Tower of London, London, England

We are now back in the States, but our trip to England for the first time is still in processing mode. One of the last places we visited in London was the Tower of London. Very stupidly, I’m embarrassed to admit, I used to think that the Tower of London was Big Ben. I never saw the big deal that people made of climbing this tower. Oh, silly, ignorant American!

Our first plan was to see the Tower of London on a day when we were touring seven other London sights. But by the time we arrived there, we only had an hour to see it, and since it wasn’t just a tower, we didn’t think that would give it justice. We decided to spend our one “flex day” entirely at the Tower of London. I am so glad we did. It’s not your hour tourist stop. We spent four hours there and still didn’t see everything.

Even though it’s a museum (and so much more), it is not a free museum like most museums in England. There is a cost, with lots of tourist shops nearby.

We followed Rick Steve’s advice and bought our tickets near the tube stop instead of at the gate, saving several pounds by doing this. I don’t understand it; it’s just a fact. By stopping by the establishment the day before, we knew it was going to be crowded. In fact, ALL of London is crowded. But we figured if we got there right when the gates opened, it might not be quite so crowded. It was a good choice, but by the time we left, I felt downright claustrophobic.

The Tower of London is not a single tower as I used to think. It is a fortress with history and numberous buildings, and today there are actually people living within the walls. This is the land of the Yoeman Warders, a.k.a, Beefeaters who are dressed in black tunics and hats, although today their biggest role is opening the gates, giving tours, and locking the gates. There were also, however grenadier soldiers (in red uniforms and tall, fuzzy hats) on the grounds, standing or marching in front of two buildings. They carried heavy guns, similar to AK17s. One grenadier guarded the building where the crown jewels are kept; the other was at the Queen’s House. These are not toy soldiers to please tourists. The are true soldiers with real weapons protecting both the royalty and riches of the country.

You cannot take photos inside the building where the crown jewels are kept, and to get a close-up view of it in its glass case, you step onto a moving walkway. Look fast! I was impressed with the giant diamond rock, fist-sized, no: larger. But I was also impressed in an entirely different way with the four-foot golden alter plate for serving holy communion at the coronations. There were lots of sparkles in this building of the Tower of London, but as a fantasy writer, I was actually more interested in the White Tower with its 500 years of armor inside the White Tower (a separate building within the Tower of London). Why there was even a 15′ tall dragon made of weapons, armor and shields.

Prisoners are no longer kept in the Tower of London, neither is the armour used. But there is something about the grounds which caused me to know this was not a normal tourist stop. I felt quiet, respectful, even a bit scared. Perhaps it was the serious guards with their modern-day weapons. Perhaps it was from the ghosts of the many who were beheaded within those walls. Perhaps it was because of the legend of the ravens staying on the grounds (or England would fall). Or maybe, as I stood on the wall and overlooked Tower Bridge (often mistakenly called London Bridge), I knew hundreds of years of history and millions of lives passed right over the very stones and bricks upon which I trod. I was in the ethers of history itself.

London’s Book Benches and other Book Art

Twr of London, book bench (2)

I spotted the first book bench inside the lobby of the British Library. ADORABLE! I couldn’t take a photo of it because no photographs were allowed inside the Library. Also, there was a man sitting in the middle of it. Too, it was poor lighting. (Poor lighting in a library, you say? Yes, I answer, for photography, anyway.) Later we spotted another book bench at the Tower of London and later yet near St. Paul’s Cathedral.  They are new. There are more. This trip wasn’t intended as a treasure hunt for book benches, but I could see that as a London goal! It was fun stumbling upon three of them. They are very unique and whimsical.

With more and more readers reading from electrical devises, this artsy-bench is a lovely throw-back. I mean, can you see yourself sitting on an iPhone bench? Not quite the same feelings as on a book bench. Besides, what about those unintentional phone calls when you sit down?

When we visited Canterbury, I spotted a lovely little second-hand bookstore (yes, I HAD to buy a book in there). On the tip-top self, out of reach without a step-stool, they’d displayed books with folded down pages into different art forms. I wasn’t quite sure if I was offended or delighted with this. If it were one of my books, I’d be offended. However, if they were made from books which the owner found disgusting or would never-ever sale, then changing them into true art is an entirely different matter.


EBooks are handy and available, and my own books are available in both print and eForm. But how could you ever (even how horribly written it might be) make an art form out of an eBook?


(For an article on the London Book Benches, check out: )
Sandy on Book Bench

Toilets (American Translation for this British Word: Bathrooms)

First, have you noticed that although it is a daily human occurrence, most authors do not show their characters in the bathroom? Unless it’s to do something illegal, private, or escape, this little room is merely used as a setting.

Secondly, the terms. I’ve heard it called the ladies or gents, a public convenience, the necessity room, the out back, a privy, and an outhouse–the last three for little buildings separate from a main building, or used at camp grounds. A thousand years ago in Rome and other large cities across Europe, using these facilities could be large with fifty or seventy holes. Men and women used the same room.

Thirdly, on our recent trip to England, it was difficult at first for me to refer to bathrooms or restrooms as toilets. But there they are–all over Britain–signs saying “TOILETS.” In fact, when I saw large signs in windows for “Flat TO LET” my mind wanted to stick in the letter “I” in the space.

Of course, the Brits have other words for this room, like loo or bog or water closet or W.C. One tour bus trip we took had us meet back at Bog Island. I didn’t think much about it until I returned to the bus and realized there were steps going down under the street on this little triangle surrounded by road. It’s now closed off, but once upon a time those steps led to the bathrooms, or toilets, or bogs.

As an American, when I think of toilets, I think of the actual seat and bowl and tank. So when I saw a sign reading “Men working in women’s toilets,” I imagined tiny men inside a toilet bowl. (Must have been jet lag thinking.)

In many public places in London, like the Tube or train stations or near the Thames River, it costs to use the facilities. My friend Mary often goes to England for work. She’s usually around the Manchester area, up north. She warned us that it would cost 20p to use the toilets. So before we left, I made sure my husband and I each had 20p with us. I was delighted to find my first toilet in England free. That one was in the airport, near the custom’s line. But later when I came across pay toilets in London, they were for 30p or 50p. So much for being prepared with p to pee.

However, do not let a fear of finding a bathroom in England stop you. There are, indeed, plenty of free restrooms. Restaurants have them. Museums have them. Churches and cathedrals have them. So when you go to England, you may feel free to go.

Restaurants, Cafes, Pubs — Eating out in London

London is a crowded place. It’s been that way for over a thousand years. Consequently, the buildings are flush to each other on the block. The eateries also tend to be must smaller than the restaurants we in America are more familiar with. For instance, you could fit 3 restaurants into the space of one fast food chain restaurant here. Indoor seating is about for twenty people, max. There are often four or so small tables with chairs along the front of the restaurant or cafe on the sidewalk.

Screenless windows and doors are left opened during business hours. In a ten-day period, I only saw three bugs. They must come out at night or something in order to pollinate the plants.

Pubs are dark on the inside, but in summer, it’s light until 9:30, GMT. Again, the inside seating of pubs is quite limited, but crowds can stand outside. We had a pub about fifty yards from our hotel door. (We had a small room six floors above the front door.) We’d pass this corner pub each night to go to a small grocery story a couple blocks away for our next day’s picnic lunch. Along the windows outside the pub (and other pubs have this as well) and on the quieter side street is a narrow metal shelf wide, enough to place a drink upon. The sidewalk was shoulder-to-shoulder people, about six times more people could stand outside there and socialize than sit down inside.

Another thing I noticed besides outside seating (and standing) was that people in London sit on steps or on lawns. Going through Hyde Park on a Sunday afternoon, we found thousands of people sitting on the grass, either eating or merely socializing. The pond area of the Victoria and Albert Museum was so crowded with people sitting on steps or grass that we had to slowly weave our way through them.

Although it’s no longer legal to sell food for pigeons, there are still many pigeons around, and they are there to snatch up any fallen (or intended) crumbs from the human eaters. We ate at the Raven Cafe in the Tower of London. There was only outdoor seating. Pigeons danced on our feet, begging for treats. Pigeons also apparently have the right of way in England. We had to duck more than once to avoid flying pigeon during our stay. The whoosh of wings brushing my hair is still vivid.

I must close by saying that the taste of the food in England is exceptional. I didn’t have a bad spoonful of anything during our entire time in this lovely little country.


Fashion in London

It was our first time to England, staying for ten days. What was the main thing I was concerned about? Fashion. Blame it on my Shaker upbringing when there were different clothing rules for every occasion. Oh, what to wear! I knew my American accent would make me stick out, and that I could control the volume of my voice, but would my clothes fit in? Would carrying a backpack make me look like I was a college student or a tourist?  People traveling to England recently told me that no one wears sneakers. Would my shoes be walkable and yet fashionable? People here in the States seem to make a big deal about shoes.

As it turned out, my worry was for naught.  Riding the Tube gave me plenty of time for fashion observation.

Many people wore backpacks — men, women, young and old, both in London and in Oxford. If women carried purses, the strap generally went over one shoulder and across the chest to the opposite hip. Men also carried “man bags” very similar to women’s purses and in the same across-the-chest way.

Women’s shoes? 80% were black flats with sometimes a bow or buckle on them; 15% were sneakers, leaving the other 5% in heels. Although once I saw a young woman in a short black skirt walking near Trafalgar Square wearing black net stockings and no shoes on her feet at all.

Shorts? About 1% of women (teens, mostly) wore short-shorts. And about 1% of men wore shorts — can you say tourist?

There were also Indians and muslims in long dresses.

We met a man from Canada who had lived in England for four weeks. Even though it was in the 70’s most of the time we were there, he complained about how he had to wear jeans and long-sleeved shirts every day in the summer there because it was so cold. Um…wait a minute. I’ve been to Canada many a time, mostly camping out. 70’s is not cold. I suppose it’s all a matter of perspective.

So, when going to London, no need to worry about fashion. Simply wear comfortable clothes (and don’t speak loudly).

Our European Hotel — in London

In February, I started to panic. We were going to England at the height of tourist season, end of June, beginning of July. We’d decided to only do public transportation (i.e., no car rental). We needed to secure a place to stay (or more) which were nearby to Tube stations (a.k.a., The Underground, or what we in America would call, subways; however, in England, a subway is the path down the steps and under busy roads). As I looked at maps of London, I panicked again. I don’t think there are any two streets parallel in the city. Just how did one find their way around?

When I began my search for hotels, I started stabbing, though not entirely, because I’d look up hotels only in the area we were spending the most of our time — South Kennsington — and hotels which had a room available for ten days. I contacted British writer friends for suggestions. One didn’t travel to London if she could help it, the other recommended chain motels like Super 8’s, but which needed a car (or taxi) to get to. Back to personal on-line research. Results: full; full; full; way too expensive; full. Then…BINGO! Although it was at the top end of our price range, more importantly it was in the area we wanted and available for ten days. We’d never been to England. We hope to go again, but who knows. I grabbed my credit card and booked it.

I actually thought it was a sweet European style place to stay. It was only nineteen rooms on four stories, and was above cafes and shops. They had no kitchen or lounge, so our continental breakfast was brought to our door each morning. How quaint. How European. All true. My husband said that thirty-eight years ago when he was a student abroad, there were some mighty skimpy places he’d stayed, so as long as the room had a bed and an en suite (in room) bathroom, it was all good.

Our hotel was half a block from the South Kennsington tube station. Yay! Perfect. Location. Location. Location.

When we arrived in the morning, our room was not available, but we were able to leave our two bags there at the desk and take a walk around our neighborhood, and even check out the Victoria and Albert Museum just a few blocks away. Oh. And the reception desk was on the first floor landing — the European first floor, which is our American second floor. We left our bags and returned after our neighborhood walking tour and eating Fish and Chips at a restaurant which held about sixteen chairs around tables (very typical arrangement for restaurants; some have fewer indoor eating spots with four or so tables just outside).

We took our room key, 417, and started up the posh red carpeted stairs. We discovered the 400 number did not mean fourth floor. The first room in the hotel was 401. So up we marched, and marched…and marched. We were on what Americans would call, the sixth floor — 86 steps from the street level. (pant-pant) I’d requested a quiet room in the back if possible, as a result of one of the reviews. We got one of the two rooms facing the street.

Most English buildings do not have central heat or air (heating or air-conditioning). A small circular fan sat on the desk. We put it in the open window, hinge broken so it could only open four inches. There was also no screen. In fact, in our entire ten days in England, I don’t recall seeing a single window screen. Besides the fan on the desk, there was a 12″ x 18″ tv screen atop the small (dorm room size) refrigerator, two twin beds, two night stands, and a chair, with walking room between the door and the window. But, yay, we had an en suite bathroom — tiny, but efficient, with an 18″ towel rack (no hooks on back of door, etc.).

Our continental breakfast was the same every day — and the same for other guests, I noticed. Two hard-boiled eggs in metal egg cups, 4 slices of white bread, two small glasses of orange juice, a small pot of tea (for me) and a small pot of coffee (for my husband), all on a small tray. There were two cups and two saucers. In one of the cups was two pads of wrapped butter and two jelly pads. The toast was atop two small plates — which were smaller than the toast itself.

My husband sat in the chair at the desk to eat. I sat on the edge of a bed. He’d dragged over one of the heavy nightstands for me to use at a table, but by the time I leaned over the plate to eat, my chin nearly touched the nightstand. From then on, I ate off my lap. Reaching across for my drinks set on the refrigerator. Yes, that was within arm reach, so I didn’t need to get up to get them.

Our “hosts” (behind the reception desk, and who brought us our breakfast trays) were two India-Indian men and one who was of perhaps Turkish heritage. My husband pointed out how it was difficult to understand them sometimes because they not only spoke with an English accent, but an English accent with their own native language accent twisted in. For some reason, I didn’t have any problem understanding what they said.

We ate supper usually around 7:30 or 8, which is considered late by American standards, but normal for English. We’d come back to our room after supper. Sunset was about 9:30, so we tried to be in bed by then. The signs on the pubs on the street below requested that the customers keep their voices down after 11:00 in respect to their neighbors. That was rarely the case. Also, being on the street-side, we heard the police and ambulance sirens, although we couldn’t see the street because the sidewalk in front of the hotel was only two people wide and the building went, well, straight upwards. Also, there was construction on either side of our hotel with scaffolding from the street all the way up to the sixth (American sixth) floor. You know…sometimes they do construction work in the night. Crash-bang.

Also, it was hot in our room. In the morning, I’d keep our door opened unless we were dressing. The difference in temperature was about 17 degrees. There were a few nights when I stood in the opened doorway at 1 or 3 a.m., just feeling the cooler hallway air in my nightgown. My husband suffered in silence, every night sweating through his sheets and pillow. This was also deceiving, because by the time we walked down the 86 steps to the street, some mornings it was sweater weather, and mine was left up on the sixth floor.

I must say that the first few days, I was rather grumbly about our room situation. But then, well, it was just all part of the experience. And by about day six, it was normal. Besides, walking up and down those stairs every day had to be some sort of good for my circulatory system. I’m glad for the hotel experience. I’m glad they’re memories. I’m sure I’ll be using most of this in some way in future stories. It’s all good.

Raphael’s Tapestry Cartoons, London, UK

My husband and I sat on one of the benches inside the Victoria and Albert Museum (more affectionately known as the V&A). My mind knew I was admiring rare works of art indeed. In front of me, hanging from the walls were several of the 13 feet by 17 feet designs Raphael used to make the tapestries for the Sistine Chapel in 1519. I wish I could attach a photo, but no photos were allowed in this particular room of the museum. The figures were life-sized. It was artistic and colorful. A wonder to behold.

However, I’m thinking that perhaps it was from being tired from visiting so many new places and experiencing so many new things that I kept grinning away in that room. I mean — cartoons? Well, yes, I understand that the word is an Italian word for “large sheets of paper,” but why did I keep trying to look to see something funny? Decades of hearing that word and thinking of an entirely different meaning. That and being exhausted. That’s why.

We sat and studied Raphael’s tapestry cartoons. They are amazing to be sure, but not really funny.

Jet Lag Writing — England

After a 10-day whirl-wind trip to England, we are now back in the USA. I went grocery shopping at 7 a.m., and have been working on sorting through some of my 3,000 digital photos I took on the trip. I was working for about three hours when suddenly I realized my fingers weren’t moving on the keyboard and I was merely staring at the screen. I think I’d fallen asleep, eyes opened. Hmm. So this is jet lag?

For my picture-taking to record our trip, I actually used up all the internal storage on my iPhone and had to use my “old” digital camera the last three or so days. Gone are the days when I’d limit my photo shots to 24 film pictures a day while on vacation. And I used to think that (24) was an outrageously huge number of travel shots in a day. Hello, technology. So far I have twelve file folders on my computer now, nice and sorted out. The trouble is, I haven’t used all the shots from my iPhone and haven’t even begun to look at the digital camera SD card.

Realizing I needed a change in what I was doing, I closed down all the photo stuff and started a new post for my blog, which I unfortunately, but happily neglected during our vacation.

This was our first trip to England. It will take a long time to process. We sincerely hope to return some day.

There are three typically London things for visitors to do which we didn’t do, or barely touched upon. They are: 1) theatre; 2) shopping; 3) and royalty. No theatre, play or ballet. We only did a little souvenir shopping. And we went on a Changing of the Guards walking tour for our royalty fix, not counting the castles and cathedrals, where royalty have walked in the past.

You see, my husband and I went to England for three reasons: 1) study-education; 2) spiritual pilgrimage; and 3) literary pilgrimage. Next time we go, it will be all of that PLUS to visit some of our ancestral locations in the southwest, and hopefully make it to the Lake District, and Wales, and maybe even Scotland and Ireland. There is just so much to see and do…

Okay. I faded out again — caught myself staring at the screen without fingers moving and who knows what thoughts I was dreaming. I mean, thinking. Must wait eight hours till bedtime…Must wait eight hours…Must wait…

Who Are Your Inklings?

Part of my husband’s Study Leave revolves around two of my favorite authors: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. In preparation, he purchased the book, The Inklings of Oxford, text by H.L. Poe and photography by J.R. Veneman. It’s a five-star recommendation from me. The research and words in the book are great, but the photos have prepared my brain for what I will see.

Both Lewis and Tolkien were professors at Oxford for many years. They didn’t particularly like each other at first, but their interest in Norse mythology and then weekly sharing of what they’d written couldn’t help but draw them together through the years. Several others were also part of this group which they dubbed The Inklings.

Three things struck me (this time around) about these intellectual geniuses:

1) It was a men’s group;

2) They were all academics and university connected; and

3) Because they were tenacious with and about their weekly readings of their creative works, they finished their projects and had their manuscripts published.

I’m not a man. I’m not a college professor (although I did teach one college summer course). But I do have a weekly critique group where we share our writings and offer each other suggestions, clarifications, encouragement, and laughter. I’ve been in many critique groups in the past twenty years, some face-to-face in groups or as individual swaps, or sending manuscripts through the postal system, or chapters via email. Critiquers have come and gone, like with the Inklings. Some have held on since nearly the beginning, like with the Inklings. And within my 12-year-pld critique group, we have slowly published our works over time, just like with the Inklings.

The Inklings (and more than just Lewis and Tolkien) are an inspiration to me. I look forward to walking the paths and roads the Inklings strode. I look forward to drinking in the pubs they drank and ate in, and where they read to each other from their latest WIPs, encouraging one another as writers.

Who encourages your writing? Who are your Inklings?


Serendipity in Your Plot Writing

This past week the fields and neighborhood lawns have been blossoming with white clover. I ended up making a garland of it along with a daisy “gem” and posted it on FaceBook. I wanted to make lots and lots more flowered jewelry, but adult stuff prevented me. However, that evening, as I picked up a book I read now and then, Working IX to V by Vicky Leon, what was the very next Roman occupation I read about? The Garland Maker. Seriously. I turned the page from the last job entry I’d read several days ago and there it was: Garland Maker. How serendipitous is that?

The earliest garlands-wreaths-diadems-chaplets-or-crowns were made for winners of races. Then for the dead during funeral. Then for weddings. Then for people who believed it kept them from getting “too” drunk. Then for kids-turned adults who still like to play at making jewelry.

Last night my husband and I were watching a new-to-us mystery on Netflix (“Longmire”) where the guest actor, Peter Weller, was the producer of the show. DH commented that it was Peter Weller who played “Robocop.” When the show was over and we turned off the Netfix connection, and there on the TV channel the system was tuned to, was “Robocop,” with Peter Weller in full silvery gear.

These two examples to point out that in real life there are serendipitous moments. But as authors, we have the tougher job to come up with ways which might give our characters moments which don’t seem so corny or planned, even though we do plan them. How do we pull off a smooth serendipitous moment for our characters without our readers rolling their eyes and saying, “Oh, sure”?

It can come in a dream (but mind your clichés), or a “chance” encounter with human, animal or nature. It might come in a comment another character says which pulls the main character’s thoughts back to a related incident or his book’s goal.

Try writing a scene where your main character has a serendipitous moment.