Tag Archives: Geology

Shetland

I don’t know about you, but when we go on holidays, we usually head to cooler climes.  We were recently (technically) in Scotland for a fortnight’s holiday, this time on the Shetland Isles:  For those of you who don’t know where that’s at, hop on to Google Earth, and have a vicarious look around.  Shetland is a subarctic archipelago in the Atlantic; you’re never more than 3 miles away from the sea because, though the total landmass is about 1,470 square kilometres, there are over 2,700 kilometres of coastline.

We stayed at the Lerwick Hotel, making day-trips out from there.  In the 2 weeks we were there we managed to see nearly every nook and cranny by rental car.  Many of the “towns” are no more than a collection of a house or two; Lerwick is really the only proper town on Shetland.  We covered everything from Sumburgh Head in the south to Hermanness on the northern tip of Unst, the northerly-most inhabited island of the UK.

We usually had perfect weather for being out and about; the wind was mild, and only one day of what’s known as a “flying gale”… that’s when the wind actively tries to either rip the car door out of your hands or slam it shut as you’re trying to get in or out of the car; flying gales drive ships ashore.  I point that out because great weather is not to be taken for granted on rocks in the middle of the Atlantic that have no naturally-occurring trees, i.e. windbreaks, and everything that happens is scheduled with the contingency of weather permitting.  While we were there, it was “Simmer Dim” = NO night; you could easily read a book outside, no matter the time of day or night.

Some of the Highlights:

Our hotel window:  We could see Breiwick Bay, the traffic of large ships coming and going from the harbour (even this large three-masted sail ship), and the wildlife of Shetland:  Otters, both grey and common seals, dive-bombing gannets, arctic terns flitting over the water like butterflies, and a variety of gulls that kept us entertained.

Mousa Isle:  We took a “dusk” (midnight) boat trip and hiked ½ a mile across the moors to the Mousa Broch, the most intact broch in the world.  In the walls of this ancient tower are around 500 pairs of Storm Petrels – swallow-like sea birds who sound like purring kittens with hiccups as they call for their mates, to be found by them in the crowded darkness.  Darkness is relative in the summer; they need to wait until it’s darkest before returning from their time at sea, as they are targets for larger bird’s menus.

Norwick Beach:  On northern Unst, this beach is a visual smorgasbord for any geologist, because it’s where an ocean floor was thrust upward to collide with the continent millions of years ago.  The stone formations jutting out in the middle of the beach are two distinct colours, dark and light, side by side.  That beach is just an example of the stunning geological history and beauty of the islands.  They’ve even got an app, “Geopark Shetland”.

Wildlife:  Shetland has the highest density of otters of anywhere in Europe, with around 1,000; Shetland ponies (everywhere!); puffins – the darlings of the sea, and one of our favourite birds; gannets, terns, guillemots, razorbills, oyster catchers, great black-backed gulls, great skuas, herring gulls, black-hooded gulls, kittiwakes, and dozens of other seabirds; cliff-dwelling rabbits (puffins are even known to share their burrows with them); Shetland sheep – they’ve got very soft wool, and tend to be brownish with black spots; some of them were adorable, with spotted eyes like pandas.

History:  With over 6,000 archaeological sites and dozens of great museums, there was never a dull moment!  Clickhimin Broch was a short walk away from our hotel; Mousa Broch was an amazing experience – to sit inside it, as people did 2,000 years ago… you could still see the slats in the walls where wooden beams would have supported upper floors.  We spent a lot of time at the Shetland Museum in Lerwick; well laid out, it was informative and inviting, with a great restaurant.

I could go on and on – and perhaps I’ll write an article or two more about some aspect of the Isles in the future, but for now, here are a few photos.

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Buying Credit

No, the title is not referring to money or cash cards, but writing.  Stick with me.  If you’ve made yourself at home here and nosed through my cupboards, you’ll know that I do a LOT of research.  I love it.  It adds spice to my character’s meals, salty spray that blackens the redcoats of marines aboard a royal navy ship, tells me that heated arsenic smells like garlic, and makes the ship creak so loudly you’ll swear you’re going down to Davy Jones’ locker.  But there are times when, as an author, I’m required to blur the lines between fact and fiction.

There are certain things that people erroneously assume (such as Viking helmets) that I may need to adapt in order not to lose a reader’s trust (though trust me, I will never add horns!):  The sentence structures of bygone days were far more complex, with vestiges of Germanic linguistic influences – for my current manuscript (set in 18th century England and mostly aboard a Royal Navy ship of the line) I need to modernize the syntax without losing the High English flavour, and without compromising on the linguistic purity of my story’s time-setting; modern sensibilities (in social ladders, issues such as slavery, war, etc.); laxer standards (in, say, relationships or politics or social ranks), and so on.  A modern reader will most likely not appreciate the complex social mores of a time when men and women were never alone in a room – even when the man wanted to propose to the woman, and the parents wanted it to take place; and so, such things need to be adapted at times, to a certain extent, to reach a modern audience without alienating the audience that revels in bygone literature.

If I, as an author, want my reader (who is perhaps a stickler for all things historical) to give me the permission to bend a few social rules of the 18th century, I must first buy credit with them – prove to them that I’ve done my homework – so that they won’t get ripped out of the story in disbelief when I contrive to leave a man and a woman alone in the same room without a chaperone.  In my current manuscript, the husband and wife come from opposite ends of the social ladder, and the husband becomes a captain in the royal navy at the tender age of 20 or 21.  Both of these situations have many historical precedents; I know that from countless hours of research.  But most people who read historical novels might think, “But Viking helmets always have horns” – or something to that effect.  If written well, these disparities in understanding can be smoothed over, so that when I really DO break historical moulds, I am allowed to do so without offending the reader “in the know”.

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1761, Lady Elizabeth Keppel, by Sir Joshua Reynolds

This portrait illustrates an important point:  Many people, when thinking of the British rule of India, perceive it through postmodern lenses; we see it from the hindsight of Gandhi and the independence of the country from the imperialistic rule of British paramountcy.  But the other aspects were the children and wives of British soldiers, diplomats, and tradesmen, and the loneliness faced, the friendships struck with Indian men and women… these are important aspects to weave into a story, too, and thus require research.  Notice the pearls adorning the Indian woman below?  The researcher in me wants to know her story far more than the story of Lady Keppel (who died of a broken heart at the age of 29, just months after her husband had died of injuries from a riding accident).  Some readers may get jolted out of the world you create by the pearls, though it is historically accurate – so you’d still need to buy credit by setting up that aspect well.

These same credit-buying rules apply to any genre, even science fiction:  If you create a world set on another planet, that world will have laws – physics laws, indigenous social mores, etc. – and you as a writer must know what they are, and if or how they can be broken if need be.  You can’t claim that all liquid on the planet is frozen, and then have your character drinking from a fountain or stream, unless you explain how that’s possible.  If you do, you’ve taxed your believability credits and pulled the reader out of the world they’ve agreed to follow you into.  The manuscript that I’ll work on next (after the current one is published!) is science fiction; the air of the planet is toxic to humans, so I need to create a way for facial expressions, dialogue, etc. to come through even when the characters are outside in their suits.  I have done a lot of preliminary research into geology (that told me about heated arsenic, among other things); I also need to explain how a planet with multiple suns can have a stable enough orbit not to be drawn into one of the stars and burn up – i.e. I need to follow known physics laws, or explain how they are suspended for my planet.  I think you get the idea!

So if, as a writer, you want readers to believe what you write about a fictional character set in British India, you first need to buy credit with your readers by doing your historical homework and sculpting the landscape and characters in the rich tapestry they deserve.  If you are writing science fiction, establish your world and stick to your rules so that, if you need to bend them for a plot development, the readers will be willing to follow you on the adventure.  Whatever you do, keep writing!

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I got Staffa’d

If you’ve wondered why my last post was over a month ago, it’s because when I go on holiday I do just that – I take leave of life, of schedules, of obligations and responsibilities.  Now that I’m back, I thought I’d share some of my experiences.

They say you should write what you know; after our recent holidays to Scotland, I can now add to my arsenal that of being badly injured on a remote, uninhabited island!

DSCN5357 - The Isle of Staffa, from Ship

The Isle of Staffa

If you’ve never heard of the small Isle of Staffa, you don’t know what you’ve been missing:  Made of basalt columns, the island and its outcrops rise out of the Atlantic in an otherworldly fashion.  For hundreds of years tourists have been going to see this phenomenon of nature, and in  1829 it even inspired Felix Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture (Fingal’s Cave).  Fingal is the figure in the legend connecting Staffa with the same geology in Ireland known as the Giant’s Causeway:  The legend is that Fingal was a Gaelic giant who had a feud with an Ulster giant; in order to fight Fingal, the Ulster giant built a causeway between Ireland and Scotland.  Irish tales differ to Scottish as to how the causeway was destroyed, but only the two ends remained – one at Staffa and the other in Antrim, Northern Ireland.  Other famous visitors to the island include Jules Verne, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Queen Victoria and Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

Now to my own experience:  My husband Stefan and I were on the Isle of Mull off of the west coast of Scotland; we left our motor home there for the day and took a small boat, along with about thirty other hearty souls, on a 50-minute ride across open ocean to Staffa.  It is never guaranteed that the boats can actually land on the island, but on the day we took the excursion the weather was perfect, and the sea was as calm as open sea can be without the doldrums.

A larger ship than ours, boarding passengers at Staffa Pier.

A larger ship than ours, boarding passengers at Staffa Pier.

To get to the stone pier on Staffa, here’s how it’s done:  The captain of the boat waits outside of the jagged basalt outcrops jutting out from the island until a wave swells large enough to heave the boat in; then he revs the engine and speeds up to the pier on the lift of the wave.  From there, passengers are gradually handed off one at a time whenever the boat and the pier are relatively even between the swell of waves.  This same process is repeated to reload passengers, and the same at the pier of Mull (without the jagged rocks).

We landed safely and were walking, carefully watching each step on the uneven hexagonal basalt columns, toward Fingal’s Cave; I was literally thirty steps from the cave when my left ankle turned on a column that was apparently split, though the two surfaces were not visible on the black stones due to the angle of the sun.  Turned, as in dislocated… as in the foot was completely sideways at an angle one should never have to see one’s own foot!  I grabbed for the railing to keep from falling and swung myself to sit on a taller column; Stefan was right there, and I told him to “grab my ankle and wrench it back into place!”  Fortunately he didn’t stop to think about it – he just did it!  I could feel that it wasn’t broken, but it wasn’t going to be happy with me either.

Just passing us on their way back from the cave were a Canadian fire fighter’s wife and her adult son; she knew first aid and went into immediate action, having us pour cold water on my sock to keep it soaked and cold since we had no ice pack; she also gave me strong Tylenol and some extra to keep the pain and swelling in check.  I think my husband was in a bit of shock at what had just happened; I asked him to go on to the cave and take photos since I wouldn’t make it… it was also a way of giving him time to adjust, and to let him know that I wasn’t seriously injured, though I only thought of those reasons later.  The woman and her son helped me back to the stone pier; what had taken me five minutes to walk took twenty minutes back.  Now, remember how they landed the boat and disembarked passengers?  Do that with one foot.  Twice.

DSCN5386 - The Isle of Staffa

A bit of surf

The boat crew called the doctor on Mull, and he met us at his practice (once we manoeuvred the motor home up the single-track roads there).  Without an x-ray machine he couldn’t tell if it was broken; perhaps hairline fractured.  If that were the case, either way I’d just need to keep my foot elevated; a compression tube sock was my only new wardrobe accessory.  When we got out to have lunch in a pub at Fionnphort (the port for excursions), the waitress asked what happened and then said, “Let me guess:  Staffa?”  Thus, apparently, I can be added to a long list of injured tourists who got Staffa’d.

The blessing in disguise of it happening only a few days into our holidays was that I had two weeks of forced inaction to elevate my foot; thanks to the “brilliant” NHS system of Britain, it was impossible to get a pair of crutches that might have enabled me to leave the motor home (in Switzerland, one stop at the pharmacy got me rented crutches), so I got to see Scotland from the inside of the ‘home!  It wasn’t our first trip there, and certainly won’t be our last, so I didn’t miss a once-in-a-lifetime trip; and my attitude is that complaining about lost opportunities is simply a waste of time and energy – the situation was what it was, and we made the best of it.  My husband became my eyes and ears outside of the ‘home, and when he was out on hikes and excursions I got a lot of reading and writing toward my next novel done!  I still have a month to go of behaving myself – no dancing, hiking, or even driving a car – so I guess I’ll have a lot more time to read and write! (PS – That month turned into four months… and then six months.)

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