Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Salisbury Cathedral

Places that inspire or intrigue me usually end up in one of my novels. I’ve just set a scene in Book 4 at Salisbury Cathedral and its Close during WW2. Fortuitously, one of the historic houses in the Close is for sale, so I was able to tour the rooms online, and envision my characters there.

Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop's Grounds - by John Constable, c. 1925
My first glimpse of the cathedral was across the water-meadows from our inn, the view instantly reminiscent of John Constable’s famous painting, above. My husband and I were on our honeymoon, guided by a book entitled “England on $5 and $10 a Day” – yes, many decades ago! Our hotel straddled a shallow stream and had once been a mill, with parts dating back to ecclesiastical beginnings in the 13th century. It was all delightfully quaint and ridiculously romantic.

As we followed a footpath across the meadows and rivers, the magnificent cathedral rose out of the deceptively pastoral landscape. From the narrow, medieval streets of the inner city, we passed through a battlemented stone gate into the Cathedral Close – the largest in Britain at 80 acres. Other superlatives describing the Gothic cathedral, primarily constructed during the 13th century, include having the largest cloisters, the tallest spire, the finest of the four remaining 800-year-old Magna Cartas, and Europe’s oldest working clock.

That lofty spire may well have saved the cathedral from bombing during WW2. From the map of a downed German plane, it appeared that the steeple was used as a navigational aid.

In any case, the Magna Carta and other priceless documents were stored in a secret government repository during the war, along with other national treasures. My thanks to Cathedral Archivist, Emily Naish, for her helpful information.

Visiting the cathedral again two decades later with our daughter, we took a fascinating "Tower Tour" into the rafters and up to the base of the spire, where there's a terrific view over the city and countryside. You can see a bit of it in this short video.

Of course this is all grist for the literary mill!

For more info about Salisbury Cathedral, visit the official website.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Remembering.... Always

CWGC Cemetery at Etaples, the largest in France with 10,773 WWI graves - copyright Melanie Wills
Although the war is over when Book 3 of my Muskoka Novels, Under the Moon, begins, it lingers for many of my characters. It’s perhaps hard for us to imagine trying to rebuild lives shattered in trenches or aerial warfare, and to carry on without friends, husbands, and sweethearts when life is just supposed to be beginning. Little wonder that became known as the “lost generation”.

War veterans were reluctant to talk about their horrific experiences, especially to those who weren’t there and wouldn’t truly understand. Many couldn’t readjust to civilian life or were haunted by unforgettable experiences, including their own participation in the brutality. How does a young man, brought up to believe in the sanctity of life, reconcile that with his requirement to kill? Survivors often felt guilty that they didn’t lie alongside their comrades.

A few eventually wrote memoirs or thinly disguised fiction, possibly to help exorcise the demons, leaving us with valuable insight.

One of the most compelling is Vera Brittain’s classic, Testament of Youth.  After her beloved younger brother, her fiancĂ©, and their closest friends joined up, feisty Vera delayed her Oxford education to do “her bit” in the war by becoming a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurse. Through her eyes, we witness the carnage of war and feel the profound sorrow of so many young lives shattered. She wanted to ensure that no one ever forgot that sacrifice.

A powerful, moving film adaptation of Testament of Youth was recently released. Here is one of the official trailers.

Vera’s memoir was an important part of my research, since my Muskoka Novels are told mostly from the viewpoint of women and their often unsung participation in the war, especially in Elusive Dawn. By sharing their experiences vicariously, we can perhaps have a deeper understanding. I shall certainly never forget.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Lusitania Medal

The sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915 by a German U-boat is an important chapter in The Summer Before the Storm. Although she was a passenger liner with almost 2000 men, women, and children aboard, she was also carrying empty shell casings and over 4 million rifle cartridges, unbeknownst to the public. The Germans claimed that she was a legitimate military target, and had given people fair warning.

The German embassy had placed a notice in American newspapers stating “vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction in those waters [adjacent to the British Isles] and that travellers sailing in the war zone on the ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.”

Tragically, 1198 people died when the torpedoed ship sank off the coast of Ireland in only 18 minutes. People worldwide were shocked and outraged, and even a few German newspapers condemned this attack on civilians.

A few months later, a Munich sculptor, Karl Goetz, privately created a commemorative medal of the sinking as a satirical statement, blaming the Cunard line and the British government for allowing the Lusitania to sail into perilous waters.
British replica of the Goetz medal
The medal attracted so much attention that the British head of Propaganda decided to use it to keep stoking anti-German feeling. Replicas were made by Selfridges, and profits from the sales of 250,000 medals were given to the Red Cross.

I’m thrilled to have just received one of those replica medals, thanks to the generosity of John Reynolds, a fan of my Muskoka Novels. It’s exciting to hold something so old and, to me, significant.

Here is the document that came with it, which explains what’s on both sides of the medal. The reverse side is pictured below. 

Reverse side showing Death at the Cunard booking Office

If you're interested in seeing the original medal in more detail, visit this website.

You can also sail aboard the doomed ship with some of my characters in The Summer Before the Storm.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Secret Rendezvous

Ungerman-Gateway Park, Gravenhurst  copyright Gabriele Wills
This rocky waterfront park in Gravenhurst was once part of the private Calydor Sanatorium, referred to as the Lakeview San in Under the Moon.  This is also an important location for the new novel.

"Claire's Rock"  copyright Gabriele Wills
 I call this spot "Claire's Rock" because it's where sweethearts Claire and Colin met secretly in Book 3.  Fictional Hope Cottage sprawled on the shore south of the Sanatorium, around that bluff.

This is where Book 4 begins.....

Monday, September 7, 2015

Summer's End?

copyright Gabriele Wills
Labour Day has always seemed to signify the end of summer,  but the traditional closing of the cottage – for those that are seasonal – is the Canadian Thanksgiving weekend in October. So there are still plenty of colourful autumn days to enjoy by the lake.

My privileged characters often lingered at their Muskoka cottages into late September, until The Great War intervened in The Summer Before the Storm.  The locals were happy to reclaim their lakes when the summer people had gone, as you'll discover in Book 3, Under the Moon.