Dark clouds in Bohemia



The wind ruffles the surface of the Tepla River in southern Bohemia, Czech Republic, just before the dark clouds roll in—very similar to my 2011 short story, Dark Clouds: The Mandrake Ruse.

Elmore Leonard said “never open with the weather.” But he never said anything about opening with his admonition against opening with the weather.

Another writer’s rule is to avoid clichés like the plague. I guess I’m going to break that rule, too.

Opening with the weather

Last month, my wife and I travelled to the Czech Republic. On our last night there, we had supper on a patio overlooking the Tepla River in southern Bohemia. Darkness came early, presaging a summer storm.

We had thankfully finished our dinner and were enjoying the last of our wine when I looked up and across the river. Dark clouds had covered most of the sky, but under them, a lighter-coloured cloud was moving fast, like a carpet unrolling—straight toward us.

The ragged edges of the cloud reached for us, some like ragged fringes, others like grasping tendrils of an undersea predator.

The sight unnerved everyone on the patio that night—not just my wife and me, but also the group from Poland at the table next to us. I could see gusts ruffling the river’s surface into flotillas of tiny ripples that dashed from one strand to the other.

Life imitates art

The second work of fiction I published was called “Dark Clouds: The Mandrake Ruse.” There’s a scene where the heroes see a dark cloud moving fast toward them, across the sky. When the cloud reaches the protagonists, the son and daughter-in-law of the Witch Queen, it throws up a storm of dust and pebbles, blinding and stinging the couple.

In Bohemia that night in June, the strange dark cloud continued to unravel over our heads—but if it had been unrolling, the rolling motion was counter to the movement of the overall cloud, itself.

When it hit us, the wind whipped a napkin off my lap and a glass bottle off the table. My wife stood up to move indoors, and her chair flew off the patio, landing three metres away, then sliding down three stone steps.

The wait staff reacted immediately, picking up napkins and cutlery and small items, sweeping up broken glass before the wind scattered the pieces. We guests retreated indoors and watched the clouds come lower and closer.

Then the rain hit like surf crashing on a beach. When the lightning began, it illuminated the forested tops of the rides and hills surrounding the hotel. It continued flashing for hours, light filling the dark hotel room, providing entertainment unmatched by any summer blockbusters.

Living what I write

It was a memorable moment, a memorable night. Even my wife said “It’s like your story, ‘Dark Clouds.'”

It’s always been important to me that my writing is as realistic, as believable as possible. That’s why I do so much research about the settings of my stories and the history behind them. It’s why I describe little details about the places, the furniture, the light and, yes, the weather. It helps put the reader into the story, helps them understand and, ultimately, experience the story.

Because that’s why readers enjoy books: they take the audience out of their everyday reality, and allows them, in a small way at least, to experience the exotic, the fantastic or the downright impossible.

So when something happens to me that echoes so closely what I described six years ago, I have to admit—it’s gratifying.

When has your life reflected art?

Tell me about something that happened to you that seemed to echo something you read or saw in a book, film, song or picture. Leave your description in the Comments.

Happy 150 Canada



 

Image courtesy University of the Fraser Valley

And Happy Independence Day, USA

Today is the 150th anniversary of the Confederation of Canada, the day when three British colonies in North America became the first four provinces of Canada. Ultimately, after a lot of arguing and angst, it led to what the world now sees as Canada, stretching across the top half of North America.

Some personal images in celebration of Canada 150. Here is one of the few of my pictures to survive my trip down the whitewater Missinaibi and Moose Rivers to Moose Factory last summer, at the put-in. That’s a monument to the early explorers of the fur trade route.

And in three days, Canada’s neighbour to the south (mostly, but there’s also Alaska to the west), the United States holds its annual celebration of its declaration of independence from Britain.

The close association of the two days always prompts comparisons between the histories and cultures of the two countries, and I won’t belabour them here.

But it is a good time to consider our history, and as many people, particularly Canada’s first peoples are pointing out, not all of it is wonderful.

Yes, Canada presents itself as the happy, nice country. And for the most part, that’s true. We are, today, vocally and for the most part tolerant, open, accepting and supportive. We have a good social safety net, public health care, liberty of conscience and religion and speech. We have strong public education and equal opportunity—mostly—for all.

But we do have flaws, and the U.S. does, too, and it is important to recognize these on our annual national day. Despite our claims of equality for all, Indigenous people in Canada (and the U.S.) still do not enjoy the same opportunities, rights or standard of living of most of us—certainly they do not receive what Canada promises. Hundreds of Indigenous communities across the country have not had clean drinking water for decades.

The status of women in Canada and the U.S. still lags behind that of men. Visible minorities do not get the same treatment from society, business and even institutions as white Canadians and Americans. We may not feel comfortable about that, we may wish all were equal, we may be striving mightily to achieve true equality for all, but we have to admit that things are not ideal.

Time to celebrate

But today, and Tuesday, are days to celebrate what is good about our countries. It’s time to be happy, to appreciate what our respective countries do for each of us, and what we can do for our fellow citizens.

We have to acknowledge the mistakes of the past, so we can redress them and avoid repeating them. But a day like the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the current country—which is a wonderful place to live for most of the people here—is a time to look forward to how we can make it even better.

Here are some more of my photos of this country.

An iconic Canadian image: Lake Louise in Banff National Park.

Another iconic Canadian image: Moraine Lake in Banff, the image that used to be on the back of our $10 bill.

 

A picture of my two sons in front of Lake Louise about nine years ago.

Some of the inukshuk sculptures in the Ottawa River last summer.

A collection of Canadian images just would not be complete without a shot of the Rideau Canal in Ottawa.

I could not resist publishing this one: the 13-year-old Super Nicolas standing on a glacier, halfway up the mountain — as far as it was safe to go without mountain climbing equipment — above Lake Louise.

Rapids on the Dumoine River in western Quebec.

Along the Mattawa River in northern Ontario.

And what would a Canadian photo collection be without a picture of a grizzly bear?

Happy birthday!

Travel, beauty and writing



Tyn Church in Prague

The Gothic-era Tyn Church in Prague’s Old Square, fronted by newer buildings that now make up its entrance.

People often say travel broadens you. It opens your mind and your heart to new ideas, exposes you to different cultures and people, and tends to make you more accepting of differences.

For me, travel is also inspiring—literally. When I travel, I often get new ideas for stories and novels. These can be sparked by people I see and meet, buildings, streets, forests, coastlines—just about anything.

I recently returned from a visit to Prague and the Czech Republic. If you have been, you’ll know how beautiful that capital city is. If you haven’t been, you should put it on your list of places to visit.

The Astronomical Clock in Prague’s Old Square, built in 1410.

Prague itself is an arrangement of architecture that, for at least 700 years, has intended to embrace the current styles, yet fit in with the established buildings. As one of the travel guides points out, you can stand in the Old Square and see architecture of the Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Art Deco periods. And you don’t have to walk far to find later examples — the Cubist house of the Black Madonna is just steps from the square.

At least in the centre of the city, it’s hard to find a building that’s strictly functional—almost all are beautiful in some way.

The Municipal Hall is too prosaic a name for this Art Nouveau building on the National Square, home of two concert halls, including Smetana Hall.

Inspiration

Walking through a city that’s new to me gets my imagination going. It’s easy to think of the beginnings of stories, more like dramatic situations. But in Prague, I came up with more of a feeling or a theme than a plotline. The juxtaposition of buildings from every era of the past 700 years points to a Prague characteristic: its continual embracing of the modern while honouring, and making full use of tradition.

It brought to mind a kind of story of two people in a relationship, who are both trying to solve the same problem: one from a 21st-century approach, based in science and technology; and the other taking an older, more traditional perspective informed by psychology and religion.

This building is the home of the Hotel Paris in central Prague.

Prague has always been known as a music-loving city. Mozart loved Prague, and Prague loved him back. Today, you can find street performers at almost any time, any place—and theyre really good. These guys called themselves the De Facto String Quartet, and played a version of Stairway to Heaven that sounded terrific.

I don’t know what the problem will be, yet, nor what the plot points are. But I have the characters worked out. And it will definitely be set in Prague.

As if the architecture, art and music arent inspiring enough, Prague has immortalized its favourite native-born author, Franz Kafka, with this metallic scupture of his head. The sections rotate independently, according to some program that occasionally lines them up to reveal the writer’s likeness.

Prague really likes Kafka! This statue is in the Josefov area, the old Jewish Quarter. Maybe the head was taken for the sculpture in the previous picture.

I’ll keep you informed.

In the meantime, why not leave a comment sharing places that inspire you, and why?

Inspiration from the natural world



The Canadian Shield. Trees down to the water’s edge.
I’ve made it back from the wilderness!
A typical “Canadian sunset” picture.

Actually, I’ve been back for three days now, and it wasn’t that wild. While the Mattawa is significant as part of the original “river highway” of Canada, used by the fur traders as part of the route from Montreal to the Great Lakes, today it’s paralleled by a highway, dammed and is home to many summer cottages.
A rapids on a small stream as it enters the Mattawa.
Still, it’s an inspiring landscape, evoking thoughts not only of the early days of European exploration of North America and the founding of Canada, but also of far older civilizations (Algonquin, Ojibwa, etc.), and of the deep power of the Earth itself. 
The Stepping Stones reach about halfway across the river as it leaves Trout Lake.

I find these pictures spark ideas for stories and essays. What about you? Can you attach a story, or at least the beginning of a story to any of these pictures? Share in the Comments section if you can.

Into the near(ly) wild



As this post goes live, I’m on the highway toward North Bay, Ontario, to begin a canoe trip down the Mattawa River. It’s going to include some white water, a few short portages and more white water, all in the great Canadian wilderness.
Actually, it’s not all that wild. There are provincial campsites all along the stretch of river, the route is marked and mapped, the portages are long established and marked, and there is human habitation, even towns, along the way. We’ll even be within cell phone range for most, if not all of the trip.
 
The pictures here are from that trip with Super Nicolas and the Rovers. They’ll give you an idea of the kind of territory I’ll be going through, and maybe inspire you, too.
 

 
Talk to you next week.

You know what a Peligro is, only you just didn’t know what to call it.



Are you ready for Danger? Today is the launch of Danger Peligros, the new collection of true adventure tales by the No Map Nomads, Autumn Birt and Adam Paul.

Whether by boot, by (motor)bike, by boat, or by whatever it takes, Raven and Weifarer will take you along to experience trips from sublime to nearly disastrous. With serendipity tucked into the saddlebags along with some capricious Peligros, every turn leads to the unexpected.

This book includes the complete story arc to Cruise Ship Mutiny, the Cabot Trail on motorcycle, memories of the first motorbike trip to Canada (in October no less), hikes on tropical islands and much more.

What are Peligros?

They are the best and the worst of your day, travel, life. They are what draws us out from safe and comfy homes – the little itches that make such abodes feel too confining, too much the same. They are the essence of that moment when everything has gone horribly wrong and you are left thankful to be alive with parts that still add up to a functional whole. They are that moment when someone you don’t know lends you an unexpected, warm hand. They are when your luck goes from nonexistent to good, because you wouldn’t need good luck if things hadn’t looked scary for a time, now would you?

You know what a Peligro is, only you just didn’t know what to call it.

Raven and I have been traveling since we met on Martha’s Vineyard oh-so-many years ago now. From those early days barely surviving learning to sail on Vineyard Sound to more recent motorcycle trips through the Canadian Maritimes, we’ve had our share of trouble and of luck. Danger Peligros! collects some of those stories of our misadventures so that when you follow a Peligro out the door, you might be a little better informed!

Get Danger Peligros on Amazon: www.amazon.com/dp/B00AGVD2XU

Get Danger Peligros from Smashwords: www.smashwords.com/books/view/261152


 

A sample Danger Peligro:

Serendipity and the Accordion Music Festival

A free-wheeling motorcycle excursion through Quebec takes a turn for the worse when we end up in the midst of an accordion music festival.


In the brief pause as the musician walks to a different section of the restaurant, Raven’s shoulders loosen. He takes a bite of his dinner and whispers a hopeful “Maybe he is done?” It is not to be. The accordion breathes in with a jolly hum before being launched into a frolicking melody. Soon everyone in the restaurant is clapping and singing along in French.

Everyone except us, that is. My French is workable at the speed of molasses. Raven’s usage relates to food. Exuberant Quebecois songs sung to an accordion are not in our repertoire. “Just try to relax and enjoy it.” After seven years of marriage, I can read the look Raven gives me over his pasta without the need to speak above the accordion’s notes. Clearly I do not understand his view of reality. I know he hates loud noises — unless he is the cause of them. But everyone else is having a good time. The musician is pretty good for playing on an accordion. “Let’s just eat and get out of here.” I sigh and nod. Really, I doubt that will help.

Our tendency to not have a plan while riding our motorcycles had landed us in the thick of it this time. By afternoon when we stopped our meanderings to check the map only one town close to us was listed as having a campground: Montmagny. It was Labor Day weekend, but traffic had been light all along the roads of inner Quebec. Prospects looked good for serendipity to smooth things over once again.

That is until we queued in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the way into Montmagny. All of it seemed to be headed toward the only campground. RVs, tents, and campers were stuffed double to a space inside the chain link enclosure. Oddly, at the time we still hadn’t figured out what was going on. Instead, we were enraptured by an historic motorcycle museum’s advertisement we discovered while waiting in line at the campground office.

You don’t need to know much French to figure out when a campground is full. The kid behind the register shook his head. Dismay weighed on my shoulders. Whatever was going on was a big deal and I doubted we would find any campgrounds open for miles. Then the teenage boy looked at us again, a light in his eyes. “Pas électrique? Pas l’eau? ± No electric? No water?”

“Oui, une tente pour un nuit — Yes, one tent for one night.” His smile grew a little larger. “Attend ici — Wait here.” He ran off. It took a few minutes, but our plight was shared. The desire to help was strong and we were shown to a spot outside of the full enclosure. We got a patch of grass next to the closed pool. By the time we were set up and ready to head into town for dinner, there were a few other campers in tents along the pool fence as well.

We followed the foot traffic back into town, finally noticing the signs: World Heritage Accordion Music Festival. I had never given accordion music a thought, but Raven apparently had. His eyes were popping out of his head. We spent quite a bit of time studying menus for cheap fare and checking out exactly how many accordion musicians were located inside the establishment. The Italian restaurant and ice cream stand called Bistro LeFontaine had looked safe. Until five minutes after sitting down the apparently late minstrel arrived.

Now Raven’s jaw is clenched too tight for him to eat. His blue eyes hold a glaze of desperation over the angst. Chance and luck have turned tails up. I don’t see the world from his perspective where loud sounds are jarring and crowds pressing, but I know when he has had enough. Something is going to have to give. And then the musician walks to our section.

He meets Raven’s distressed gaze, sweeps over my defeated shoulders and starts to speak in French. I only catch about half of what he says, but what I understand surprises me to my core. He explains to the crowd that the jubilant notes are not to our fancy and he is going to play a different tune, just for us. He launches into Stray Cat Strut.

I’ve never heard jazz on an accordion, so I have nothing with which to compare that serenade. After remembering to close my jaw, Raven and I share a nervous smile. Then we are laughing, closing our eyes to smooth notes that hum like smoked brandy, even on an accordion. Everyone applauds the rendition, a few giving us smiles and happy nods. We blush and smile back. The musician moves on.

It isn’t really serendipity or fate that guides us on our journey. Deep down, we know we can rely on each other. More than that, when we have taken a wrong turn and fallen short of hopes we have always been gifted with kindness. Strangers have read our plight in the lines of our faces when our words could not be translated. Such experience has removed the fear of the unknown and turned us into seekers of the out of the way path.

Before we leave the restaurant, we buy ice cream cones with sprinkles to accompany us on our music filled walk back to the campground. It is apparently going to be a late night for the festival. But from our corner of the campground by the pool, it is mostly an odd mixture of notes and laughter floating above the St. Lawrence. Our whimsical method of choosing routes has landed us in a myriad of odd places from lunch spots next to closed asylums with torrid histories, a Beetles playing guitar group around a campfire on a pebble beach, and now an accordion music festival. Oddly enough, it’s all been good.

Note from Raven: Yes, it’s true. I would rather eat a fried rat than enjoy accordion music. I have to say, however, the city of Montmagny is absolutely beautiful. The women are just as pretty and the food is magnifique. I would happily return on any of the 51 weeks the music festival is not in town.

Autumn Birt is an independent author with two books currently available on Amazon and plans for many more. She also run the adventure travel blog No Map Nomads, where she is known as Weifarer, and writes for the blog Guild of Dreams.