pigeon (Columba livia) is a descendant of the rock dove and is one of the first birds ever domesticated by humans, probably dating back to about 4,500 BCE in Mesopotamia.
  3. Humans and pigeons have lived closely together for millennia, thanks in part to the birds’ phenomenal homing skills, which allow them to return to their nests from up to 1,300 miles away.
  4. In addition to being good navigators, pigeons are extremely strong with high endurance and have been known to fly as far as 1,500 miles on a single trip. They can fly as high as 6,000 feet and average a speed of almost 77 miles per hour, with top speeds of almost 93 miles per hour having been attained by some birds.
  5. Because of pigeons’ homing talent, humans have called upon pigeons to carry the news throughout history, ranging from messages on flood levels up and down the Nile in ancient Egypt, to the results of the Olympic Games in Greece in the 8th century. As early as 500 BCE, the emperor of China used pigeons to receive messages in Beijing from outer provinces because a bird could travel in as many hours as it took a horse and rider days. Hannibal used pigeons during his siege of Rome, and Julius Caesar sent them to relay messages from his military campaigns in Gaul. Genghis Khan and his grandson Kublai Khan created a pigeon post that spanned a sixth of the world. Besieged Parisians relied on pigeon post in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, and, of course, pigeons served as messengers in both WWI and WWII.During World War I, over 100,000 pigeons were used on the battlefield.
  6. Pigeons are included in the Animals in War Memorial in Hyde Park London in honor—as the dedication says—of “all the animals that served and died alongside British and allied forces in wars and campaigns throughout time.” It was unveiled in 2004 on the 90th anniversary of the start of World War I.
  7. People didn’t start calling pigeons “rats with wings” until this false idea was popularized in the 1980 movie Stardust Memories; pigeons are actually quite clean and not at all disease-ridden.
  8. Pigeons do not migrate, but rather adapt to one environment and remain there year-round—a lot like humans.
  9. Pigeons are one of a relatively small number of species who pass the mirror test for self-recognition.
  10. Pigeons can distinguish different humans in photographs.
  11. According to a 2016 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, pigeons can be trained to recognize dozens of words, with the most accomplished pigeon being able to learn as many as 60.
  12. According to a 1994 study published in The Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, pigeons can successfully learn to discriminate between paintings by Monet and Picasso.
  13. When pigeons mate, they mate for life.
  14. Male and female pigeons share equal responsibility in raising their chicks. Both take turns sitting on the eggs and both feed the babies pigeon milk—a secretion that both male and female birds produce in their crops.
  15. Pigeons are still kept as pets, bred, and raced around the world; in 2019, a Belgian racing pigeon named Armando sold for $1.4 million. The auction house said that Armando’s athleticism made him, in soccer terms, the Lionel Messi of the avian world.
  16. The brilliant inventor Nikola Tesla fell in love with a white pigeon who visited him at the window of his room in the Hotel St. Regis in New York City: “I loved that pigeon as a man loves a woman and she loved me. As long as I had her, there was purpose to my life,” he wrote.

About Kathleen Rooney: she’s a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a nonprofit publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, as well as a founding member of Poems While You Wait, a collective of poets and their typewriters who compose commissioned poems on demand. Her most recent books include the novel Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk and The Listening Room: A Novel of Georgette and Loulou Magritte. Her reviews and criticism appear in the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Chicago magazine, and her World War I novel Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey is available now from Penguin.

Do you like pigeons? (It’s ok if you didn’t before this post.)

Poetry and you? A few poems and thoughts by writer David Selzer

Poetry, for me, lies somewhere between blissful and excruciating. When I take the time to read a piece, which is seldom due to the reasons above, I marvel at how only a few precise words can haul a truckload of soul. More often than not, though, it makes me antsy at best, question my intelligence at worst. Never mind trying to write some of it myself.

Do you have experience writing poetry?

Read on for the great kind of poetic journey, courtesy of blogger/writer David Selzer. He’s a poet who makes it look easy…

Photo of poet/blogger David Selzer by Sylvia Selzer. Photo of poet/blogger David Selzer by Sylvia Selzer.

Making Poetry by David Selzer

I was born in London, UK, in 1942 but have lived most of my life in Hoole, a Victorian suburb of Chester, a city in the north west of England.

I have been writing poetry since I was 14. In the summer holidays of 1957, I was on a day trip with my Auntie Renee to Llandudno, a town in North Wales. We were sitting on the steep slope above St Tudno’s church. Two things happened. Inspired by a poem, about the terrors of a nuclear holocaust, written by a sixth former and published in that summer term’s school magazine, I decided that I should be a poet. It seemed a grand thing to write about important subjects and be read by hundreds of people. (I hadn’t at that point actually written anything).

Before or after the decision, I can’t remember which, a group of nuns, in the long, black habits they wore then, left the church and climbed along one of the sheep tracks up the slope. My aunt would have commented on it, I’m sure, but I can’t remember what she said. The pristine image has stayed with me. I used it in a poem more than twenty years later, and in a screenplay nearly forty years later.

Poetry in some ways is the easiest of the arts. It is solitary, and comparatively economical in terms of time-over-task. The technology needed is minimal — just a pencil and some paper. No violins or blocks of Carrara marble.

I have always had things I want to say about love and death, and human history, pictures I wanted to create, stories I wanted to tell. Making poetry has been part of my life for more than sixty years. It is a compulsion. I cannot imagine ever saying to myself, I shall write no more poems.

In 2009, I came to the conclusion that, in order for most poetry to reach as wide a readership as possible –- and a readership which, if it chooses, can truly interact with the writer — publication on the web rather than in book form is the way forward. My website was launched in April of that year.

The first poem to be published on the site was:

A Short History

For a generation, like weather cocks,

their skeletons swung near the highway.

James Price and Thomas Brown had robbed the Mail.

Years turned. The Gowy flooded and the heath

flowered. Travellers noted the bones

hanging in chains by the Warrington road.

Justices ordered the gibbet removed,

the remains disposed of. In Price’s skull,

while Napoleon was crossing the Alps

or Telford building bridges or Hegel

defining Historical Necessity

or Goya painting Wellington’s portrait,

a robin made its nest.

The latest to be published (i.e. as of June 25th 2020) is:

The Colston Bun

‘And ye shall overthrow their altars, and break their pillars, and burn their groves with fire; and ye shall hew down the graven images of their gods, and destroy the names of them out of that place.’ DEUTERONOMY 12.3

‘Black deaths do not have a good press, especially when they occur in the custody of our custodians. The media leads the public to believe that our guardians can do no wrong. Racism leads them to believe that blacks can do no right. The silence of the custodial system is compounded by the silences of racism.’ DEADLY SILENCE: BLACK DEATHS IN CUSTODY, Institute of Race Relations, London, 1991

 

Anger, one Sunday in June, overcame

decorum in that diverse city,

and – no doubt, inspired by the toppling

of other graven tyrants – righteously

pulled down the effigy, with a thump of stone

and a hollow gong of metal, and tossed it

from the quay into the harbour water.

***

The Royal African Company received

its charter from Charles II and James,

his brother, hence the US east coast seaports

Jamestown and Charleston. It was established

by the restored royals to provide them,

free of interference from the Commons,

with their own spending money. Board members

included the philosopher, John Locke.

The company’s profits came mostly

from enslaving West African men, women

and children, and transporting them across

the North Atlantic’s turbulence. More than

two hundred thousand were taken, and nearly

fifty thousand died on the journey,

the firm’s double entry bookkeeping shows.

 

One prominent member of the board

was Edward Colston, a Bristol merchant,

the city from whose harbour the slavers sailed,

and which, in due course, would make chocolates

and cigarettes. His philanthropy

inveigled the streets like a bad conscience,

almost a rebuke of victimhood:

his name on a hospital, a school,

a bun flavoured with dried currants and allspice

topped with sugar, given to the poor yearly

and still made for sale by local bakeries –

and himself looking thoughtful in bronze

with a periwig and a walking stick.

 

Apologists who claim he was merely

of his time, an accidental racist,

and collateral ethical damage,

like Henry Wills and Elizabeth Fry,

should remember John Locke, his damascene

moment unrecorded, who threw his shares

into the fire. ‘Slavery is so vile and

miserable an estate of man …that ’tis

hardly to be conceived’. That June Sunday

civic anger overcame decorum.

To my surprise, one of the most read poems is:

Marjorie Beebe’s Bottom

For Ian Craine (Note from da-Al: here’s a guest post by Ian Craine here.)

‘Marjorie Beebe is the greatest comic possibility

that ever worked in my studio. I think she is

destined to become the finest comedienne

the screen has ever seen.’ Mack Sennett

 

Her bottom was a serious matter:

the butt, as it were, of numerous pratfalls

in many Mack Sennett two reelers – like

The Chumps, Campus Crushes and The Cowcatcher’s

Daughter – in which she was a capricious,

lubricious Columbine with witty eyes

and good teeth and various Harlequins,

who ended invariably as losers.

From Kansas City, her mother took her

on the Yellow Brick Road to Tinsel Town.

Beebe and Sennett became lovers, despite

or because of the thirty year difference,

so he knew her asset first hand so to speak.

From silents to talkies, slapsticks to wise cracks,

her Mid West accent playing well, then Mack goes bust

and Marjorie gradually disappears.

Was it the booze? She was certainly

a toper. Or, more likely, The Hays Code:

irony suppressed, vulgarity outlawed,

Puritan America triumphant!

One of my favourites is:

Enchantment

“Do you know, Grandpa, this book has seventeen

chapters, and I’m on chapter fifteen,

‘The Forbidden Forest’?” “I didn’t,” I say,

“That’s excellent!” and this seven year old,

who has mastered the use of apostrophes,

curls up, like the proverbial worm

on the sofa, and continues to read

‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’.

I am re-reading, in English, ‘Le Grand Meaulnes’.

 

In the garden, using extended loppers,

Grandma is cutting choice blooms from a rose

we have had some thirty years, a rambler

as high as our upper floor and worthy

of Sleeping Beauty’s entranced gardens.

 

I look up to watch my grand child read. My pride

tempts me to ask fatuous questions –

“Are you enjoying it? What’s it about?” –

then speak of alchemy. Humility

prevails. I hear Grandma in the kitchen.

She is hammering the ends of the stems.

The deep scent of the roses, from wherever

she has placed the vase, enters the lounge

like a wisp of sweet smoke.

For more great poetry, visit David’s site!

What’s your experience with poetry?

How do you define a great novel? plus writer Ian Craine’s 6 picks

Is a great novel the one you had the most fun reading? One that transported you to a whole new situation, a new land, a new time? Or did that story unlock new insights? How about one that allowed you to feel understood and less alone? What about the books of childhood, which stripped away all the anguish of being small and vulnerable? Is your favorite one that’s compelled you to read it more than once?

The desire to read

I was born ready, jumping out of my diapers with eagerness to comprehend how written language worked.

My reading list from the start

All printed words that came my way. Food wrappers, cereal boxes, and street signs were intermingled with picture books.

School days

Fourth-grade outings with my best friend were bike rides to the library. There I would tick off readings from the Newberry Medal list (the highest esteemed American children’s books). Kids’ magazines with fiction, grown-up mags that featured stories, books lying about the house, I was starved for reading no matter how much I learned. That included Playboy Magazines, The Godfather, Marquis de Sade. That last one fascinated eleven-year-old me not for the sex (it went over my head), but for how sadomasochism mirrored the day-to-day I saw. Later in high school, Shakespeare taught me how stories can tap numerous levels beyond surface and deep.

Lately

My idea of “best” has more to do with whatever I’ve recently read that left an impression. Since embarking upon novel-writing, much of my fiction is via audiobooks. Minutes spent sitting is time I could be writing. The books I select are for enjoyment as well as for learning. Since the books I’m writing, “Flamenco & the Sitting Cat” and “Tango & the Sitting Cat,” are epistolary (correspondence or diary), I’m apt to download books of that style. That includes the historically latent “Frankenstein” and “Dracula,” the contemporary “Queenie,” the fizzy “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” and “The Roxy Letters.” Non-epistolary includes anything by authors like Anne Patchett, and Anne Tyler, who’s endings are complex. Elizabeth Gilbert’s recent protagonist encourages us to never regret losing our virginity. Now I’m dizzy with memories of beautiful reads, too many to note here but irresistible to type: “Little,” “A Tale for the Time Being,” “Kindred”… I can’t wait to read Kathleen Rooney’s latest (she was so very kind to be a Happiness Between Tails guest here).

Ian Craine, writer Ian Craine, writer

With that, dear readers, let’s meet Ian Craine — he often blogs on his wife’s site (Roberta Franklin is a writer of romantic fiction). He’s a Brit currently living in London who hopes to move to Wales and has worked as a lawyer, a book indexer, and a writer. He enjoys history, books, writing, walking, travel, horse racing, cinema, and music.

About writing, he notes, “…to write, one first of all, has to be able to read. Our life experiences, as Borges once said, include both the things we have done and the books we have read. Reading needs to be a balance between fiction and non-fiction, both from the reader’s and the writer’s point of view.”

Ian has written screenplays in various genres, novellas, stage plays, articles, short stories, flash and poetry. As for novels, he says, “…I confess I have always signally failed there. Somehow I just cannot write that many words. Perhaps I just haven’t got enough to say. But I admire anybody who can from Miguel Cervantes to my own wife.”

A lover of good novels, here are the ones he regards as the best six…

Six Great Novels: Ian Craine’s picks (in chronological order)

Painting of Don Quixote and Sancho Pansa by Honore DaumierDon Quixote and Sancho Pansa by Honore Daumier
  1. Don Quixote” by Miguel Cervantes: This is where the novel began, this is the template. It may never have been bettered since. It’s wonderfully layered, whose story are we hearing? This is a world that contains all worlds- those of dream, of memory and of imagination, of bawdy and elegy, the fantastical and the prosaic. This satire of romance now bears its own warm romantic glow. It has inspired many of the world’s greatest writers — Diderot, Mark Twain, Borges, Graham Greene, Nabokov, Carlos Fuentes — as it was inspired by Homer’s majestic Odyssey.
  2. The Black Arrow” by Robert Louis Stevenson: Stevenson was a man for all seasons from the early spring of childhood with tales like Treasure Island to winter’s disillusionment of old age in South Seas Island novellas such as Ebb Tide. My choice is in the earlier category, a stirring tale of derring-do from “The Wars of the Roses.” I am sure it was as fun to write as it is to read.
  3. The Alexandrian Quartet” by Laurence Durrell: These are four linked tales, the first three told contemporaneously but from different points of view; the fourth is subsequent to the earlier events. To me, nobody has combined a sense of place with a sense of the human condition as perfectly as Durrell. Alexandria is described on every page as the essential witness to all the characters do — their affairs, relationships, journeys, and desires. Beautiful descriptive writing effortlessly merges with a keen post-Freudian feel for humanity. It’s an object lesson too, in the primacy of the novel in describing human behaviour. This is rich beyond anything Freud himself ever wrote.
  4. Downriver” by Iain Sinclair: As Durrell wrote of a city, so Sinclair wrote of a river. The river is the Thames. The starting point is Thatcher’s London, the “revival” of the dockland with bijou apartments for bracered brokers, and it takes place largely downriver of the City, where such folk “earned” their commissions. The book, told in ten chapters, brings us an incredibly rich mix of deeply eccentric characters and allusions to episodes in London’s history over the centuries. Sinclair was a walker (till age put paid to his excursions) with a sharp eye for the topography and architecture of London, and the effects of crushing change on those left behind by the sudden hysteria orchestrated by “The Widow.”
  5. “The Blind Man’s Garden” by Nadeem Aslam: It’s 2001 and 9/11 has come and gone. But this is not about its effect on the West. This is what happened afterwards in Afghanistan. A beautifully evoked Pakistani family, each with their problems and preoccupations, are torn apart when the son decides to go to Afghanistan as a medic. An adopted “cousin” goes along for the ride. But they are too naive (perhaps a modern version of our old friends, the Quixote and Sancho Panza) and those they think are helping are out for their own cut- they are sold to the Taliban. Now they have to tread with care amidst their new “owners” while the other enemy, the Americans, fill their skies with terror and destruction. But like all serious novels about conflict, this is about trying to find common ground, mutual respect and reconciliation amid the chaos. Only “Sancho” survives because only he would have been equipped to survive. And this tremendous book, beautifully written, a tale of redemption amid horror, is his Odyssey. New ways of telling old tales.
  6. “The Professor and the Bird” by Roberta Franklin: This is a beautiful story, again with a strong sense of place, and like The Quartet set in the Mediterranean by a writer deeply conversant with the rhythms of life of Greeks and Turks and the Levant generally. She tells a lovely tale of May and November. A sparky young Irish girl on a motorbike meets an ageing Greek archaeologist. They would appear to have little in common at first, but a love of history, the sort buried deep beneath the sands and sea of the Med, begins to bring them together. She is friendly and open, he kind but academic and diffident. Their burgeoning relationship is told with warmth and humour, and the supporting crew on the dig all have their own stories to tell.

Elephants in India: 3 easy tips for how we can help by Chelsea

Asian elephants greeting each other by inter-twining their trunks By jinterwas - [1], CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22849407 Asian elephants greeting each other by inter-twining their trunks, by jinterwas – [1], CC BY 2.0

It’s simple to be cynical. When I travel, it’s easy to regard those different from me derisively. When I point at others, as the old saw goes however, the majority of my fingers point back at me.Living in the prosperous United States as I do, it’s tempting to ignore how our politics hurt ourselves and other countries. If it was ever possible to do — now amid our police brutality of innocent people, during these perilous times of COVID19 — how can anyone overlook how intertwined and interdependent everyone everywhere is?

Blogging has gifted me the unexpected delight of a number of followers from India, a huge country I’ve yet to visit, but obviously multi-faceted and amazing in countless ways. For one thing, they’re home to the amazingly evolved creatures called elephants!

Globetrotter Chelsea, a native of Northern England, is based out of Barcelona, Spain. On Chelsea’s blog, along with epicurean insights, she offers her unique take on various lands. Here’s a slice of her visit to NW India and her insights about how we can all become part of the solution when it comes to helping animals. The main organization she discusses, Wildlife SOS, is an award-winning charity founded by and administered by Indians…

Blogger/traveler Chelsea was profoundly moved by her visit to India. Blogger/traveler Chelsea was profoundly moved by her visit to India.

Elephants in India: 3 simple ways to help by Chelsea

It was my love of nature and animals that led me to Wildlife SOS India. Today I’d like to tell you all about the encouraging work of this fantastic conservation non-profit, particularly with regard to elephants, how COVID-19 has affected wildlife, what you can do to help, including other organizations.

What’s Wildlife SOS?

It’s a conservation non-profit set up in 1995 to protect and conserve India’s natural heritage, forest, and biodiversity. It is currently one of the largest Wildlife Organisations in South Asia. Its main missions are:

  • Conservation and protection of wild populations and habitat.
  • Rescue of injured and displaced wildlife, and to look after the welfare of captive populations.
  • Research into better protecting and caring for wildlife.

WSOS leads a massive variety of projects: battling illegal animal trading and poaching, advocating for wildlife within the legal and legislative systems, mitigation of human-wildlife conflict, and organising awareness workshops, to name just a few.

And the projects are just as diverse as the huge variety of animals they rescue every year ranging from snakes illegally captured by snake ‘charmers’, peacocks poisoned by pesticide, sloth bears forced to ‘dance’ for entertainment, and elephants enduring a life of cruelty in the tourism industry.

Love elephants? Read on!

Although WSOS is internationally known for its pivotal role in eradicating the practice of dancing bears, they are becoming increasingly well-known for their rescue and rehabilitation of elephants.

Their Elephant Conservation and Care Centre was created in 2010 to rehabilitate severely abused and exploited elephants, and nowadays houses over 25, many of which were rescued from a lifetime in captivity where they were forced to beg on behalf of their abusive owners, work as temple elephants, perform in circuses and give rides to tourists, among countless other atrocities.

Elephants in captivity face a life of cruelty and abuse, starting with being poached from the wild as babies, isolated from other elephants, and beaten until they can be coerced to do anything. (Note from da-AL: the video link that follows is truly upsetting.) The taming’ method for an elephant usually goes like this: baby elephants are kept in a small cage similar to those used in intensive pig farming, and they are tied up with ropes so they can’t move. The elephant will then be subject to repeated beatings with nails, sticks, chains, and bullhooks. In a process lasting several weeks, the animal is starved of food and water while enduring sleep-deprivation, until they submit to their owners, who can then use them for financial gain.

This cruel practice is aptly called phajaan or “breaking of the spirit”.

All captive elephants will go through at least some form of this vicious ritual. Next time you see an elephant used to give rides or appearing in a film, the signs of abuse will be easy to spot. Shredded ears where they have been torn by bullhooks, nasty skin conditions, lacerations all over their body, and tears in their eyes are all indications of abuse. It’s simple really — no wild elephant would voluntarily paint pictures, perform in the circus or let people ride them.

Only a creature that has had its spirit crushed through abject torture would submit to such unnatural behaviour. While in Europe, you’d be hard-pressed to still find a circus with real elephants, it is estimated that there are approximately 2,700 captive elephants all around Asia that are still actively subjected to some form of exploitation.

Such abuse is particularly sad when we consider that elephants are among the most intelligent of all land mammals. Elephants exhibit renowned cognitive skills and share many behavioural traits with humans. These sensitive souls exhibit grief, altruism, compassion, cooperation, self-awareness and have excellent memories. They remember other elephants and humans they had met briefly decades previously, and they will certainly never forget the anguish they endured all their captive lives.

As visitors to the Agra Elephant Conservation and Care Centre, it was heartwarming to see elephants which had endured a lifetime of cruelty finally be able to spend their days in peace, enjoying long relaxing mud baths, receiving a nutritious diet and veterinary care, as well as enjoying a daily stroll in the open fields with their friends.

Some phony ‘sanctuaries’ are more like petting zoos and little other than dressed-up tourist traps where the mistreatment of animals is commonplace (here’s how to spot one). In total contrast, at Wildlife SOS’s rescue centre in Agra, only small groups of visitors are allowed to come on a prearranged visit, and no touching of or direct interaction with the elephants is permitted. Elephants are in no way made to perform for visitors, and riding is, of course, banned. Although these elephants would not be able to survive in the wild again following decades of captivity, they are well cared for and live as natural a life as possible in the centre.

Indian elephant bull in musth in Bandipur National Park , by Yathin S Krishnappa - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24916395 Indian elephant bull in musth in Bandipur National Park, by Yathin S Krishnappa – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

How to visit Wildlife SOS

I was deeply impacted by the life-changing work Wildlife SOS is carrying out and would wholeheartedly recommend that anyone visiting Agra should carve out a firm place in their itinerary to visit both WSOS centres in Agra to see the projects first-hand. We hired a driver and visited the Taj Mahal, the Agra Bear Rescue Facility and Elephant Conservation Centre all in one day, with time to get the 5pm train back to Delhi, so it’s definitely possible to have this eye-opening experience on a day trip!

For more information, check out Wildlife SOS’s website to find out more about how to visit the Elephant Conservation and Care Center. Make sure to get in touch in advance by sending an email to visit@wildlifesos.org to organise a customised visit. It’ll be the highlight of your trip to Agra!

Refuse to Ride Elephants sign by Chelsea. Photo by Chelsea.

How has COVID-19 affected Wildlife?

The current COVID-19 crisis is making its effects felt universally and is forcing us to reexamine our relationship with wildlife and nature.

Now confined to their homes, people are increasingly realising the benefits and importance of spending time in nature, notoriously polluted cities like New Delhi are enjoying some of their first blue-sky days in a long time, and wild animals have been venturing into urban city centres now devoid of the usual throngs of people and heaving traffic. Wild boars have even been spotted taking a stroll around the metropolis of Barcelona!

Another silver lining of the current pandemic is that it has shone the spotlight on the illegal global wildlife trade. There is more awareness than ever of the risks that exotic animal markets pose to human health and increasing pressure to close them down for good.

At the same time, wildlife tourism is being severely impacted by restricted international travel. On the one hand, this is good news – the lack of tourists will be a relief to elephants who are otherwise forced to give rides all day. On the other hand, rescue centres like Wildlife SOS will not be able to welcome visitors whose entrance fees go towards the animals’ upkeep.

Ultimately, whether it comes as a blessing or a curse, COVID-19 has come as a wake-up call, and one thing is certain: we need to seriously rethink how we treat the natural and animal world around us.

3 Easy Ways Everyone can help — Wildlife SOS and beyond… 

  1. Visit the WSOS site for everything from how to spread awareness, fundraise, volunteer, and sponsor an animal, to opportunities to assist children in Kalandar. In addition to learning more about their groundbreaking conservation work, visit their bear and elephant facilities in Agra, if you’re in Bangalore, South India.
  2. Here’s a WSOS link if you’d like to sign a petition to ban riding elephants, to ban the use of animals for medicine and food, this one to protect India’s wildlife from open wells, and this one to outlaw the use of elephants for tourists to ride.
  3. Donate elsewhere: every little helps, especially now during the COVID-19 crisis with food shortages looming.

My visit to the elephant centre left me emotional, and a lot of tears went into writing this article. The way humans treat their fellow living creatures is disheartening, to say the least. We call people ‘animals’ when they act aggressively, brutishly, and uncivilised, but really, animals don’t hold a candle to the depths of fiendishness us humans are capable of on a regular basis. In fact, it’s animals who time and time again surprise us with their altruism and affection towards humans. Here are examples of our wonderful dolphin friends!

But I’m also optimistic. Yes, there is still an enormous amount of needless animal cruelty going on today all over the world in the name of entertainment, medicine, food, or whatever other reason you can find a justification for, but there are also beacons of hope like Wildlife SOS.

As more people shun the use of animals for their own perceived gain, I like to think we can stride in the direction of a world with a little less suffering, and a lot more love and compassion.

Sending you sunshine and positivity, Chelsea!

Dear readers, please weigh in…