As my followers know, I’ve been writing a series—epic historical novels set primarily in ancient Minoan Crete. The series started as one standalone, now called Beyond the Waning Moon. But I couldn’t leave my people so I just kept going. It became a generational family saga. While each story has its own protagonist and story arc, the overall series also has an arc. A quest. A purpose. The haunting fear of a final destruction. The desperate fight to hold on. The glimmer of hope.
The photos here show the reconstructed hub of Crete, the temple (or palace) of Knossos which was dug out of the earth a hundred years ago after being buried for some 3,000 years. After seeing it and learning of the strong women depicted there, I wanted to immerse myself in that world. And so it began.
I named the overall saga the Distant Glimmer Series to reflect the distant light shining into our own times. The stories take place long ago, but they speak to our own lives today.
I’m putting finishing touches on Book Seven.
Up until now I had the impression that in marketing the work, all emphasis should go on the first book. Maybe mention that there are more to come, but don’t stress it. So I haven’t stressed the series aspect.
This September I attended a virtual writers conference, the annual conference of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association headquartered in Seattle. During workshops I kept hearing about the power of a series.
I attended a pitch fest because I planned to pitch the opening book of my saga. Gerri Russell, award-winning, bestselling author of stacks of books, led the session, and when we broke out into smaller groups I felt fortunate to have her as coach for my group. We all gave our pitches for the agents, publishers, or producers we hoped to convince to take a look at our work. I hoped to lead the listener into the world pictured on this post and to bring the Cretan characters alive who walk through my thoughts and dreams in these fabulous places.
Gerri immediately got what I was doing with the book from the pitch I gave. But from that she began to question me to ferret out ways to better present it. Who are my characters? What are their goals, their conflicts? Could I be more personal about their dilemmas? I don’t remember all her specific questions but I quickly saw I needed to dig much deeper if I was to reveal the book’s strengths to the listener.
The group members had a chance to try once more, and I bumbled through mine as I tried to rethink it in the moment. Gerri kept going back and forth with me, quizzing me, plucking out salient points. Those salient points gave the pitch new life. Then I hesitantly asked if I should say I have seven in the series written. She burst out with surprise. Yes! Of course! Yes!
So there it was. Emphasize the series. Each book has to stand alone, true. But its place in a series gives it much greater impact. Perhaps the market has changed. Maybe readers are wanting a series more than they did before. Something they can really get their teeth into. In any case that’s what I have. That’s what I’ll promote to those who hold the keys to entry into publication.
The story waits, ready to be written from a skeletal document inside the computer, a hard copy of that framework in the blue notebook shown below. The outline.
In my mind I see not the words but the people and places, like the wondrous temple of Knossos on the Greek island of Crete. And the green fields of Ireland that resemble my own green knolls on this soft May afternoon in Oregon.
The characters are almost as real to me as my neighbors—because I move inside them as I show their story. I laughed with delight when I heard travel guide Rick Steves comment about the ancient Romans. They “were just people, like you and me, without electricity.”
True, they had different customs, but they felt joy and sadness and love and fury just as we do. For me it has always been exciting to imagine what life was like in ancient times—or will be in the future. I love Star Trek too. But these ancient times in these two unique islands caught my heart.
To outline or not to outline?
Authors often hold strong views on that question. Non-outline writers may insist they’d be hemmed in by an outline. Outliners like me can’t imagine drawing all those threads together without one. I would never let the outline stop me from taking new directions. But I’m not just keeping threads together for one book.
This is a series that follows two great families through the generations—the high priestesses and kings of Crete, the clan mothers and high chiefs of Éire. This new story begins about 100 years after the opening scenes of Book One in the series. I have to keep track of them all.
Besides consistency, each story requires new research. Scholars keep digging and adding more information. Sometimes I find details—either new or new to me—that affect other stories in the series. For instance when I first started writing about voyages from Crete to Ireland I assumed it would take many months to make the journey. But I found a website where you could enter names of modern ports, designate the speed of travel, and voila. They give you the overall trip time. I had to cut the time dramatically. Of course I had to determine from other sources how fast the ancient ships might go with their single square sails and ranks of oarsmen. I found estimates for similar Viking ships, other estimates for simple rowing, prevailing winds that would increase or decrease the speed.
In other instances when you’re writing a tight storyline where you want a lot to happen in a day you have to figure out what you can fit into that day and roughly what hour events can happen—even though I can’t express time in hours for people who lived by the sun, moon, and stars, not the clock. Another website tells exactly when dawn and dusk happen on any given day in any given setting. It’s not just how fast a ship can go, but a horse, a man, a woman. All these details take time to calculate. I don’t want to stop in the middle of a fast-moving scene to figure it out. So that goes into the outline. From that the rough draft can move swiftly.
Now this new one is ready for me to plunge in and live it as the words flow.
The opening scene of one book in my series starts here in this ancient pre-Greek setting, where protagonist Helaina looks out from the temple of Knossos to the sacred mountain of Youktas on the horizon. It’s a critical morning when she will have to leap a fierce bull in a perilous ritual for her people.
It’s a story of poignant desire and guilt, swordplay and valor on land and sea, passionate trysts that must never be told, and a love that won’t let go.
I have declared it finished I don’t know how many times. Every time it has come back wanting. And every time I have dug deeper to make it work. I’ve written five more in the series–taking us from Crete to Ireland and points in between. Those five stand waiting, virtually complete. I think this one is the most difficult because it’s the oldest, but it’s essential to the saga.
In late October my agent called me and we had a brainstorming session over the phone. Out of that, I opened my mind to dramatic changes. Once you start pulling at the threads of a tapestry, huge sections may unravel, leaving the possibility of weaving in new images you never thought would emerge. I threw out whole chapters and wrote new. I brought in new characters, took new pathways.
Creative juices flowed as they hadn’t since the muse whispered most of another to me.
Now I love it more than I ever have, and I’m declaring it ready one more time. Can Helaina leap that bull and carry this story on?
My fiction turned real a few days ago when I was working on a bull-leaping scene for my book of ancient Crete, trying to give the work more dazzle with yet one more edit. The Cretans did leap bulls with long, sharp horns back in 1470 BC, and they painted frescoes to illustrate it, like the one shown here.
I wanted to portray the scene so a reader could live it with me. I was digging through the unabridged dictionary checking on a word for that very scene. Imagine my surprise when a similar bull with very long horns charged onto my property.
Now, there’s a little inspiration for dazzle. I had recently contracted with developmental editor Judith Lindbergh to review the first 126 pages. And review she did. She was thorough and incisive. It was a little overwhelming. No, strike “a little.” Edit that out. It was overwhelming.
But I was plowing through, sort of like that visiting bull plowed through fences. New inspiration struck. I became excited, obsessive.
All progress stopped when I looked out my window and saw this fellow coming down my road, wagging his impressive horns.
Trevor Cooley, who helps his dad, Ed, run cattle on my place, had a problem on his hands. The bull had already burst into the fields below to challenge Ed’s bulls and steers. Here, right outside my door, the critter tossed his head at Trevor with an aggressive display. That electric wire gate looked mighty thin as Trevor phoned for help. I grabbed the camera, keeping the front door open and assuring Trevor he could run inside if need be.
The bull kept coming.
Trevor flung a little gravel at him and the critter turned away to trot down the grassy slope, tangling himself in electric fencing as he went. But he soon broke through and made his way down into the brushy gully.
By evening someone had located his owner. The man walked right up to him–almost. I was impressed. The owner couldn’t quite catch him and couldn’t drive him into the corral. After many tries he gave it up. The next morning the bull was gone. Last I heard it was on the far side of the mountain at the neighbor’s property.
But the bull did leave me with a touch of reality for the story.
My protagonist leaps a horned bull like that, one that even has a similar dapple-brown coat like the bull shown in the fresco. She has help. Grapplers hold the bull by the horns while two young men kneel in front of him, hands together. She jumps on their hands for the lift she needs to soar up and grab the ridge on the animal’s head between the deadly horns. Then she performs a front flip, her feet going over her head and down on his back–the critical crossing. One more flip and she lands on her feet on the ground behind him, into the arms of her catcher.
Of course, it being a story, the thing can’t go that smoothly. It needs tension. It needs dazzle.
Watching that bull, I was glad my protagonist did the leap, not me.
Back in February of this year I announced in a blog post that I had done a major rewrite on Book One of my trilogy set in early Greece. Having put so much effort into recasting the story, I felt certain I had it ready this time. After all, I had been improving it for 20 years.
I proceeded to update Book Two and Book Three to reflect those changes and wrote a blog post in early April on the whole trilogy, putting a bow on it.
I thought it was done.
With that accomplished I headed out in late April on my trip to Europe to research settings for the full series, having drafted six books so far.
The emphasis on my trip was the second trilogy, since I thought the first was essentially complete. Of course I was open to any tweaking my new explorations might dictate.
My impulses first drew me back to the center of it all, the fabulous ruins of Knossos on the Greek island of Crete. I hoped I wouldn’t see anything that would require significant changes, but I opened my senses to the wonders around me.
On my return home I was happy to report that in the first trilogy my descriptions held up. Except for a couple of additions I wanted to make in Books Two and Three, that trilogy was virtually ready to go.
Then reality hit. I received a harsh critique on Book One. Because of that critique and because this first book is the foundation of the entire series, my agent asked me to focus only on this one now and to give it another thorough revision with feedback from new readers. Another comprehensive rewrite!
I backed up and approached it one more time. I plunged into new research, including discussion with experts on the setting and technology. I gave it substantial new polishing, new scenes, clipping and reshaping of old scenes. I received new critiques by beta readers who never saw it before, did more adding and clipping to address their concerns, and more thorough polishing to see that everything works together.
Last February I thought I couldn’t make it better. Now I know I could because I have.
Besides all that clipping and adding and reshaping, whispers of memory infused the pages from my recent visit to the site. I could see it more clearly through the eyes of my characters because I had just seen it through my own eyes.
Yesterday I sent off the new rewrite of Book One with hope that this time is the charm. Fingers crossed. I can say for certain it’s another milestone in the process.
We flew out of Shannon airport on our homeward-bound journey. Lynn and I had bought our tickets separately so we weren’t seated together. For the Shannon-Philadelphia leg of the trip I took my seat by the window and a couple of young Irishmen sat beside me. They were on their way to San Francisco, a place where I had lived for eight years. So as the plane lifted off I left their world as they looked forward to visiting mine. They had both just turned 21. Their boisterous excitement was infectious and I laughed with them, caught in their delight.
My trip wasn’t quite over. Setbacks awaited me in Los Angeles when our Philadelphia-LA plane landed late in LAX, where we had a short connection. Seated in the very last row, I had trouble getting past the other passengers, and we had long lines and two slow buses across the tarmac to reach my gate. Lynn was well ahead of me.
By the time I found my gate, panting from my run, there were no passengers left, just an attendant standing alone at the gate. She asked me if I was Janet Fisher. Hopeful they were waiting for me, I answered yes in a gasping voice. She phoned the plane and shook her head at me. “They’ve already left. You’re too late.” No! That couldn’t be. “My friend is already on the plane,” I told her. “I have to be on that plane.”
The phone rang. The pilot had agreed to open the door for me. The plane hadn’t actually pulled away. I broke into tears. The attendant led me to the plane’s door. Once inside, I stumbled down the aisle as passengers applauded with smiling faces. Lynn was beaming and gave me a big hug when I sat down, still crying softly. She had begged them to wait, certain I was coming.
Exhausted, I settled back in the seat for the last leg of our journey, slowly recovering from that arduous finale to a long and wonderful trip—37 days of exploring the world of my ancient series.
During those 37 days I became steeped in the past, as I sought the places that define these stories.
I had the good fortune of meeting several archeologists whose work takes them into the ancient times. And others who simply love their history.
I felt the raw edge of cultures different from my own and the universal embrace of friendly people.
I immersed myself in the book settings and felt my characters walking along these places. As I walked with them I remembered their tears and joys. My own tears came, and my joy.
My bout with food poisoning had made me lose a day, but I told myself I had gained a day when jet lag didn’t hold me back. If I ventured out on this last day in Crete I could call it even.
A good night’s sleep after a day of rest restored me enough to keep to my plan for visiting Fodhele Beach and maybe Amnisos. I had only a few scenes at Fodhele Beach, a spot just 17 miles west of Heraklion. I had been in the vicinity on my first trip to Crete and had found good pictures of the site on Google Maps. But I did want to go down onto the beach and get a feel for it. I dared eat a little more for breakfast, corn flakes and peaches, not my usual fare but it went well.
So I headed for the bus station. I didn’t see the man in blue who’d helped me find my bus before, but a tiny young woman with long red hair swept in like an angel in blue jeans and gray cardigan. She seemed to be directing passengers. It’s not unusual for locals to offer help so I supposed she was a local. I told her I wanted to go to Fodhele Beach. She not only showed me the right bus. She said she would show me where to get off. Wonderful! She was going my way.
It soon appeared she was more than a traveler because she started taking money for tickets. The bus meandered up the coast and stopped in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere. She smiled at me and indicated I should get off there.
I was a bit dubious. Not many other passengers were getting off, and when the bus left me standing beside the road I heard nothing but goats bleating on the barren mountain of scrubby maquis on the other side of the road. Wild goats? Or tame? The quiet resonated. I watched the goats as they traipsed across the steep rocky slopes. I didn’t see a beach or a town. Where was I? A lone woman started down a narrow road on this side where I finally saw a small sign pointing to a beach. I followed her. Surely my angel wouldn’t have led me astray.
Before long I saw what looked like an elaborate resort perched above a stunning blue bay with a wide sweep of sandy beach. Wooden walkways stretched across the sand for easy walking. I wandered up a few of those, imagining my scene with the battle storming over the beach and I picked out the places my warriors could hide before joining the fray. Once I had a feel for that I proceeded to explore.
Opposite the resort several simpler establishments followed a narrow roadway leading toward the far headland, a few restaurants, some houses. I decided to check them out. One house looked particularly inviting with its pointy gate. Still feeling sapped of energy from my sickness, I took my time walking up the gentle slope. Such a peaceful place for the havoc I created there in my story, but I liked the juxtaposition.
Farther up the road past the buildings I came to a spot where I looked down on water so clear I could see the rocks shimmering far out on the seabed.
The headland on my right jutted into that clear sea, and I could imagine the Cretan fleet coming around that promontory, thrilling my protagonist who so needs to see them.
Hunger led me back to the restaurants. I wasn’t sure what I could eat, but I had to eat something. I chose a place with tables and umbrellas right out on the beach and an open covered deck in the building behind. The day was growing hot and it seemed cooler back in the covered area. I suggested as much to the waiter and he nodded. “Yes, it’s cooler in here.”
I took a place on the outer edge of the deck where I could look out on the fabulous beauty of the beach. I studied the menu carefully and saw only one thing I wanted. A Greek salad with fresh tomatoes, feta, Greek olives, and the works, with some of that wonderful bread they serve in Crete. Did I dare? It sure wasn’t on the BRAT diet. I ordered the salad without the onions and cucumbers. It was lovely. My stomach argued only a tiny bit. The salad was worth it if that was all the objection I got. I stayed for a long time just soaking in the peaceful Mediterranean beauty, happy that the setting worked well for my scenes. Voices murmured and bright white seagulls cried, soaring with black-tipped wings.
The waiter told me where to go to catch the bus. Steps led straight up a steep embankment, partly covered in some kind of succulent. I should have taken a picture. The road’s guardrail blocked the top and I had to step over that. A covered bus stop stood only a few feet away.
Before long the red-haired angel appeared. Angel or Greek goddess? Poof! She’s there!
“You’re everywhere,” I said.
She laughed. She had gotten off in the main village of Fodhele, a few kilometers from the beach. I think she said it was her home. We chatted as we waited for the bus, and when the bus came and we got on she took tickets for new passengers. Just like that.
Back at the bus station I asked how I could reach Amnisos, my last destination in Crete. I got several directions. None clear. The angel had left. After a short rest at the hotel I decided I had time and energy enough to make this last short hop. I finally found the right bus stop in the center of Heraklion and waited. And waited. I was about to give up when the Amnisos bus came.
At my destination I walked down to the golden beach of the ancient village of Amnisos that once served as a port for Knossos, since Knossos lay a few miles inland. The sand was golden as advertised, but I couldn’t help feeling that my character Sarena who loved this place so much might be terribly disappointed with what has happened to it. The place has been thoroughly commercialized. The hills are rockier, more barren than I imagined. But with pretty white block houses overlooking the beach–as in Sarena’s time–it would be nicer. I believe that during her days the climate was wetter, so things would probably have been greener.
I had read that there were Minoan ruins at Amnisos but I never found them. People tried to direct me, pointing, smiling. “Yes, go that way, you’ll see.” “Just up the road there.” But I never saw and could never be sure they understood me. I think they wanted to help but had no idea. The heat of the day had turned fierce, and after many dead ends I headed back for the bus stop, discouraged.
I did get a free bus ride back. The drivers like change. They don’t want bills. But I didn’t have enough change. I handed the driver a 5-euro bill. He scowled at it a moment, then shoved it back into my palm, voice sharp. “Sit! Sit!”
The second day of my journey I planned a bus trip to Kastelli, a small town east of Heraklion, Crete, that’s probably not on many a traveler’s list. But I wasn’t looking for tourist spots this time. My tummy felt a little grumbly so I had to bypass some of the richer dainties among the fabulous breakfast offerings and hurried to the familiar Heraklion bus station. I had only three more days in Crete, and I didn’t want anything to slow me down.
The station is a lively place where Greek exuberance abounds. Yet it can be confusing with announcements in Greek and routes not always clear. The man in blue insisted he would let me know when my bus came. I should sit on the bench and not worry. “Relax. This is Crete. We don’t worry here.”
Okay, but I didn’t want to sit on the bench where people were smoking. So many smokers. The man seemed a little offended, as if I didn’t trust him to remember me among all the other travelers. I wondered how he could possibly remember one among many, but in fact he did.
I was soon on a fine bus to Kastelli. The Greek buses are great. Comfortable, cheap, and they take you to every corner, it seems, often with Greek music playing as they charge around narrow, curvy roads that make the elderly Greek women cross themselves. How can you not be in good spirits?
The bus sailed by Knossos and was continuing south on a thrilling road when I caught sight of one of the destinations on my itinerary, the ancient aqueduct across the Kairatos River at Spilia. I could see the arches ahead.
Before the trip I had been trying to figure out if any bridges had been discovered around Knossos besides one that crosses the Vlychia Stream to the south. That stream flows into the Kairatos River, which runs along the east side of Knossos, and for the people to access points east, they needed a bridge across that main river. I wanted to describe them crossing it. I had contacted Dr. Yuri Gorokhovich, Associate Professor at the City University of New York, who brought my attention to this aqueduct across the Kairatos River built by the Romans and later reconstructed by Venetians and then Egyptians. He said the Romans often chose existing structures to build upon, so there might have been a bridge or aqueduct there in the Minoan period. Pantelis Soupios, Professor at the Technological Institute of Crete, discussed with us the possibility of digging for evidence of an older foundation, but that didn’t seem feasible at this time.
Since I’m writing fiction I feel free to locate my own bridges as long as nobody has discovered something real. In choosing a bridge site Pantelis brought up the consideration of where the river may be the narrowest and the logical route between points of interest. The modern road south of Knossos follows the west bank of the Karaitos River, then crosses it below this old aqueduct to continue south on the east bank. Ancient roads might have taken the same route, given the lay of the land.
I decided to adopt the Spilia site for one of my bridges with thanks to Yuri and Pantelis.
The aqueduct is only a one-mile walk from Knossos so I had thought I might walk there the day of my next visit to Knossos. Now, as the bus rolled along the narrow road with no safe place for pedestrians–and cars and huge buses zipping one way and another–I began to rethink the walk. My bus went right by it, crossing the Kairatos River on the low modern bridge just downstream. I did my best to soak in the sight, and snapped photos. I would look for it again on the return bus.
As we continued eastward I watched the beautiful countryside slip past, places I describe in my books. I had been in the vicinity before and had visited on Google Maps, but I wanted to assure myself I had the right sense of it. I was on my way to Eudora’s villa, a fictional setting. When my settings take me to real places like Knossos, which many people visit and many scholars have studied, I feel the need to have all the particulars as right as I can get them. So I studied Knossos extensively. But for a fictional setting like the villa of the character Eudora, I just want to have the general landscape right.
I’d picked Kastelli on the map because it was about 15 miles east of Knossos, probably a half day’s ride by horseback. Imagine my surprise when I later learned that there’s a Minoan ruin a short walk from the town center. I had to see that. In Kastelli I got off the bus and the driver told me I should meet the return bus in the same place at 3 o’clock, the only bus back to Heraklion that day. I didn’t dare miss it. It wasn’t noon yet. I had plenty of time and I wanted to find the Minoan ruins.
No one at the bus stop knew how to find it, so I went into a store and asked a woman there. She spoke clear English but didn’t know much about the place. An older man knew but didn’t speak English. Between them they gave me directions. Basically head up the hill and go just beyond the top. It’s up there. I headed up the hill, looking for the high point. And there it was. Eudora’s house.
It had turned a little drafty over the years, just the base walls left, but I let my imagination flow. The hills beyond it were just right. I was pretty excited. I spent a long time there, wandering around the fenced ruins to peer inside, sitting on the edge, letting the soft breezes touch me, carry me back to the distant days when people lived here, loved here, bore children here, died here.
Most of the time I had the place to myself. So quiet, except that the cover over the ruins made rippling noises, as if someone were there with me. It was the wind of course, but I couldn’t shake the sensation.
My rumbly tummy sent me down the hill. I told myself I was just hungry. I needed lunch. At a small place not far from the town center I got a lovely gyro sandwich with sizzling meat sliced from one of the vertical roasting spits so popular in Greece (the waiter said it was deer meat), the thin slices wrapped in a pita with tomatoes and yogurt and other trimmings.
My bus arrived early and parked. The driver headed for the taverna–for a coffee, I hoped. I sat in the shade waiting for 3 o’clock, writing impressions in my notebook.
The bus ride back was as delightful as the outbound trip and the driver’s hand steady on the winding roads through hills and valleys blanketed in a patchwork of gray-green olive groves and bright vineyards and villages. Forests of giant cypresses once covered many of Crete’s hills, long since depleted even before the years of my stories, having been logged for local construction and ship building and trade. Crete was known in ancient times for its cypresses. Both the pyramidal and a more free-form variety still dot the land, but not many giants.
Rockier slopes had reverted to the scrubby maquis of hardy evergreen bushes and herbs and tufty grasses common in lands on the Mediterranean.
That evening back in Heraklion I asked for a recommendation for dinner and had a fantastic meal–roast pork with a Minoan bean side dish, complimentary dessert of creamy jelled rice smothered in cinnamon and almonds, a small glass of raki with peach. Delicious.
In the middle of the night the slight nausea that had plagued me for a couple of days hit with sudden force. I lost my beautiful pork dinner. I lost my fresh gyro sandwich. I lost days of previously consumed meals in a siege I thought would never stop. By the time it subsided my mouth was like paper. I felt thin as a post, tummy concave. My bottled water was nearly gone and I wasn’t in the mood to risk tap water despite assurances of its safety. I called downstairs and a sympathetic man brought me a bottle of water.
I was pretty sure I knew what got me. The lukewarm chicken at the Athens airport that had no doubt been sitting out for hours. It had tasted a little off and I’d worried a little at the time. If only I had chosen the earlier flight from Athens to Heraklion I would never have seen that chicken. It could have been something else, but the tummy rumbles had started soon after.
Now I sipped water, unable to sleep. I rested until 10 am or so and went down for tea and dry toast. No pretty dainties. I wished for a banana so I could start on the bland BRAT diet my stomach wanted–bananas, rice, applesauce, toast. They had no bananas. At least I got the toast part. That afternoon after sleeping on and off I ventured out to the market, which wasn’t too far away, and bought two bananas. Lunch and dinner.
The day’s plans were cancelled.
I was glad I had spent so much time that first day in Knossos and that I had gotten a good look at the aqueduct. I only had one day left in Crete, and I still wanted to see Fodhele Beach and the ancient port of Amnisos. Hoping for strength, I gazed out the hotel window and dozed again.
Welcome to the opening day of my journey, which began in Greece on April 24, 2018. Over the next few weeks I’ll share the highlights of that 37-day trip through Greece, Portugal, the UK, and Ireland, where I traveled to research scenes for my upcoming series of epic historical novels. If you read my last two posts, the overview and backstory, you’ll have a better picture of why I went. Now here’s post #1 of the trek.
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I woke up in the morning in the Greek Isle of Crete after a long, long flight from Eugene, Oregon, via Seattle and London and Athens. Waking in the morning might not seem so remarkable, except that morning in Greece is about 10 hours after morning in Oregon. The flight adds 10 hours to the 24-hour day, so I had leapt a day ahead, and jet lag can do strange things with your sleep patterns. Maybe it was a good thing that I couldn’t sleep on the plane. Some say you get adjusted better that way. In all my travels overseas I don’t remember ever experiencing such a bright-eyed morning on the first day. That turned out to be more important to me than I anticipated.
I checked out the view of the Mediterranean from my hotel balcony and headed downstairs for breakfast. I must say, that breakfast ranked with the best on my trip–lovely Greek pastries, a custardy egg dish, muesli, nuts, fruits, on and on.
My plan for the day was to do a quick visit to the ruins of Knossos if I felt up to it. One of my reasons for starting the trip in Crete, even though it was my farthest point from home, was that it was familiar to me and relatively inexpensive, and I assumed I’d find it easy to deal with a day or two of jet lag there.
I had spent a month in Crete on my first trip to the island, about half of that time in the island’s chief city, Heraklion, and had spent a good part of my second trip centered in Heraklion too. Now, on my third visit, I stepped out onto streets I knew, and I enjoyed getting back in touch with this special place.
Feeling good, I soon headed out for the ruins of the temple (or palace) that graced the ancient city of Knossos on the outskirts of Heraklion. It took me awhile to find the bus. The old bus stop didn’t exist anymore because they had turned the main drag into a pedestrian street. I asked for directions and got many confusing answers. That was familiar too. People so want to help, but communication becomes uncertain when their English is limited and my Greek is almost nonexistent. One woman simply said, “Come. Follow me.” I did. Love it when they do that.
Soon I was on my way, rumbling through the streets of Heraklion on one of their many buses and out to the edge of town to a site that has filled my mind for years as the characters of my books stroll through the corridors and halls and surrounding slopes of that ancient city. Knossos, heart of the early Cretan world. A rush of joy lifted me as I entered the compound.
I first came out onto the West Court where my first story in Crete opens. I needed to stand on that broad paved courtyard and look around. Could I see what I thought I could from that place? Could I see Mount Youktas on the horizon, the mountain that looks like the face of a reclining person? Were the slopes the way I remembered from my last visit 23 years ago? And from my many recent visits by Google Maps? I stood on the ancient stones and smiled. Yes. I could see the mountain. Rearrange a few trees and I would see it even better. My descriptions held up. I relaxed and let the place wrap around me as it had done so long ago.
I found the spot where I had taken a picture in 1994 that has hung on my wall ever since, an outlook past one of the unique red columns of the site to Mount Youktas beyond the hill of olive groves. This time I took a new picture with the little Nikon digital camera I bought a few years ago to help me illustrate my blog posts.
Note that the column is larger in circumference at the top than at the bottom, a style found throughout Knossos. These pillars once lined corridors and divided rooms. Most of the large ones are red. Others are black with red trim.
I wandered all around the perimeter seeking the settings of many a scene. Some of those scenes grip my heart and I relived them here where they took place, shedding a few tears for my characters.
Since my last visit the throne room has been opened. Such a thrill to see this room I call the receiving room of the High Priestess of Knossos. The alabaster chair gave a clue to researchers that the person who sat on this small chair might be a woman rather than a man, because a woman might more easily fit in that gracefully molded seat.
Visitors aren’t allowed into the room itself. You walk through the anteroom (also described in my stories) and from there you look across a low glass barricade into the inner sanctum. The barricade is low enough to lean over so you get a good feel for it. The space seemed a little smaller than I had imagined from photos but every bit as powerful with the waving swaths of red giving a womb-like impression.
In my stories, and I suspect in reality, this is a sacred room. So much at Knossos shows signs of the people’s appreciation for the sacred. I put this photo on the banner of my Facebook Author Page, and someone asked if the object in front of the chair was a toilet. The Knossians did have flush toilets some 3,500 years ago, with a plumbing system so advanced it wouldn’t be equaled until the 19th century AD. But those toilets were modestly enclosed behind doors. The basin above was interpreted by scholars as a lustral basin for ceremonial bathing. When archeologists dug these objects out of the earth some things were in a jumble and they didn’t know where the basin belonged. On the far side of the room from the alabaster chair, several steps lead to a lower level.
I believe that would be a more likely place for the basin, deeper in the earth, and put it there in my stories. I don’t portray this room in the first part of the book, although there were several lustral basins around the temple, and I managed early on to come up with a steamy scene in one of those.
I depict this room as part of the temple’s reconstruction after a dramatic earthquake. The extension of the room beyond the black pillars tends to create a space both infinite and intimate.
The griffins portrayed on the wall represent three aspects of nature, the eagle’s head for the skies, the lion’s body for the land, the snake’s tail for the deep earth. They were likely considered sacred.
The Knossians seemed to wear their religion comfortably. Frescoes show them enjoying life, sensuous, wearing clothing that clearly reveals their sexuality, but without guile, suggesting a healthy acceptance of this aspect of life. You see no seductive scenes like those found in the Roman ruins of Pompeii. Nor do you see scenes of war and aggression so common in other art of the day. Clearly, Knossos was different. But it would not go unchanged.
I stopped in the afternoon to enjoy a wonderful Greek salad in a restaurant within the compound, perfect fresh-picked tomatoes and Greek olives and more, topped with a thick square of feta cheese, sprinkled with dill and other herbs, and drizzled with Greek olive oil, a delicious sliced baguette on the side.
Restored, I climbed the grand staircase. The receiving room is just beyond the anteroom on the ground level to the right of the staircase shown above. Then I trudged up the north ramp past the relief fresco of the charging bull. And I peered into column-lined rooms.
The jet lag I feared didn’t hit. I stayed and saw it all. Sometimes I rested on a low wall and just let the wonder of the place seep in. I took notes. I studied the maps I had copied for the little trip booklet I put together. I imagined scenes and assured myself that I had relayed the sense of place I needed. Unsure of some areas I went back to check them again.
I began to wonder if I needed to spend another 15 euros for the full second day I had planned for Knossos.
That question of necessity turned out to be a good thing. More on that in the next post.
For this day I felt fully satisfied. Resonant with joy.
Before I launch into Day One about my recent research trip through Greece and Portugal, the UK and Ireland, it occurs to me that it might help clarify my reasons for this journey and my reasons for writing the ancient historical series if I backtrack to the beginning. My focus on the Greek Isle of Crete started in 1994 when I set out to research a mystery novel on that exotic Mediterranean island. I had been writing books and pursuing publication for about 14 years, without success. I had moved from Roseburg, Oregon, to San Francisco in late 1989, ending a long-term marriage, and I was seeking answers for my life.
During this time I read a New York Times bestselling book by Riane Eisler called The Chalice and the Blade, where she describes nothing less than the overturning of the world’s cultural norms from woman-centered civilizations to a patriarchal world ruled by contentious warriors. I was fascinated. One chapter stood out for me, where she describes Crete as the “essential difference.” Because of its isolation in the Mediterranean Sea, this island remained one of the last holdouts of those woman-centered cultures. Its primary city of Knossos offered stunning revelations about these Bronze Age people when archeologists began uncovering the fabulous ruins some 100 years ago. Eisler describes Crete as the highest technological culture ever found where women were not dominated by men. I wanted to see this place.
When I visited Knossos and stepped into the partially reconstructed ruins of its central structure, the place seemed to wrap itself around me like a mother’s loving arms. I no longer wanted to write my mystery novel. I wanted to immerse myself in this world and come to know the mystery of the ancients who once thrived there.
The British archeologist Sir Arthur Evans who uncovered Knossos in the early 1900s was struck by what he found–grand staircases and pillar-lined corridors, technological wonders like flush toilets and an elaborate drainage system, frescoes revealing a free and sensuous lifestyle with women standing proud at the center. He believed he’d found a matriarchy but as a man of his times he thought they needed a king to run it. He saw this as the Palace of King Minos mentioned by Homer and Hesiod. But later scholars suggest it may have been a temple, an idea I adopted for my books, and I drew from one of Eisler’s thoughts on King Minos, depicting him as a Mycenaean warrior with designs on Crete–and a couple of Cretan women.
While in Crete I met a man who helped me understand the attraction, the delight, the frustration that can happen when cultures clash. The experience found its way into my story which opens on this peaceful isle on the day the warriors come.
The frescoes shown here are reproductions of originals that are housed in the excellent Archaeological Museum in nearby Heraklion, Crete, the island’s primary modern city. The bull-leaping fresco appears in the opening scene of my book now called Beyond the Waning Moon. And readers will experience a bull-leaping event in the second scene when the protagonist faces a fierce bull in the court.
I wrote the book and continued editing and revising for several years as I sought its publication. Riane Eisler kindly critiqued the opening and when I addressed her concerns she called the result powerful, responding “Brava!” The novel eventually became a finalist in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association Literary Contest. The next year I found a way to tie the people of Crete to their counterparts in the distant isle of Ireland, another place that had touched me deeply and where I have personal roots.
My search for life’s answers led me to mythologist Joseph Campbell and especially his four-volume work, The Masks of God. My focus riveted on his discussion of Ireland and how he could see behind the Irish myths to a culture of Mother Right, essentially a matriarchy that would have preceded the later patriarchy. As Eisler points out in Chalice and the Blade, this isn’t the flip side of patriarchy where women rule over men but more of an egalitarian society accepting the full worth of both genders. Neither writer suggests any kind of utopia but at least a much more equal situation than we came to know.
I first visited Ireland in 1993 because of my Irish roots and had set one of those mystery novels there. But I wanted to tap into the ancient times that paralleled my Cretan story and find the lost culture of Mother Right, which Campbell talked about.
The Cretans of the first book in my ancient saga decide to send out a fleet in search of a place the warriors haven’t come. These early Cretans were known as great mariners, their frescoes and other art showing them sailing around the Mediterranean. I figured if they could sail around the eastern Mediterranean they could surely venture to the west and even out through the gate to the Atlantic, as long as they kept the shores in sight. But for a little excitement they get caught in a horrific storm and one ship crashes on the rugged rocks on Ireland’s south coast. Voila! A sequel–albeit loosely tied.
I completed the sequel in 2004 and went back to Ireland in the spring of that year, focused now on stone circles and this rugged south coast near Rosscarbery in County Cork.
I again entered the PNWA literary contest, and this Irish one was a finalist too, just one year after the Cretan book. I thought I was surely on the road to publication then, but could not find an agent for these stories of strong women facing formidable challenges of their time. I began to get discouraged.
My father died in 2007 and I decided to keep the farm founded by my great-great-grandmother Martha in 1868. I left the ancient stories on the shelf and pursued a story about Martha, discovering I had a strong woman in my family who’d faced challenges of her own time. Finally I found an agent, Rita Rosenkranz, who helped me meet my goal of publication with Martha’s story.
But I hadn’t forgotten the ancients. I had a flash of inspiration about the Cretan story and decided to make substantial changes. When I finished those I realized I definitely needed another sequel that would be closely tied. I wanted to launch into it but I had another story set in the same pioneer period as Martha’s story. My agent and I agreed I should take advantage of the publisher’s interest and bring that pioneer story out first.
By the spring of 2014, with the two pioneer stories in the pipeline, I finally had time to draft the closely tied sequel to the Cretan book. By Christmas I was ready to write one more book to continue the ancient line, but it just wasn’t happening until my muse started whispering to me. I told about that experience on a blog post here so won’t repeat it. This fourth book was drafted by the spring of 2015. I had planned to write a fifth that would bring Crete and Ireland back together but realized I had a 16-year gap in the Irish years. Why not fill the gap with another story?
Because of all the questions I had left at the end of the first Irish book, I wanted to portray the events of those 16 years. I would take readers to the homeland of the Iberians who’d been capturing slaves off the coast of Ireland. I would show my bad guy in his personal haunts.
But the Iberians couldn’t all be brutes, could they? I learned about their amazing citadel of Zambujal north of today’s Lisbon. They must have enjoyed a sophisticated culture I needed to know more about.
And I would take readers to the Great Isle of Britain where my protagonist runs into some intriguing outlaws in the Lake District of northern England.
I finished the rough draft of the gap story in 2016. Then in 2017 I drafted the sixth book, which took me back to Iberia.
I had never been to the Iberian peninsula, where there’s a stone circle (or oval) more ancient than the circles of Ireland. I needed to see that, as well as Zambujal. And I had never been to the Lake District in England.
Also, the new books ventured into places in Greece and Ireland I hadn’t visited before. Thus the need for another trip. Once you’ve crossed the pond, that’s the biggest single expense. I decided I might as well put it all together.
So, that’s how the project started and why the extended trip. Next up, I invite you to come with me on my solo journey in Greece and Portugal and my continued trek with writer friend Lynn Ash through the British Isles. I’ll start the next post with Day One in Heraklion, Crete, and the nearby site of Knossos I have come to love.