Thursday, December 12, 2013

Traditional Scottish Lentil Soup Recipe (Curried or Low Carb)

In these surprisingly chilly days of winter, there's nothing to warm you belly better than a hearty soup, and this Scottish Lentil Soup recipe is a cracker!
And it's a healthy choice, too.
'LowCarb' tip? Substitute potatoes with 1/2 cauliflower; tastes just the same but a much lower carbohydrate level.
So let's get souping!
Ingredients; 1lb carrots, 1 lb Rutabaga (turnip/neeps), 1lb potatoes, 4oz RED lentils, 1 Onion, 4 chicken stock cubes (if in the USA, buy Knorr Pollo mexican, they're cheaper.... see, told you I was Scottish)
(For Tomato and Lentil soup, just add two tins chopped tomatoes at the start, and reduce water by 1 pint)
Method; Bring to boil 3 pints of water with the stock cubes. Chop Carrots, Rutabaga, and onion; add to the boiling stock, cover, and boil sharply for an hour. Turn down the heat, add chopped Potatoes and RED lentils, boil gently for an hour, stirring frequently.
Technically, the soup is now ready to eat, but to add that 'traditionally Scottish' feel, we have to make it a bit 'mushier'.
So; liquidize half of the soup. Just half. You can do it with a full food processor, or just a plunge blender.
Now... That's the soup ready..... for wimps!
(Or traditionalists; The soup is actually ready to eat at this point, and totally traditional Scottish fare.)
Now for the 'special' ingredients;
You can add....... 2 tablespoons curry powder..... for Curried Lentil Soup.
You can add....... 5 tablespoons curry powder..... for REALLY Curried Lentil Soup.
You can add....... a huge dollop of A1 sauce, Worcester sauce, (or any other stuff you might think appeals).
Parmesan cheese is good, ginger spice, turmeric, saffron, absinthe, ground mammoth tusks, whatever warms the cockles of your heart.
And whatever you do, DON'T listen to the idiots that think you can make this with any old lentils.... I'm a Manchester United Supporter.... THEY HAVE TO BE RED LENTILS!!!
(Please trust me on this... I don't have shares in the "Red Lentil Co.")
This recipe and many more are available in my soup books Soup Yourself Slimmer, Skinny, Sexy, and Controlling Diabetes.
Both are on eBooks everywhere... click the images.

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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Kevin Turvey Interviews the Connecticut Time-Travelling Vampire

Connecticut Vampire Series, Book 1

Richard DeVere, the time-travelling vampire from A Connecticut Vampire in King Arthur's Court, interviewed by Kevin Turvey.
Me; Hello, and welcome to the newest edition of Kevin Turvey Investigates. I’m here today to interview Richard DeVere, who claims to have gone back in time to “Olde England”. Yeah, really. Richard, it’s a pretty far out claim. How many times do you say you’ve been back in time?
DeVere; That’s a tough one, I mean, I’ve been back more than sixty times, but at this present time I’m not sure I’ve kept an accurate count.
Me; Well there have been three novels written about your exploits; it’s all recorded, written down, that should make it pretty easy to count.
DeVere; Three novels right now, yes, but there’s been sixteen written altogether.
Me; Sixteen? Wow, your writer friend has been busy. Why haven’t they all been published?
DeVere; Because right now they’re not written yet, of course.
Me; Not written yet?
DeVere; No, it takes a couple of years for his writing to catch up with my exploits, but he does it quite well; roughly a novel every three months for four years. We finished four years from now.
Me; Eh, you used the past tense there, you said ‘finished’.
DeVere; Yes, in your present, which is my past, they’re not finished yet. In my present day, which is about four years from now, they’re finished.
Me; So you say right now, here in the studio, is actually in your past?
DeVere; Yes, my past and present. You see, I wasn’t actually consulted when this interview got scheduled, I was in 1709 at the time, and a bit of 1553 again. So when I found out about the interview, basically I had to travel back as shallow as I could, then just float forward to your present day, to arrive here on time.
Me; You travelled back in time to get here… to live to my ‘Present Day’.
DeVere; Yes, just to 1716 as it turned out, so not long to wait in the giant scheme of things. It’ll all sort itself out; time-travel constantly throws up these inconsistencies.
Me; So with all this time-travelling, and waiting, eh, floating, how old are you? How many years have you ‘lived’ through?
DeVere; Oh, many thousand probably.
Me; And yet you don’t look a day over twenty-five.
DeVere; One of the benefits of being a vampire.
Me; Eh, okay, I’ll press on. The first novel; “A Connecticut Vampire in King Arthur’s Court”, you didn’t go back to Arthurian times. So why ‘King Arthur’ in the title?
DeVere; Publisher’s decision, I’m afraid; we needed to keep close to Mark Twain’s title as we could, so it’s a kinda play on words. King Henry the Seventh’s eldest son, Arthur, never actually got to be ‘King’, but I tried everything I could to change history.
Me; So you actually tried to change history?
DeVere; Yes.
Me; Isn’t that dangerous?
DeVere; We’ll never know. Every time we look back, we see a fixed history; it doesn’t change. But every time I did manage to ‘change’ history, we never see what I’ve done, the past fixed history still looks fixed.
Me; But you’d know the changes.
DeVere; Yeah, but I wouldn’t admit them to anyone. I’d just look silly.
Me; Try me.
DeVere; Okay, eh, Queen Elizabeth didn’t always beat the Spanish Armada, she lost three times before I got involved.
Me; But there’s no mention of that anywhere.
DeVere; That’s because we put it right again, a Spanish speaking world is not a easy place for me to live.
Me; Why not?
DeVere; Because my Spanish is terrible.
Me; (laughs) You could have just made all that Spanish Armada stuff up.
DeVere; And that proves my point. Any changing of history has to be kept secret by me. There’s no point in telling anyone. You either think I’m just being smart, or don’t believe me because there’s never any proof. That’s why I don’t mention it.
Me; Okay, I’m beginning to catch on. What’s the main difference between Tudor England and the present day? Eh, my present day.
DeVere; Electricity, and showers.
Me; Ah, ye olde one bath a year thing?
DeVere; Precisely.
Me; And yet despite their lack of cleanliness, you claim to have had sex with most of the ladies of the day?
DeVere; Only the ones further up the food chain, and you have to remember I’m a vampire, so sex is part and parcel of what I am.
Me; But the Queens…
DeVere; Wait! No spoilers for those still to read the books. Let’s not let my sex-capades out of the bag.
Me; Of course. Who’s the most impressive person you’ve ever met, you know, back there?
DeVere; Without doubt, Queen Elizabeth the First.
Me; And why’s that?
DeVere; She’s just a fantastic woman, such a strong character in such turbulent times. Her presence of mind in her later years was a joy to watch.
Me; And the most evil person? The worst bad guy?
DeVere; Wow, evil’s a big word. Probably Oliver Cromwell, he had a darker side than any of the history books ever let on to. Although a couple of Archbishops of Canterbury have run him close at times.
Me; You’ve met Oliver Cromwell?
DeVere; Yes, in volume eight.
Me; Published when?
DeVere; About two years from now, if I remember rightly, same year as the movie rights were bought by Disney.
Me; Movie rights?
DeVere; On the big screen for Christmas. My Christmas, not yours.
Me; Of course. Wow. Do you think it will go well?
DeVere; It already did.
Me; In your present day.
DeVere; There can be only one. The first movie went blockbusters. We even beat the Silmarilion Two into second place.
Me; Silmarilion?
DeVere; The newest JRR Tolkien franchise; the whole history of middle earth in six volumes. Peter Jackson didn’t want to do it, but when they offered him $100 million, he caved.
Me; Okay, let’s get back to Tudor England, shall we? You can’t actually travel very accurately, can you?
DeVere; No. It’s not a precise science. I just have a rough idea of when I’m going to, and sometimes I’m early, sometimes late.
Me; And that means that you bump into yourself from time to time?
DeVere; Yes, quite a lot really. I’ve helped myself a few times, you know, when the timeline needed straightening out.
Me; Ever thought of going back and killing Hitler or Stalin or someone equally as evil?
DeVere; I can’t seem to go back that shallow, I’m afraid. The latest I’ve even been to is 1746. So no to the Hitler question, unless you want me to go back, then hang around for two hundred years and just drift forward in time normally. I could do it that way. Just like I did for tonight’s interview.
Me; So this interview is more important than killing Hitler?
DeVere; Oh, yes.
Me; What’s the farthest back you’ve gone?
DeVere; That would be 56AD. Lady Jane and I wanted to see Pompeii erupt, but we went back too far. We had a good time as we waited for it. We saw a lot of the Roman Empire at its best. It took five jumps to get that far back; time-travelling takes it out of you, we’ve not done it since.
Me; And which book is that in?
DeVere; We never wrote that part; just too far-fetched, you know, too much out of the plot of the book. In the middle of number eleven that was.
Me; Do you always land in England?
DeVere; No, but I try to keep myself centered there; the accent’s easy, and I know the country well by now.
Me; What’s the furthest from London that you’ve landed?
DeVere; Morocco, I think. I wasn’t really certain of where it was; just sand and desert, until I got a ship to Spain.
Me; You’re not scared of giving spoilers?
DeVere; It’s written on the back of the book for everyone to see.
Me; Volume number?
DeVere; Book three, I think.
Me; But we’ve only got books one and two right now.
DeVere; It’ll be in the shops before Christmas. This Christmas, your Christmas.
Me; (laughing) In my present day?
DeVere; (laughing) In your present day.
Me; And there we close. “A Connecticut Vampire in King Arthur’s Court”; in bookstores and eBooks now. We thank you, Richard for coming along, sorry, for making the time to travel back in your time, then hanging around for three hundred years, just to see us tonight.
(Music, then fade)
Me; Okay Richard, Microphones are now switched off, thanks mate, that was a good interview.
DeVere; I enjoyed it immensely. And it passed so quick too. But why just concentrate the questions on the time travel aspect of the books? Why didn’t you ask me about being a vampire?
Me; Well mate; that would just have been silly, wouldn’t it? Everyone knows there’s no such thing as vampires.
Lights dim, Kevin Turvey turns away. 

Friday, November 29, 2013

Of Lord Byron, Vampires, Bram Stoker and Scotland

In the summer of 1816, just a year after Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, four people took part in a story competition in the Villa Diodati, by the shores of Lake Geneva, Switzerland. The outcome is best known for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but other the participants, Percy Shelley (Mary’s husband), Lord Byron, and John Polidori also produced writings.
First, a wee bit history… Just three years before in 1813, Lord Byron had written a vampire poem; The Giaour (The Unbeliever). In it, vampires suck blood to live…

But first, on earth as vampire sent, Thy corpse shall from its tomb be rent: 
Then ghastly haunt thy native place, And suck the blood of all thy race; 

There from thy daughter, sister, wife, At midnight drain the stream of life; 
Yet loathe the banquet which perforce, Must feed thy livid living corpse: 

Thy victims ere they yet expire, Shall know the demon for their sire, 
As cursing thee, thou cursing them, Thy flowers are withered on the stem.

So, back to the story competition…
While Mary labored on Frankenstein, Byron wrote a tale of an aristocrat traveling in the Orient, whilst Percy Shelley wrote his poem Hymn to Intellectual Beauty.
The last of the four, so often overlooked, John Polidori, took Byron’s ideas and wrote The Vampyre in 1919. He based a character on the rather hectic life of Lord Byron himself (Lord Ruthven), although this was never officially admitted.
the following year, Charles Nodier wrote an unauthorized sequel to Polidori’s tale using the Ruthven character; Lord Ruthwen ou les Vampires (1820), then adapted the novel into a play, but rather than the continent, for some reason Nodier based the play in Scotland.
This was immediately adapted in into English by James Planché as The Vampire; or, the Bride of the Isles , again set in Scotland, which was performed at the Lyceum Theatre in 1820.
Now, zip past a half century or so, and we find Bram Stoker as manager of the aforementioned Lyceum Theatre in London. He learns of the Vampire play performed so many years ago… He visits Slains Castle in Aberdeenshire, where (it is often quoted) he got his ideas for the bleak countryside of Transylvania.
And Dracula is born... proving the link of Dracula to Scotland.
Incidentally, Bram Stoker traveled the world, but never ventured into Eastern Europe.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Connecticut Vampire in King Arthur's Court: Four Genres in One

Is A Connecticut Vampire in King Arthur's Court the best Vampire, Historical, Time-Travel, Romance novel ever written?
No one writes a novel strictly in just one genre; in any work there's always at least a dipping of the toe into something else. The Connecticut Vampire series is no different, but it does go a couple of stages further.
Historical Adventure?
Definitely; I hope the book is accepted as such from the first chapter. Although A Connecticut Vampire in King Arthur's Court looks like just another Vampire/Time-travel romp, it is researched just as thoroughly as my proper historical pieces. Every piece of mainline plot, the characters, battles, weddings, court in-fighting, etc, are pure researched historical fact.
Yes, hopefully just as definitively. The series needs the time-travel element to work. It’s essential to both the plot and the basic nuts and bolts of the story. Many writers have created their own time-travel rules, and again, I'm no different, but hopefully I've also answered the myriad of questions regarding the typical paradoxes that spring up in the genre as a matter of course.
Our hero, the 24 year old Richard DeVere, is a vampire, he’s been one of the new breed for a few years in modern USA. But his usual brash tactics don’t work as well in the 16th century; every time someone dies in his close proximity, he undergoes the ‘shimmer’, a world shaking pause, felt only by him. The ‘shimmer’ is seen as time re-asserting or adjusting itself, but I also try to leave enough of a grey area for the reader to come to their own conclusions. Combined with the fact that everyone is armed with pikes, arrows, and swords, he now must be very circumspect compared to his modern existence. But there is another field which the Connecticut Vampire series fits just as well as the ones above.
Historical Romance?
Well, although this book doesn't seem as if it fits the genre, it actually does. Poor Richard actually falls in love. Well, he falls in love as far as a vampire can. The series has a romantically driven arc, so again, ‘yes’, it falls very specifically into this category.
So, in summary, there are at least four genres mixed together here, but I found while writing the stories, that this didn’t make the writing any easier. It also means there are four different ways that a reader can pounce on my mistakes, four different areas where I could trip myself up, throwing the reader out of the story.
With this firmly in my mind from the first concept, I was very conscious of getting my historical facts right in every regard; I needed to root this so well into Tudor England that the historical part became the norm, the smooth rails for the train, so to speak. Once that was achieved, the sci-fi, romance and vampire parts could ride the train in safety.
I’d like to say that the Connecticut Vampire series is my best work to date, but then most parents are in love with their newest sibling, compared to the one that’s been kicking around under their feet for a couple of years. So I will bite my tongue and remain quiet as to my feelings for the Connecticut Vampire series, at least until after I’ve moved on to something else….
So, if these genres interest you, please come along and give the books a try. The high-pitched whistle’s blowing from the big black engine at the front of the Connecticut Vampire train. A huge ‘whoosh’ of steam flows onto the platform, announcing its eagerness to depart the station, and the conductor is shouting “All aboard!” I encourage you to get on board the train and enjoy the smooth ride.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The following poem is taken from the Horror short story;The Murder of Tom Bombadil, available in Amazon. Along with Price of a Portrait they make a macabre duet of Horror.
I hope you enjoy...
(Make the sound of a mad-man's laughter in your head, then let it slowly fade away...)

The Murder of Tom Bombadil

Young Tom sits on the grass alone,
Licking the melt from the ice cream cone.
For almost an hour, Tom had sucked it sour,
With hair as dark as a raven, shaven, craven.
For an hour he glowered as the ladies cowered,
With hair as dark as a raven.

A man, Tom walks up the church’s aisle
With a love kept chaste in a secret vial
For almost a year, we had kept it pure;
Frustration as deep as an ocean, lotion, motion.
For three hundred days, in a thousand ways
Frustration as deep as an ocean

But now Tom sits in his room alone
And watches and worries a withered crone
For many a year he had taken the sneer
And his mind began to shrivel, snivel, evil.
Tom left her a-lying in a pool of red.
And his mind began to shrivel.

Old Tom sits in his padded cell
And softly and surely, his worries quell
When the Sandman comes, he couldn’t tell
Because sleep was hard to come by, numb-by, numb-bye
But the blood still runs in the corpse’s thumbs
And sleep was hard to come by.

The old crone lies on her rug of pink
And her flesh and bones decay and stink
Fingers don’t twitch, and eyes don’t blink
For her dead body lies in the bedroom, redroom, deadroom.
Tom Bombadil’s fingers are covered in blood
And the crone’s a-lyin’ in the bedroom.

Up jumped Tom, with his big boots on
And he says to Detectives, “What is yon?
For it looks like a corpse of a wife of sorts
That turned a good man to a killer, spiller, thriller.
That tortured and pestered, while inside he festered,
And turned a good man to a killer”

Old Tom sits in the room and waits,
For the imps or the angels to open the gates,
For ten long years, he’d shed his tears,
And awaited the clash of the gavel, ravel, evil.
For ten long years, he’d shed his tears,
And awaited the clash of the gavel

So Tom, he sits in the room alone
Clutching and scratching the telephone
For ten long years he awaits the crone;
The body he pushed into the future, creature, butcher.
He sits and mumbles and waits alone

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Vampire’s Don’t Cry; Gritty, But No Glitter!

I’d like to introduce you to the world of Vampires Don’t Cry; a gritty vampire series written by Ian Hall and April L. Miller.
The Cast;
Lyman Bracks, a High School senior, and nerd. His ‘best friend’, Alan McCartney is killed in the middle of the marching band at Friday Night Football, his neck torn to pieces by a visiting cheerleader. But strange things happen that fateful night, and he’s forced to look at his whole senior year with suspicion.
Mandy Cross, the aforementioned cheerleader, obviously has a different viewpoint on Alan’s demise, and tells her story in gory detail, opening up a whole new can of worms as she does so.
What to Expect?
Vampires Don’t Cry is a gritty, in-your-face tale of vampires and their natural enemies; the Helsing Organization. It’s pages drip with gore, suspense, violence and is definitely not for youngsters. The characters are dragged through the pages by the hair, protesting and screaming, rather than romp in some daintily orchestrated adventure. Vampires Don’t Cry is no place for the squeamish.
What Not to Expect?
Lyman and Mandy are not models. They don’t strut through school plastered in make-up. The vampires in Vampires Don’t Cry don’t glitter, shimmer or sparkle. They are not models; this is not mushy Soap Opera. They don’t spend all their time hooking up or making out. The vampires bite, and bit hard. The Helsings hunt and kill remorselessly. If you like your vampire stories told honestly, with blood and gore… Vampires Don’t Cry is for you.
The Writing Style?
Vampires Don’t Cry is written by a two-person team, each taking the viewpoint of a single character above. Ian Writes a thousand words as Lyman, then passes the ball to April, who writes as Mandy; nothing much new so far. But they have rules, and the main one is this; no one can change what the other has written, and they don’t collude beforehand. The result is a punchy, edgy story dipping into the fertile depths of two great imaginations.
The Books;
There are four books in the series so far, and book five is in the pipeline, expected in Summer 2014. There is also a large back-story anthology, containing a full in-depth research on the minor characters of the series; Vampires Don’t Cry: Blood Anthology. Each chapter is a story on its own. Two other books are planned for release in 2014; Vampires Don’t Cry: Origins, and Vampires Don’t Cry: The Celtic Căluşari. These are darker, older tales, but contain characters from the original stories.
 The books are available in Paperback on Amazon, or on eBooks everywhere in all formats; Kindle, Nook, Kobo, Apple, Sony, etc. To get your free introductory story, and the first four chapters of Vampires Don’t Cry, click below.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Re-branding 'Vampire High School'… because Vampires Don't Cry

We started writing the Vampire High School series in the first months of 2012, sailing through the first volume in less than two months. It was a blast.
With the four main protagonists being Arizona High School seniors, the title, Vampire High School seemed ideal for the book, and we set the publishing wheels in motion, getting it quickly onto eBook format, and paperback, before embarking on the next project.
But we'd had so much fun with our earlier collaboration... enter Vampire High School Book 2: The Helsing Diaries, forcing us to give the first book a Book 1: Gregor Academy subtitle. Yes, we took the last page of Book 1 and burst into another volume… the problem was, we had moved away from the original small-town High School background, and had grown into the surrounding Arizona area, running all directions from Flagstaff. But we had the Vampire High School series to consider, so we kept the main title.
Book 3: The Rage Wars soon followed, and the series continued under the Vampire High School banner. The characters had grown older, both in years and experience, again taking them past the original High School tag, but we'd put our three/four main characters through the mill, and it didn't seem fair to change the series name.
But that wasn't out current problem; we’d also invented a host of minor players in our vampire tapestry. These characters needed some fleshing out, but not in a clinical, hidden, behind-the-scenes way, but in a complete reader-driven back story anthology.
So out pops our biggest volume yet, Blood Anthology, just giving background stories. In addition, since we hadn’t enough on our plate, we had started a new book, called Vampires Don’t Cry; a deeper, darker tale. So dark, reading it out loud, it made my wife cry.
Initially we decided to write in two separate series, but of course, we had mixed characters from each series, it seemed to be getting kinda muddy which series some characters belonged to.
Then we wrote Vampire High School Book 4: Blood Red Roses, in which our major characters, Lyman and Mandy infiltrate a vampire university, leaving their high school days firmly behind them. They’d also moved on sexually, and Book 4: Blood red Roses had an adult side and the High School banner had become misleading.
We suddenly realized we’d moved on from the original name.
So, we’ve re-branded the whole series; Vampires Don’t Cry.
Book 1 will now have the subtitle; Vampire High School, as a homage to the old ideals. And the darker book, due out in 2014? We plan on it.
We’ve decided to call that series; Vampires Don’t Cry; Origins.
It all seems simple, looking back, once you’ve talked about it for year! All the best from April and Ian, and we hope our ‘transformation’ won’t cause you too much trouble.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Andy Murray, Wimbledon 2013: my Granny's view from Heaven

Andy Murray wins Wimbledon- pride of Scotland and my Granny Hall
My Granny Hall was a tennis player. Okay, it was back in the 1930’s, back in the day when women had to wear ankle length skirts to play, but play she did. She gave it all up when she married my Papa Hall, but she remained a rabid fan for the rest of her life. 

Every year around the last week in June, her household in Gorebridge, Scotland would literally close down for Wimbledon Fortnight; a whole 2 weeks of black and white BBC tennis from early morning to past tea-time. I loved visiting them at that time more than any other. We got to watch tennis, you see, and we got to watch it uninterrupted. 

If any of us- me, dad, mum, grandpa, uttered so much as a peep we’d get told to “Shut-up!” from the crouching figure of Granny Hall kneeling at the brown leather pouffe about six feet from the telly. She’d be down on her knees behind it, leaning, watching intently and smoking furiously. Papa’s tea was made during the news, and if it didn’t quite make it, she’d simply switch the whole cooker off (Papa was hopeless at cooking) and catch up with it later.

Carry-outs were a thing saved for rainy days, but Granny’s house got its fair share of fish ‘n’ chips during Wimbledon. If we talked too loud behind her, she’d snap; “Shut-up!” repeating the words as long as it took for us to get the message. I thought it was funny. I loved tennis too. Mum thought it was rude, but never  told anyone so. Granny would have bit her head off.

Granny Hall watched Wimbledon religiously each year and cheered every nationality. Although she was fiercely Scottish Nationalist (remind me to tell you one day the story of the shouting about the "bloody butcher Cumberland" at Culloden..scared the tourists right enough) there wasn’t a bone of racism in her body regarding tennis, she just loved the great proponents of the game, be they English or not.

Fast forward to this Sunday morning, the seventh of July, 2013; 77 years since a British man had won a Wimbledon title. Well, you probably know; Andy Murray won. Three hard grueling sets, beating the world number one.

I watched the final with tears in my eyes imagining Granny Hall, looking down from heaven, watching his progress from the best view in the world as Andy Murray won the title. As fair as she was about tennis I have to believe she got a wee bit more pleasure out of it all just because he was Scottish.

I imagine heaven was quiet for three hours- even if the angels told her to calm down I can just hear the “Shut-up!” they would receive...

Friday, July 5, 2013

Royal Tudor Politics: Henry, Edward, Mary and Elizabeth

Henry VIII and his modern day counterpart from HBO's The Tudors

Continuing a series of  posts inspired by background research for my Connecticut Vampire series, first volume scheduled for release early fall 2013...

It is easy to be overly simplistic when it comes to analyzing royal politics in the Tudor era. Yes, perhaps King Henry VIII had so many wives because he was a misogynist bastard.
Yes, perhaps King Henry had so many wives because he needed a male heir to reign after him.
Both statements have some historical merit but as with all politics, the truth lies far deeper.

King Henry had heard from his own father’s lips how the civil war (the "War of the Roses") had shattered the peace of England for decades. He realized, that to succeed himself, he needed a stable monarch; a male heir.  England had never had a lone queen, and when his first two children to survive infancy turned out to be female, he began to panic. With the benefit of hindsight we see that Henry had foundation in all his fears, yet in an effort to avert civil war, he’d inadvertently provided the necessary conditions for another to begin. In his quest for a male heir and the religious changes he’d been ‘forced’ into, Henry had split the country in two. Half of the English people hankered after the old comforts of Catholicism, half reveled in the new freedoms of Protestantism.

Even after his death, fate dealt Henry VIII a cruel twist.  His male heir Edward never survived to his eighteenth birthday and his full coronation. He only ruled for a sickly four years, used by the regent nobles as a piece on a chess board. On Edward’s dying bed, the boy was persuaded to declare a cousin, Protestant Lady Jane Grey, to be his heir. The ambitious move disinherited both Catholic Mary and 'illegitimate' Elizabeth, his elder sisters , but Jane and her backers couldn't muster the support to keep her dubious claim to the throne viable. Lady Jane is known as "the Nine Days Queen" due to the brevity of her reign in July of 1553 and she was executed less than a year later at the tender age of 17.
Lady Jane Grey was played by Helena Bonham Carter in the 1986 film Lady Jane

When Queen Mary, the daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, ascended the throne she was supported by the biggest military faction, and the biggest proportion of nobles. She was already a Princess, cruelly treated by both Henry and his son Edward; the Catholic half of England embraced her, and she came to power bloodlessly. It was now time for "Bloody Mary" to prove as ruthless and stubborn as her father.

Mary wanted to turn England back to a Catholic nation, and required a Catholic heir, so she married King Phillip of Spain. Mary also wanted rid of pesky Protestant ministers, so she arrested them, and had them burnt at the stake; not the nicest way to go, trust me.

So the pendulum swings and popular opinion swung too. Queen Mary died without issue, and Princess Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, was proclaimed Queen of England. She would turn the country Protestant again. Despite many plots and actions against her, Elizabeth reined for forty-five years.  It seems that in this daughter that he considered illegitimate, Henry had found the strong 'male' heir to bring stability to his country. If only he’d realized it earlier, so many lives would have been saved, and history could have been changed completely.

Cate Blanchett ~ a magnificent turn as Queen Elizabeth

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Inchkeith; Edinburgh's Own Island of Doctor Moreau?

An Island of Doctor Moreau in our own backyard? Or is it Inchkeith, Edinburgh?

Hello, people of Edinburgh, Leith, Granton, Portobello, and Musselburgh- I have a spooky tale to weave for you. It's a little known fact but  off your shores-in plain sight every day-lies an island steeped in the bloody stains of history. The green grassy scenic island of Inchkeith in the Firth of Forth just 5 miles north of Leith hides a dark and murky past.

In 1494, just a year after Columbus's return from the New World, a sickness broke out in Europe. Some say it came from the newly discovered territories of North America, I will that leave to historians more learned than me, but break out it did. Unnamed at first, it was simply called the Pox, or the Grand Pox; the term “syphilis” would later be coined by the Italian physician and poet Girolamo Fracastoro. Sufferers of the disease either showed a mass of boils, or out and out deformation, morphing in horrifying and drastic ways. The first written records of an outbreak of syphilis in Europe occurred in 1494 or 1495 in Naples, Italy, during a French invasion. Due to its being spread by returning French troops, it was initially known as the "French disease".

Whatever they called it, syphilis spread across Europe like the plague (hmm, probably where we get that term eh?). Within three years the disease ran so rampant in the streets of Edinburgh that the Town Council decided to quarantine all victims onto Inchkeith island. Edinburgh would rid the streets of their mutant horde.

The council banished thousands of the ‘unclean’ to the offshore island; “there to remain till God provide for their health”. There is no record of their healing, no record of their re-instatement into society; probably they all died on the island. But the history of the Island as Edinburgh’s quarantine area had only started. It would not be the last time the island would be used as the cesspool of Edinburgh's shame.

  • In 1589, Inchkeith was used to quarantine the passengers of a plague ridden ship from France. Again, no records are given of survivors.
  • In 1609, at the height of the Bubonic Plague that swept Europe, victims were shipped to the island. The plague wiped a huge proportion of Europeans from the map, so we cannot even estimate the numbers sent to the small grassy mound.
  • In 1799, Russian sailors on an infected ship were quarantined on Inchkeith, and then buried on the island. And if you think that’s gross enough, you’ve not heard it all.

King James IV used Inchkeith as an extraordinary experiment. He ordered that a ‘dumb’ woman and her two toddlers be taken to the island. Scholars left them alone and unsupported on the island for five years, then returned to record the language they spoke after their time in isolation. The experiment was cruel, detached, and more in accord with the Nazi regime than the civilization that would one day spawn the Scottish enlightenment...

"He caused tak ane dumb woman, and put hir in Inchkeith and gave hir two bairnes [children] with hir, and gart furnish hir with all necessares thingis perteaning to their nourischment, desiring heirby to know what language they had when they cam to the aige of perfyte speach. Some say they spak guid Hebrew; but I know not by authoris rehearse; Robert Lyndsay of Pitscottie."

So, the next time you look out on that calm serene island, think of its part in Edinburgh's history.
(End of the history of Inchkeith, Part 1. Yup, I’ve not told the whole story; not by half.)

Friday, June 28, 2013

The Definitive Top 10 Mel Gibson Movies

Ok, definitive, may be a stretch and I understand that some of you may be groaning at the mere mention of the now infamous Mel Gibson. To be frank, I'm not looking for some earthy crunchy politically correct superstar when I queue up the next film on Netflix, I just want to be entertained.  And no matter what you think of the guy, no matter what controversy he's been involved in recently, Mel has made some great movies. Comedy, Shakespeare, Drama, War, Action- he's done it all, and done it well. This top 10 list was fun to make. I know I'm going to piss some movie critics off, but here goes:

Should these be Mel Gibson's Top 5 Films? Leave a comment below... ;)

Top 10 Mel Gibson Films
1. Payback (1999) Directed by Brian Helgeland, a hard hitting thriller with cameos by Lucy Lu, James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson and William Devane. Gritty, punchy, mean and relentless; who roused these stars out of retirement?

2. Hamlet (1990) An inspired performance by Gibson, directed by Franco Zeffirelli, and co-starring Glenn Close, Alan Bates, Paul Scofield, Ian Holm, and Helena Bonham Carter. It's my favorite version of Hamlet, and let's face it there's a multitude to chose from.

3. What Women Want (2000) A comedy, starring Gibson opposite Helen Hunt; a huge commercial success, grossing $374 million for an outlay of $70 million. A chick-flick with attitude, plot, intelligence and satire; how could it lose?

4. Ransom (1996) Directed by Ron Howard, and cast Mel Gibson, Rene Russo, Liev Schreiber, Gary Sinise. The 5th biggest film of the year. The best twisted ending I've ever seen; with just 10 minutes left, I still wasn't sure of the outcome.

5.Braveheart (1995) Directed by and starring Gibson, low on historical fact, but passionate and stirring- and still the thirteenth highest grossing film of the year. (see also my post on how I believe this film defined an entire genre: A Braveheart for Every Nation )

6. Mad Max (1979) Gibson was paid $15,000 salary for the iconic movie, and it grossed $100 million; the highest ever percentage profit of any movie. Music by Brian May of Queen. It's basic in the extreme, and leaves us to our own interpretation, but it's Mad Max.

7.Gallipoli (1981) Gibson; Best Actor Award (Aus). The running scenes in the trenches set to Jean Michelle Jarre’s; Oxygene. Mixing humor with trench horror, it epitomizes the hopelessness of the enterprise, with an inescapable ANZAC spirit.

8. We Were Soldiers (2002) An epic Vietnam movie, directed by Randall Wallace, co-starring Madeleine Stowe, Greg Kinnear, and a highly quotable Sam Elliott. One of my favorite Vietnam movies; the closing Scottish song chills my bones; "I'll lay me doon, in the cauld, cauld ground".

9. Conspiracy Theory (1997) Featuring Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts, with Patrick Stewart as a memorable bad guy, in the best conspiracy movie ever. With a thousand Catcher in the Rye paperbacks in his library, who expected 'sane'?

10. Forever Young (1992) Gibson stars in a ‘time travel’ movie, with Elijah Wood, and Jamie Lee Curtis. Screenplay and original story by J.J. Abrams. Wonderful. Refreshing, well acted, and the best movie ever featuring a B-25 Mitchell bomber.
So what do you think? I know that perhaps your favorite didn't make the list. Here's the deal- some of my favorites didn't cut muster either. Im doing top 10, not top however many I need to fit them all in!
Do you agree with my Top 10 Gibson films? Post your own list below.

Close but no cigar on the list were; Air America (1990), The Bounty (1984), Get the Gringo (2012), Lethal Weapon,1,2,3,4 (1987 et al), Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), The Patriot (2000), The Man Without a Face (1993). All great movies.

But... and I risk a throttling here.

At the VERY bottom of any Mel Gibson list...frankly of ANY list of praiseworthy films:

Signs (2002) Written and Directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Although Gibson’s highest grossing film, It’s never going to appear in any list of mine; a truly terrible movie. It will very probably appear in a rant masquerading as a blog post one day. Just don't get me started.

Now its time for you to weigh in- do you agree, disagree, disassemble?  Which one would you put at number 1? Please leave a comment below- debate is good for the soul.

Monday, June 24, 2013

To A "Warrior Poet" on Bannockburn Day

Robert the Bruce faced an English army on the field of Bannockburn on 23-24th June, 1314.
At the end of the movie Braveheart, Bruce (Angus MacFadyen) tells how the Scots took to the field and won the day, fighting like "Warrior Poets".  I still think that is one of the most ridiculous lines I've ever heard in a film, but as I got to thinking about it I decided to have a go at writing a "warrior poem"...

Crichton Castle, near Edinburgh Scotland ~photo ©Robert Ramsay 2013

In true Robert Burns style, I give you my own work...

To a Warrior Poet
By Ian Hall

I come upon this field o’ emerald green,
The sky sae blue, a shade that’s rarely seen,
Aroon’ us a’, jus’ perfect an’ pristine,
But aye, we’ll change it
By end o’ Day we’ll tak’ its calm serene
An’ re-arrange it.

I watch the mist that puffs oot frae ma’ moo’
The mornin’ cauld, grass glintin’ wae the dew
Then gallops on a flag o’ purest blue,
Wi’silver cross
We cheer, call “King!” an’ swear anew
For England’s loss.

Sword heavy, jammed in belt pulled tight
Axe ready, sharpened, shinin’ bright
Face paintit, an unco rachit sight
We stand an’ cheer
In front, the hale o’ bloody England’s might
We’ll end it here.

We wait oor turn, an’ watch the conflict lour
We ken that soon will be the mighty hour
That chargin’ doon the hillside Scottish power
Will win the day
Tae see the English cut an’ run an’ cower
We’ll hold the sway

I reach the foe an’ cut him doon wi’ swing o’ sword
I hack him up an’ doon wi’oot a word
Nae care o’ favour if he’s serf or Lord
An’ none expectit
I tak’ the work of the almighty God
An’ aye but wreck it

I swing ma axe in arcs aboon ma heid
An’ crash an’ slice, until he’s doon or deid
Stomp onward, an’ on the a’ the violence feed
I drink ma fill
Then suddenly we reach the end o’ oor stampede
An’ a’ is still

Silence fa’s like blankets thrown upon the bed
The moans o’ strangers that we cut an’ bled
The field no green, but stained an eerie dirty red
In English Blood
An’ thankfu’ still alive, an’ no' lyin' dead
Gi thanks tae God.

Robert Bruce, 23-24th June, 1314, Field of Bannockburn, Near Stirling, Scotland... "They fought like Warrior Poets!"

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Whovians: Doctor Who- Not Very Confidential

NOTE: As every good author should, I generally avoid confusing lingo-ism here on the blog.  The astute reader will see that I am making an exception in this case and refer to "Whovians" without any explanatory preamble.  I chose to do this because, frankly, you have to BE one to appreciate the amazing revelation I am about to proclaim...

Okay, Whovians, we all like our Doctor, don’t we?  We get invested not only in the character and the show, but the actor too. David Tennant found his Shakespearian works in FAR greater demand with the 18-40 crowd after he’d achieved his Whovian fame, and we can’t just attribute that to his looks.
The Doctors become more than just faces, more than just an interesting actor doing interesting things. We become fans. Slowly and surely.

I’m a Scot in the center of America, and I’ve seen it happen in the last five years. When I arrived here in 2001, few had even heard of Doctor Who. Now my American family all watch, and I can only assume from the constant stream of heretofore obscure British Who actors on US evening chat shows that it's  happening all over the country.

Who is YOUR favorite Doctor? Leave a comment below, lets take a poll;)

As avid fans, we crave every new Doctor Who facet we discover. We watch episodes multiple times, we have Whovian Series marathons, trying to leech every possible second of emotion from the screen. We track long plot arcs like junkies, and we whine like spoiled children when the series ends.
Do you know what we need?  We need a loan of The Doctor's T.A.R.D.I.S., we need to go back in time to January 2005, take a small camera, magically get a piece of telepathic paper to prove we’re authorized to be on the film set, and film a ‘behind-the-scenes’ show for each episode. YES, one show for each episode. We need on-the-set interviews, we need to shoot the TV show as it’s filmed, we need a Doctor Who back door.

Now to those who are already familiar with Doctor Who Confidential, (DWC) this is old hat. But to the new fans all over the world, who had to beg borrow or steal our new episodes, this is a great idea.

OKAY: time to stop teasing… and you knew what I’m going to say…. It’s already been done!
(hint, stay tuned to the end of the post for examples and links)

In the UK, back in 2005, after the airing of every new episode on BBC1, the British fans got a very personal message; "Now turn to BBC3 to get a behind-the-scenes look at tonight's episode"
Series 1 and 2 had a full 30 minute behind-the-scenes episode. It was so popular they extended it to 45 minutes in season 3.

They didn’t throttle the budget looking for a suitable narrator-
  • DWC Series 1 starred Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead, and the Editor in the Long Game, DW series 1 episode 7)
  • DWC; Series 2 starred Mark Gatiss (The League of Gentleman and Doctor Who on radio)
  • DWC; Series 3 and 4 starred Anthony Head (Buffy, Vampire Slayer and Mister Finch in School Reunion DW series 2, episode 17)
  • DWC; Series 5, perhaps suffering from budget cuts saw Alex Price, a BBC Doctor Who voice actor doing the narration.
  • DWC; Series 6, the last to actually have a DWC, starred Russel Tovey, who had been considered for the Eleventh Doctor, before Matt Smith was decided upon. (He starred in Being Human, and as Midshipman Alonso Frame in the 2009-10 Doctor Who Christmas special, The End of Time)

After Series 6, because of budget cuts, they scrapped the show. The fans went mental, (a Brittish-ism for going crazy, also known as potty, la-la, doo-lally) After the huge protest, BBC transferred all future content to the Doctor Who website.

Anyway… to those who have not seen it, the show is eye-poppingly good. Just like I said above; interviews, silly trivia, cast shots, production stuff, editors notes, directors notes, and film from the run thru’s the read thru’s and the actual weekly meetings with techies and cast. It didn’t matter that they looked behind the scenes. It didn’t matter that they debunked the ‘truth’ behind the filming.
The show was called; Doctor Who Confidential, it played once after each episode, the BBC made a tentative effort to put it un dvd, and was promptly forgotten.

But not by us. The poor exiles of the British Isles, who download in the dead of night, who swap ‘Whovian’ discs in smoky cafés. The outcast/unclean pariahs who, although we still call ourselves ‘British’, haven’t had sausage and chips from a real chippie in thirty years. And then there are the poor foreign followers, who struggle to understand the show in the original English. It doesn't matter the method by which we watch...we’re all fans. All want to see this MEGA find. This richly veined seam of television gold.

I mean, I consider myself a fan, and I just found it in 2013. I mean, where was I for almost a decade?
Some of the shows on Youtube have only a few thousand hits. Every fan I encounter looks at me in utter disbelief when I tell them about the show. Then runs from my presence and for some reason has a sudden two week illness from work.

So… Doctor Who Confidential? Where can we find it?

Well first, here's a sample that you can watch right from my blog- featuring one of the best programmes EVER in Sci-Fi ~ "Blink" !

How do you find your own from here? Simple…
Search for "Doctor Who Confidential", and enjoy your evenings for a few weeks. I don’t think that every episode is up there, but it’s close. And because it’s not exactly, Doctor Who, the BBC hasn’t tried to ban it or rip it from the web. Go and watch the three doctors being just ordinary blokes, determined to enjoy every minute of being the world’s oldest sci-fi goodie.

Go to…
And search for the whole experience; series lists, links to play the programs, trivia too numerous to mention here, and more.

BUT BEFORE YOU GO…… Become a ‘follower’ of my blog…
Because very soon, I’ll tell you all about…. TORCHWOOD CONFIDENTIAL!
And don't be afraid, why not suggest new blog posts for me to investigate?

Monday, June 17, 2013

A Connecticut Vampire in King Arthur’s Court

Welcome to a new series of Blog posts; Excerpts from my new work in progress- A Connecticut Vampire in King Arthur’s Court.

Although these will not tell the story exhaustively, they will hopefully let you know how the story is progressing and how our hero, Richard DeVere, is coping.  Bear in mind that because this is a work-in-progress, it is the ‘rough draft’, straight off the pen version, unedited, no re-writes here.

I’ll start at page one…

Chapter 1
Unknown date, Bedchamber
Never being known for any outward bursts of emotion, I pressed my back against the cold stone wall. Sweating, I panted quietly, allowing my breathing to return to as close to normal as my current circumstances would allow. The room before me lay dimly lit, only by a duet of candles either side of the rather grand bed. Apart from two antique drawer units, the room lay bare. I did the usual anti-panic measures; I pinched myself, I slapped my cheek lightly, then I spoke.


Everything seemed perfectly normal. Except, of course, that seconds before I had been spiraling in mortal combat with my enemy, Keith Cornwall; two vampires in a fight to the death. I’d crossed his path too many times to underestimate his hatred for me, and I had decided to fight this time, get it all over with. Either he’d win or I, he’d pissed me off far too many times in the last four years not to get a definite outcome.

But it seemed Keith and I were fairly evenly matched. In the end, with neither gaining the advantage in a kind of bear hug, we’d begun to spin. And vampires can move pretty fast. In fact, we’d been spinning so rapidly, my head still felt light and disorientated. Now here I was, alone in a cold, dark bedroom.

I took a step towards the light, and was alarmed by the loud crunching of my cowboy boots on the straw strewn on the smooth stone floor. Stone, not tile. Sensing movement outside the room, I stopped to listen and heard footfalls outside the door. I flattened myself against the wall again, sidling towards the darker corner, my boot soles again scraping against the stone.

The door burst open, and a gangly teenage boy raced in aiming himself at the bed, his long nightshirt trailing after him like a milky Superman cape.

“I shan’t write another letter, I shan’t!” he screamed, landing with a considerable thump on the bedding.

Considering the advances in mattress manufacture, I could have made some recommendations. I mean, this bed just didn’t give anything under his aerial assault.

An arm stretched inside the room, and pulled the door closed. “Goodnight your highness.”

Oh boy, not only a cold dark bedroom, but a brat to contend with.

“Me solum relinquatis!” he yelled over his shoulder at the closed door.

Wow, that surprised me for a comeback. I know Latin when I hear it. When I was eighteen, I’d done a year’s work placement at a lawyers firm in my home town of Hartford, Connecticut, and although I didn’t know what he’d said, it had sounded good.

Then he began muttering under his breath, his hands tightly clasped. I assumed he was praying, then he confirmed it by rolling over onto his back and crossing himself. With a petulant aimed breath at each candle, he threw the room into total darkness.  In minutes, the sounds of light snoring drifted across the void....

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Father's Day: A Tale of Two Scots Lyrics

Dad and me, Victoria Street, Gorebridge, 1962 (Tattie Raw)
He met the world as a Dalkeith boy,
Raised from a shaft at Monktonhall
In a well-oiled cage,
That locked away his dreams.
The song, Lucky was written by Dalkieth boy Fish (of Marillion fame) and has always been a favorite of mine.

My dad was raised in Gorebridge, just a few miles from Dalkeith, and his shaft wasn’t at Monktonhall Colliery, but nearer home; at the deep coal mine called the Lady Victoria. I’ve been in the cages of both mines, and know the darkness that creeps into your psyche as the human elevator descends, sending you into the depths of the earth. Each journey down, like visiting Hell for eight hours. Conditions underground sapped your strength, your health, and your hunger for life. The dust killed your lungs, and your respiratory system. My dad worked for the National Coal Board all his life; from boyhood fifteen to a jaded fifty-two, when he retired early.

I’m not sure, however, that the cage ever locked my Dad’s dreams away. He was born in 1933, and was a young boy through the Second World War. Times were hard, rationing lasted many years after Hitler took the poisoned capsule, and life went on.

Gorebridge Primary School Class Photo, 1945. My Dad is the one on the lower right.

Dad married Mum in 1957, but they stayed in the same village. It’s where my brother and I were born. Mum and Dad both lived all their adult lives there; very static, very ordinary, almost boring. They both died in the same house they’d been allocated when they were in their twenties. They’d been happy to stay there for almost fifty years.

So, you see; I’m not sure if dad had any unrequited dreams at all. Give him a fishing rod by the side of a river, or a comfy chair and a John Wayne film to watch, or stick him in his greenhouse, and he was as happy as a proverbial pig in clover. We grew tomatoes, and by all my recollection we supplied half the neighborhood. We reaped the harvest of his innate generosity in unusual ways. I still remember the night we got pheasants from the gamekeeper at Yair Bridge on the river Tweed (I think there was more than tomatoes involved here, I seem to remember a bottle of whiskey or two...). Dad was delighted at his prize, anticipating a wonderful home cooked version of "pheasant under glass". We hung the birds up in the greenhouse to mature, and we went to work the next day. When we arrived home dad went to check on the birds to find they had disappeared. Imagine his chagrin when he discovered Mum had thrown them in the trash, saying they "stunk tae high heaven!"

The Hall Men: Me, Brother Kevin, and Dad  (with longsuffering Mum, Kathy)

I mulled these thoughts around in my head for a day or two as I thought about writing a Father's Day post about my dad. Then yesterday afternoon, the day before Father’s Day, I was outside in my Kansas garden and working to tie my tomato plants to canes. I caught an unmistakable whiff of 'tomato plant' from my fingers and BAM!  I was back in Dad’s Alton greenhouse in Gorebridge, aged about ten. Back in those days, it was my job to water, feed, and to pollinate the flowers by ‘tickling’ them with a rabbits tail. I spent a lot of time in Dad's greenhouse.

Lyrics swept into my head, The Living Years by Mike and the Mechanics. The song was written by Mike Rutherford (Genesis) and B.A. Robertson, who’d both recently lost their dads.

I wasn't there that morning when my Father passed away
I didn't get to tell him all the things I had to say
I had moved to America before Dad died, and I wasn’t there the day that he passed, so the words were poignant and oh so fitting. I smelled the tomato on my fingers again, just to feel the memory, just to feel the tears roll down my cheeks, just to remember him.

So, I’ll remember the smell of tomato plants on my fingers, John Wayne films, and the feel of a trout on the line, and as I do so… I’ll remember Dad.

A collection of my memories of Gorebridge, available in all eBooks

Now, due to the demand of my friends still in Scotland, available in paperback on Amazon.

Friday, June 14, 2013

A 'Braveheart' for Every Nation

Despite its historical inaccuracies, the 1995 movie  Braveheart  has always been my favorite ‘Scottish’ Film. Yes, I know, it missed out on details- but what it lost in the minutia, it made up for in passion. I shake my head at the Irish accents and ignore the silly throwaway dialogue, instead I focus on my gut. I feel the movie rather than watch it. I feel the passion that drives the story to the last scenes. I shiver as poor Sir William Wallace dies; hung, drawn and quartered for all of Christendom to see. A wee tear shimmers to the surface of my tough old een as Wallace floats back to ‘Bonnie Scotland’ to join his resurrected true love, Mirren (spoken with as much ‘R’ rolling as my quivering Celtic tongue can permit).

Driven with nationalistic passion rather than historical accuracy,  Braveheart becomes more than just a movie; it typifies a whole genre. And although I will use Randall Wallace's title as nomenclature for this genre I am proclaiming, it certainly wasn't the first example.

In 1959, the year I was born, a huge undertaking began in the Cinecittà Studios on the outskirts of Rome, Italy. I don’t know whether to list Ben Hur as a Jewish Braveheart, or a biblical one encompassing the entire Judeo-Christian tradition. However you cut the cake, you end up with a sprawling three and a half hour epic that still is unrivalled. It only cost $15 million to make, but cashed over $140 million at the box office. And, trust me, a tenfold profit is real good money.

Ben Hur won an amazing eleven Oscars, a feat not to be equaled until Titanic and Lord of the Rings, four decades later. Considering the ultimate status of the film, it's quite incredible how many top actors turned down the juicy lead role… Burt Lancaster, Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, Rock Hudson, and Leslie Nielsen. Kirk Douglas, keen to star, felt snubbed in favor of Charlton Heston, and this inspired Douglas to force Spartacus into production.

Fifty thousand extras were cast in Ben Hur. YES! I said 50,000. This will never be replicated. Ben Hur will forever sit at the pinnacle of the Braveheart genre; the shining city on the hill for all to aim at. And who can forget that white haired Scotsman, Finlay Currie as both Balthasar and the great narrator’s voice?

In 1960, Italy threw their hero Spartacus into the Braveheart ring. With Kirk Douglas in the exciting lead role, Britons Tony Curtis, Laurence Olivier,  and Peter Ustinov headlined a dazzling cast. Anthony Mann was originally hired to direct, but was fired after the first week, which paved the way for a young Stanley Kubrick to take over. Ouch! With a cast of over ten thousand, and a budget of $12 million, it was the year’s biggest hit, grossing $60 million at the box office. It would be a long time before the Roman Empire would inspire another Braveheart.

In El Cid just a year later, Spain’s own voyage into the Braveheart genre cast Charlton Heston again in the lead role. Who can forget the closing scenes with Charlton riding along the Peñíscola beach, his corpse tied to his horse, inspiring his nation to rout the infidels from Europe. El Cid was one of the last true spectaculars, filmed in 1961 at a paltry cost of six million dollars, yet grossing five times that amount with a gorgeous Sophia Loren as the love interest. Just two years after Heston's appearance in the epic of Ben Hur, it would have appeared to investors as a guaranteed winner.

In true epic fashion, Anthony Mann’s El Cid involved 7,000 extras, 10,000 costumes, 35 ships, and 50 outsize engines of medieval warfare.

In 1962, Greece was the next country to showcase its national heroes; 300 Spartans depicted the Battle of Thermopylae, Spartan warriors against the might of Persia. A very young Frank Miller (the Comic Artist who wrote 300, adapted into a major film in 2007) saw the movie and said "it changed the course of my creative life".

A decade later, in 1970, England took nationalism to a whole new level. Cromwell was a terrific effort to show the complicated plot arcs of the English Civil War. At a cost of just $8 million, it cast Richard Harris as Oliver Cromwell, and smashed all records for ‘extras’ in a British film. Yes, it dodged the truth; yes it threw facts to the wind. But it held an audience, rooted into history, and that’s what counts… isn’t it? Plus, it gave work to so many English actors, Richard Harris, Alec Guinness, Timothy Dalton, Patrick Magee, Nigel Stock, and so on….. forever.

The same year, 1970, saw a coalition of Soviets/Italians release its own ‘French’ film in the Braveheart genre. Waterloo featured Rod Steiger as the Emperor Napoleon and Christopher Plummer as the Duke of Wellington. Yup, they met at Waterloo, and kicked lumps out of each other until some Prussians arrived, when they decided to call it a day, and wondered how they’d killed a hundred thousand men. In a single day.

In Waterloo, 15,000 infantry of the Russian Army acted out the main parts, with 2,000 cavalry. At the time, the film had the seventh biggest army in the world. But names like Orson Welles, and Jack Hawkins and the Russian Army don’t come cheap, and the film/movie cost $35 million for its two hours on screen. It would never recoup half of it.

Unless any of you can recall similarly veined tomes, the next twenty years were slightly barren as far as far as our newly designated Braveheart genre is concerned. The historic hero seemed to have fallen out of fashion. This is possibly due to the rise of the cinematic adoration for imaginary heroes like Superman and Batman (but dont get me started..superheros-Bah, humbug!)  I credit Braveheart itself for resurrecting the genre in 1995, and thus don't feel as guilty for the genre's naming.

In 1999, France decided it was time to honor a brave heart of it's own and The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, was released. It attempted stardom, but for many reasons fell hopelessly short. Stars were dispatched to remote locations to film the ‘one true’ version of Joan of Arc; Milla Jovovich, John Malkovich, Faye Dunaway, and a cameo by Dustin Hoffman led a cast that also involved named British actors too numerous to mention. Some famous faces never spoke a word on screen. I cannot imagine the depth of cuttings that lay on that editing floor. Despite the most terrific medieval siege warfare scenes I’ve ever seen on film, it cost $85 million to produce, and never made a ‘sous’ of profit. I still say that Milla’s role was deep, engaging, and worth every second she appeared on the screen. But the role was not critically acclaimed, unfairly winning her a ‘Raspberry Worst Actress’ nomination. Academy Awards? Whatever!

The United States of America’s found it's own Braveheart hero the next year. Mel Gibson's Benjamin Martin rushed through autumnal forests with his tomahawks in hand, dispatching redcoats willy-nilly. The Patriot  took $110 million to produce, but grossed more than double the amount. Like Braveheart, it gave a nonchalant nod to  historical accuracy, but relied on the passion of the film to carry the day... and great performances by Gibson, Heath Ledger and Jason Isaacs. Again, like Braveheart, it caught hold of the gut of the indigenous population. It worked.

The Roman Empire finally returned to the genre when Gladiator hit the world’s screens in 2000. Costing $103 million, it was a risk. But director Ridley Scott created a masterpiece, and lead man Russell Crowe stole the show, making it the proverbial box office smash. Again, there was an inescapable British influence: Richard Harris as a dying Emperor and consummate performances  by Derek Jacobi and Oliver Reed spread over the piece like honey over Graham Crackers. Oliver Reed died during filming, and they used a body double, and $3 million of special effects to put Reed’s face posthumously onto the screen.

Even the Mayans had their own Braveheart. Apocalypto, filmed by Mel Gibson in 2006 cost $40 million, but grossed three times that. (Is anyone seeing a Mel Gibson pattern here?) It’s a super movie/film that deserves a widescreen showing and a good surround sound turned way up loud.

Creative expression of  ethnic pride is of course nothing new.  William Shakespeare started the ball rolling: his plays are lacking in historical fact, yet steeped in nationalistic fervor, with Richard III, Henry V, and Macbeth as prime examples. But if he rolled the original ball, others have picked it up and run far... Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped, Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, and Daniel Defoe's Three Musketeers to name but a few.

YES! There’s room for more Braveheart films. Every nation should have at least one. Throw the facts out with the bathwater, as long as it gets our blood boiling, it's fine by me. Bring them on.


NOTE: As always, I would love to hear your thoughts, opinions, (corrections, plaudits??) on all of the above.  Feel free to leave a comment in the section below!

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Doctor Who meets Dracula- a Time-Travelling Vampire

I never really intended to write any of my novels. I just started writing, and a sentence became a short story, then the short story became a chapter, then, a few years/months later, out popped a book into the cradling arms of its daddy- me!

hmm, perhaps we could get David Tennant for the title role?

On the other hand, when I began  A Connecticut Vampire in King Arthur’s Court  I had a complete goal in my mind. Not only a novel, but a trilogy- plot lines, titles, everything. It wasn’t like me at all. 
I had the ‘hook’- The title's play on Mark Twain's original time travel novel would spark attention.

I had the genre- Time travelling vampire; Doctor Who meets Dracula, a Bram Stoker’s Sam Beckett gone haywire.

I had the reluctant flawed character, racked with guilt, needing to squeeze revenge out of the situation. On his own, out of his depth, and no vampire buddies to fall back on.

Most importantly, I had the ‘history’…The deeply researched rich tapestry of Tudor England, with a twist; I was telling the story of a Prince that most people didn’t know; Prince Arthur, eldest son of Henry the Seventh, big brother of Henry the Eighth, and first husband of Catherine of Aragon. Called Arthur as a throwback to England’s glorious mythical ages, he was a boy born to unite two warring factions in England. A unifying entity to end the bitter rivalries of the War of the Roses. He ended up being neither.
From the first line I threw my character in at the deep end.  A time-travelling vampire, thrown back five hundred and twelve years and a quarter of the earth’s diameter. Completely immersing myself in the project, in my first day I wrote 2000 words. I followed that pace for at least another ten days before faltering.

I wrote the entire 68,500 words in 51 days. I knew the punishing pace would be difficult at times, but little did I know it would be so much fun! I loved every page of it, and couldn’t keep the baby to myself.
I stopped. I had a day off. Then I sat the next morning, wondering what to write, and another 2000 words fell from my digitalized pen. Then another 2000. I’m five days into book two, A Connecticut Vampire in Queen Mary’s Court, and have already crossed the 10,000 word barrier. I’ve set myself a target: a trilogy in six months.

We all have stories in our heads. We all have time to sit at the computer. We all wonder if we’ll ever get published, if we’ll ever get discovered, if we’ll ever get famous. But we won’t find any of the above if we don’t write. And don’t think ‘luck’ is all you need.
Samuel Goldwyn once said; “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” As I sit at my computer tomorrow morning, churning out my next 2000 words, I’ll pray that I’ll get luckier too.

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