Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Discovering a Jane Austen Story in Ireland

Writer's Tears Irish Whiskey - I needed this when I decided to embark on an entirely different book!

I just returned from a month in Ireland, where I planned to research a totally different book then what I ended up with. If any of you have ever participated in NaNoWriMo.com, National Novel Writing Month, where you write an entire novel in November, then you understand the adrenaline rush of finding a story and running with it. Well, I did that during a vacation. 

I entered Ireland for my fifth research trip with a planned itinerary for a novel I’ve been working on for years. Then I landed and entered my regency era Dublin hotel in the middle of Georgian Dublin and BOOM - Jane Austen was stuck in my head for the entire month!

I chucked my itinerary and researched a Jane Austen styled book to be set in Ireland in 1802, just after the Act of Union, which disbanded the Irish Parliament and greatly reduced the number of eligible bachelors for the “Social Season” in Dublin.

But first, why Jane Austen popped into my head upon landing in Ireland. I’ve been obsessed with Jane Austen for the past six months, ever since I saw a production of Jane Austen Unscripted by Impro Theater. 

This is an improv theater company that performs long form narrative plays - as in they improvise an ENTIRE PLAY every evening. The genre is already stated, like Jane Austen, Western or Twilight Zone, etc., and then the play is based upon an audience suggestion, like “Purple ribbon,” or “Kidney pie.” I saw four productions and was so dazzled I signed up for improv classes. Reminder - I’m a writer and a scientist. Me standing up on stage causes severe heart palpitations, sweat stains and enormous grins of fear. But good golly, those improv classes are the happiest days of my life! I’m so excited to start again tomorrow night! The entire world should go to Improv classes. It makes you a better person. But that’s another blog post.
For the past six months, I’ve been rereading Jane Austen’s books and everything related. See reading list below:

So I guess it’s really no surprise that Ireland inspired a Jane Austen styled story and my original book has been side lined. Thankfully, NaNoWriMo.com offers Camp NaNoWriMo during April and July, so woohoo, I’m writing my novel during the month of July. 

Since this blog is about using real locations in novels, you'll get the inside scoop on the real locations I'm using in my upcoming novel temporarily titled: Tolerance & Temperance. Just kidding. I'm really going with A Lady's Troubles. Um... Nope, not that either. Okay, you can help me name the novel. Think Sense & Sensibility meets Pride & Prejudice in Ireland. Go!

The novel opens at these two locations:

Muckross House. Photo by me. The weather in Ireland was stunning this trip. 

Muckross House is located in South West Ireland in Killarney National Park. I took a tour of the house and decided to use it as the model for the big country estate of my Anglo-Irish Protestant family with three daughters and one young sickly son. In my story the estate will be located near the city of Athlone, about 50 miles west of Dublin. The travel distances in Jane Austen novels are typically about 20 - 50 miles. Killarney is 150 miles from Dublin, so keeping the estate in it's real location can't happen. However I'm researching the Athlone area of 1802 to confirm that the industry and estate operations could be similar to that of Muckross.

Turin Castle. Photo by me. 

Turin Castle (which can be rented) is located in West Ireland, near Cong. We’ve spent many a joyful evening here, so I know it well. However in 1802, most of Ireland’s castles were in ruins because England destroyed them due to fears of Catholic military strongholds. Bummer! Not long ago Turin Castle was also a ruin. But thankfully our friends, Brendan & Marnie, restored it to the historical magnificience it is today. Seriously, click on the Turin website and check out the interior. It's an amazing time warp. So in 1802, the daughters and son will play at the romantic castle ruins, but imagine themselves Lord and Lady of the fully restored magnificient castle. 

Interior of Muckross Abbey bell tower in Killarney. That's Wes, my husband.

I wanted to imagine Turin as a ruin, but more than just from pictures. I needed to feel and smell the mossy stones, and see the bird's nests in the empty beam holes that once held floor boards. So we ventured into as many old ruins as we could find. Muckross Abbey, also in Killarney National Park, was a great example to explore for this purpose.

Banquet Hall of Turin Castle - Music Session.
I've never seen anyone rock out with a mandolin. Awesome!

Gathering a bit Irish culture to color the story, we were honored to partake in a music session at Turin Castle. My wealthy Anglo-Irish Jane Austen characters will play their harp and piano forte, but one of the girls might learn of a more interesting Irish tradition that lures her toward a rebellious intrigue with a celtic drum. 

Upcoming novel locations will be Georgian Dublin, Aran Islands, Belleek Castle and the seaside town of Howth.

If you've got a name for the novel - toss it at me. Please!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Buried Books of Herculaneum: Part 5

Maria Carolina of Austria
Excavations at Herculaneum were forcibly halted in favor of ongoing efforts at Pompeii, and so the secrets contained within the Villa would once again be forced to wait. Charles’ mother Elisabetta, the woman who had first initiated the work, died...

Part 4 of this series continues the story of the excavations of Herculaneum, as we seek to unravel the answer to the Novel Travelist mystery: Why was the Villa dei Papyri never fully excavated?

Here we continue this story.


Despite the recent lack of interest in Herculaneum, one man remained enthusiastic about the papyrus scrolls recovered from the ash. Vatican calligrapher priest Padre Piaggio was the first to attempt unwinding the scrolls from the Villa dei Papiri without destroying them.

Piaggio's device, Naples Archeological Museum
Piaggio’s infinite patience and sense of innovation produced a mechanical device, now located in the Naples Archeological Museum, that could at long last unwind the scrolls, at a rate of one half-inch per day. It is this device that first appeared in Part 1 of this series.

Slowly and painstakingly, Padre Piaggio eventually succeeded in being the first to unroll one papyrus document from beneath the ruins of Herculaneum. This single act took four years.

Piaggio continued unrolling additional scrolls and he set to diligently copying their text. The former Vatican calligrapher produced remarkably faithful reproductions of the text despite its condition, and also despite the fact that he neither spoke nor read modern, let alone ancient, Greek.

Translation of the content was equally difficult. The papyrus was in such terrible condition, and so many pieces had been lost, that much of the author information and content was either missing or misunderstood. Indeed, several entire scrolls were literally translated backward in their entirety, and it was only many, many years later that this mistake was even recognized as such.

Flattened papyrus scroll from Herculaneum
King Charles III's son Ferdinand came of age in 1767 and became the arrogant, ignorant boy-king of Naples - an event that would no doubt have represented the final nail in the coffin of Herculaneum and the Villa dei Papiri had it not been for one unlikely variable.

Her name was Maria Carolina, and she would become Ferdinand’s queen despite her loudly voiced opinion on the matter: “You might as well cast me into the sea.” Maria Carolina was the elder sister of a girl who would become known to history as Marie Antoinette, and whose notorious fate would only intensify Maria Carolina’s hatred of all things French.

Maria Carolina became a close friend of Padre Piaggio. She safeguarded the papyrus scrolls from Herculaneum throughout the extensive fallout in Naples from the French Revolution, and she successfully kept them from the hands of the pillaging Napoleon Bonaparte – for a while.

To be continued in part 6, July 4...

This blog post explores a non-fictional theme or locale that is incorporated in The Vesuvius Isotope, a new novel by Kristen Elise. Buy The Vesuvius Isotope on Amazon.

When her Nobel laureate husband is murdered, biologist Katrina Stone can no longer ignore the secrecy that increasingly pervaded his behavior in recent weeks. Her search for answers leads to a two-thousand-year-old medical mystery and the esoteric life of one of history’s most enigmatic women. Following the trail forged by her late husband, Katrina must separate truth from legend as she chases medicine from ancient Italy and Egypt to a clandestine modern-day war. Her quest will reveal a legacy of greed and murder and resurrect an ancient plague, introducing it into the twenty-first century.

Kristen Elise, Ph.D. is a drug discovery biologist and the author of The Vesuvius Isotope. She lives in San Diego, California, with her husband, stepson, and three canine children.