Monday, January 31, 2011

Vote for Salida, Colorado!

The funky, friendly town of Salida, Colorado is the setting for my new RM Outdoor Adventures mystery series, starting with my March 8th release, Deadly Currents. It's the town where my whitewater river ranger, Mandy Tanner, lives and where her workplace, the headquarters for the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area, is located. Salida is the home of the FIBArk whitewater festival, the longest running in the US, and FIBArk events are featured in Deadly Currents. Salida is also the home of the lovely historic Victoria Tavern, where Mandy hangs out with her rafting buddies, and of the wonderful local bookstore, The Book Haven, which is hosting a signing for Deadly Currents.

Why am I telling you all of this?

Because Salida, Colorado, is one of twenty small towns in the US competing for the title of "America's Coolest Small Town" at the Budget Travel magazine website. And I think Salida should win! I'm encouraging all of my blog readers to vote for the town in the competition. To vote, go here.

If you want to find out more about Salida, check out these websites:
Colorado Headwaters
Salida Chamber of Commerce
Salida Travel Guide

Friday, January 28, 2011

Another Wonderful Review for Deadly Currents!

I'm flying high with the news that the January 24, 2011 issue of Booklist Online includes a great review for Deadly Currents, the first book in my RM Outdoor Adventures mystery series that will be released March 8, 2011. Barbara Bibel, the reviewer, has this to say:

"Groundwater (A Real Basket Case, 2007) launches a new, action-packed series featuring white-water guide Mandy Tanner. Mandy, a river ranger at her uncle’s white-water rafting business, pulls a man from the river as part of her first day on the job. The man dies, but he did not drown. The victim, Tom King, was a real-estate developer with lots of nasty rivals. He also cheated on his wife and refused to support his son, an avid kayaker. He managed to make many environmentalists very unhappy, too. When Mandy’s uncle dies suddenly, she suspects something more than a heart attack and wonders whether the two deaths are related. Her independent investigation leads her through some very rough water. Readers who enjoy fast-moving stories and wilderness environments will keep turning the pages of this promising series debut."

To read the review at its source, go HERE. This review, added to those from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews, means that Deadly Currents has been mentioned in three of the big four review publications now. The fourth is Library Journal. Dare I hope? ;-)

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Today's Mystery Author Guest: Karen McCullough

As promised yesterday, fellow mystery author Karen McCullough is visiting my blog today to answer my interview questions and ones asked by my blog readers. To read her bio and see her photo, please page down to yesterday's post. Above is the cover photo for her February 9th release from Five Star, A Gift For Murder.

Misplaced shipments, feuding exhibitors, and malfunctioning popcorn machines are all in a day’s work for Heather McNeil, assistant to the director of the Washington DC Market Center. She’s on a career path that should someday make her director of the center. She’s smart, competent, and trying hard not to be frazzled by the Gift and Home trade show, the biggest event of the year. Finding the body of a murdered executive on the first day of the show tips Heather into personal and professional havoc. The police suspect the victim’s wife killed him, but Heather doesn’t believe it. She’s gotten glimmers of an entirely different scenario and possible motive. Her attraction to the Market Center’s new security officer, Scott Brandon, adds to the chaos. Despite opposition from some of the exhibitors, her employers, and the police, Heather seeks to expose a murderer before the show ends and all hope of finding the killer disappears.

You know, that Gift and Home trade show is precisely the kind of show that my gift basket designer sleuth, Claire Hanover, would go to. This should be a very interesting read! See what Karen McCullough has to say in response to my questions below, and feel free to ask her additional questions in comments.

1. Who or what inspired you to start writing and when did you start?

I wrote my first mystery story when I was about ten, inspired by Nancy Drew, but I didn’t start writing seriously until many years later. My husband had read a couple of short things I’d written and thought they were pretty good. He suggested I try writing a short story or two. So I did, but I found I had a hard time containing the plots I wanted to do in the short format, which led to my writing my first novel.

2. What tools and process do you use to “get to know” your characters before and while you’re writing the books?

Actually the only tool I use for my characters is my brain. My initial idea for a story generally involves a character with a problem they have to deal with. I may not know much about that character at the outset, but I do know why the situation is a challenge for them, and as I go through the process of writing the book, I learn more and more about them, discover what makes them tick, what they fear, what they love, etc.

3. How do you construct your plots? Do you outline or do you write “by the seat of your pants”?

I’m a seat of the pantser, but I have learned how to do brief, general outlines for my publishers. I usually start writing a story with a basic idea of who the main characters are, how it starts and how it should end. I frequently write the first few chapters with very little idea of how the rest of the plot will go, but once I’m a few chapters into it, I have to get some direction, so I’ll sit down and make a fairly long list of possible events, encounters, and other things that might or should happen in the course of the story. With that I do a basic timeline situating those things on it and use that as a guide for writing the rest. Of course, I also frequently find the story taking unanticipated twists and turns.

4. In the age-old question of character versus plot, which one do you think is most important in a murder mystery and which one do you emphasize in your writing? Why?

In the words of an almost as age-old song: “You can’t have one without the other.” To me, the very definition of a good story is an interesting character trying to solve an interesting and compelling problem. The fact that your character is who he or she is needs to be integral to the story, but the story has to have interesting development. I try not to emphasize one or the other unduly.

In my February Five Star Mystery, A Gift For Murder, my heroine, Heather, is able to identify the culprit mostly because she knows her job, because she’s intelligent and persistent as well as observant, and because she’s a good listener in an environment that encourages talking rather than listening.

On the other hand, plot is equally important in a mystery. I’ve read—and I’m sure you have too—so-called mysteries where the solution to the crime simply falls into the detective’s lap. That doesn’t work for me. I want my detective character to get the payoff through his or her own efforts. I want them to face challenges in the course of solving the mystery and have to work through those. And ultimately I want them to win because they’re smart, persistent, and effective, not just because they’re lucky.

5. What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a writer and what inspires you and keeps you motivated?

Finding the time to write is the biggest challenge. I have a family who want to see me occasionally and a day job that pays for the electricity to run my computer. Add to that, I’m not the type of writer who can pick it up and write a paragraph here or there. I have to be able to sink into the world I’m creating in order to get it out.

On the other hand, if I go too long without writing, it feels like my head is going to explode. There are characters and stories swirling around out there and they all want to see daylight. There’s no real question of motivation. I just HAVE to write.

6. What is a typical workday for you and how many hours a day (or week) do you devote to writing?

To support my writing habit, I have a day job that involves running my own web design/development business. Because that work pays the mortgage and puts food on the table, it gets the biggest chunk of my time.

And because I need blocks of time to get into my world, I tend to be a binge writer, sometimes writing all weekend long or using days off or even long evenings. If business is slow, I’ll sometimes give myself a day off to do nothing but write.

7. What advice do you have to offer to an aspiring author?

Persistence, persistence, persistence. You’ll need to grow a thick skin and learn how to deal with rejection and then keep going if you’re serious about getting published.

8. Now here’s a zinger. Tell us something about yourself that you have not revealed in another interview yet. Something as simple as your favorite TV show or food will do.

Hmmm… Well, here’s a shocking truth about me: I’m not a food person. On the “Eat to Live – Live to Eat” scale, I’m way over on the Eat to Live side. In fact, I may have fallen off it. I’ve been known to forget to eat when I get involved in a project, and when the rumbles from my stomach finally get loud enough to remind me I need fuel, I’m most likely to grab a few crackers and a hunk of cheese or a carton of yogurt. Whatever’s handy. One obvious side effect is I’m a terrible cook.

9. What are you working on now and what are your future writing plans?

I’m currently working on the sequel to A Gift For Murder. My title is Wired For Murder, but I have no idea whether that title will stick. I also have a novella in the same world in progress, but no title for it as yet. I hope to write a few more books in the “Market Center Mysteries” series. I also have a couple of urban fantasy mysteries making the rounds at the moment.

10. Is there anything else you would like to tell my blog readers?

Please visit me my website for more information about my books. More information on A Gift For Murder and the coming additional Market Center Mysteries can be found at my Market Center Mysteries website. Of course, I’m available to talk to book clubs or other writing groups, either in person if they’re in the NC, SC, VA area, or by phone elsewhere.

Thanks, Karen! Fire away, folks, and remember that you're entering a contest for an ARC when you leave a comment.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Tomorrow's Guest: Karen McCullough!

Tomorrow fellow mystery author Karen McCullough will be a guest on my blog. Karen is the author of ten published novels in the mystery, romantic suspense, and fantasy genres and has won numerous awards, including an Eppie Award for fantasy. She’s also been a four-time Eppie finalist, and a finalist in the Prism, Dream Realm, Rising Star, Lories, Scarlett Letter, and Vixen Awards contests. Her short fiction has appeared in several anthologies and numerous small press publications in the fantasy, science fiction, and romance genres. Her upcoming release is A Gift For Murder, published in hardcover by Five Star/Gale Group Mysteries.

Karen answered my interview questions, and I'm sure you'll be intrigued by what she has to say. Then, feel free to ask her some questions of your own. Also, anyone who leaves a comment on tomorrow's post will be entered into a contest to win an Advanced Review Copy (ARC) of A Gift For Murder, which is a collector's item!

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Colorado Springs Winter Book Group Roundup

Last Thursday evening, I attended the Colorado Springs Winter Book Group Roundup held at the East Library of the Pikes Peak Library District. The Roundup was a free event that included wine and snacks and conversation about books for the members of eighty-two invited book groups in the Colorado Springs area. I went as a representative of my personal book club of thirteen neighborhood women who meet monthly to discuss books.

When representatives from the book clubs sent in their RSVPs, they also sent in the title and author of their group's favorite book that they would recommend to other book clubs. The library staff whittled those suggestions down into the top ten that are listed below. I've read some of them, and the others are going on my to-read list.

After some eating and socializing, the hundred and seventy or so of us took our seats. Library staff talked about the book club program at the library and how to reserve book club sets of popular books for your group to read. Then the guest speaker was introduced, English Professor Susan B. Taylor from the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. Her talk was "Hunger, Rebellion, and Rage: Charlotte Bronte and Jane Eyre". In actuality, it covered the lives and literature of all three Bronte sisters, including Emily and Anne. It was a fascinating presentation!

The library plans to host two of these events every year, one in August and one in January, and I'm looking forward to attending future ones. Here's the list of recommended books:

The Room by Emma Donoghue
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
Cutting for Snow by Abraham Verghese
The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng
My Antonia by Willa Cather
The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jaime Ford
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson
The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

Friday, January 21, 2011

Smells for Thought over at Inkspot

Today I am blogging at Inkspot, the blog for Midnight Ink authors, about how authors use the descriptions of smells in their writing to enhance story-telling by evoking scent memories and emotions in readers. I hope you'll read the post and let me know what you think of it!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

I'm Interviewed on Writers Who Kill, Part 2

Last Wednesday, the 12th, and today, the blog Writers Who Kill is posting a two-part interview that E. B. Davis (Elaine Douts) conducted with me recently. She got into the nitty gritty details of my three publishers and why I chose each one and asked me about my upcoming Deadly Currents release. It should be interesting reading for anyone who is trying to get a book published these days or who wants to learn more about what authors go through to do so. I hope you'll read today's interview as well as last week's. I'll be checking for and responding to comments there, so if you have a question, ask it!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Responding to a Revision Letter

Remember when you used to get a school essay returned with the teacher's red writing and correction marks all over it, pointing out all the spelling, grammar, punctuation, and even larger mistakes you made? What really hurt and brought your grade down were those larger mistakes, such as misunderstanding what the content of the essay was supposed to be or what structure the report format was to follow.

In the fiction publishing world, the editor is the one who wields the figurative red pencil. Usually there are two--the acquisition editor, who looks for those big content and structural errors, and the copy editor, who looks for smaller errors in formatting and fact-checking. When you have a contract with a publishing house, the acquisition editor must be happy with the manuscript before he or she "accepts" it and the book is put on a publication schedule. Without acceptance, there won't be a book and the author doesn't get paid.

As a result, we authors tend to bite our nails after turning in a manuscript, waiting nervously to see what the acquisition editor will say in his or her "revision letter." The revision letter lists changes that must be made before a manuscript will be accepted. I recently received my revision letter from my acquisition editor at Midnight Ink for book two of the RM Outdoor Adventures mystery series, that I'm calling Wicked Eddies. I was greatly relieved to see that it didn't include any huge changes, like "get rid of this chapter/scene," "fix this plot hole," or "I hate this character's personality."


Instead, I needed to whittle down the narrative in one chapter, define the distance from point A to point B in a scene setting, make it clear that one character is not asking another character the same question in two places but is asking different questions, and make a plot timeline issue clearer in the reader's mind. These were all eminently doable fixes that required work, but not a huge amount of work. So, I set my fingers to typing.

A few days ago, I sent the revised manuscript off to my acquisition editor. I'm now waiting to hear if my changes are acceptable or not. If not, I'll revise some more. If so, we have a GO! on this book, and the publication countdown begins.

Do I ever quibble with my editor about revisions? No. Not with any of my three publishers. They all have good editors on staff who work hard to meet their goal--to make your book the best it can be. If the acquisition editor says there's a problem, there's a problem. I may propose a different solution to the problem than the solution the editor suggests, but I never argue to ignore it and leave it be. This is all part of the process of being a professional author, working as a team member to produce the best possible product.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Two Wonderful Reviews for Deadly Currents!

I'm tickled pink--and red and yellow and orange (fireworks colors!)--to announce that I've received two wonderful reviews for my March 8 release, Deadly Currents, the first book in my RM Outdoor Adventures mystery series.

The first is from Publishers Weekly. Here's the first line:

"This enjoyable first in a new cozy series from Groundwater (To Hell in a Handbasket) introduces Mandy Tanner, "a brand new seasonal river ranger" on Colorado's Arkansas River."
-- Publisher's Weekly, January 10, 2011

The second is from Kirkus Reviews, and I liked it so much that I'm going to quote the whole thing:

Author: Groundwater, Beth

A rafting trip down the Arkansas River gives a young Colorado river ranger a lesson in murder.

Mandy Tanner learned plenty about Pine Creek, the Numbers and Wildhorse Canyon when she worked as a guide for her Uncle Bill’s adventure tours. Now she’s using her skills to protect paddlers from the dangers of whitewater. Even an experienced guide like Gonzo Gordon wipes out every now and then, and when he flips his raft in a class V, Mandy handily plucks Hannah Fowler from the rapids. Tom King isn’t so lucky; when Mandy hauls him ashore from her cataraft, his pulse is thready. After the land developer dies on the way to the hospital, his widow Paula threatens to sue Mandy’s uncle. By the time the coroner decides that King was poisoned, not drowned, Bill Tanner is dead too. And although Mandy knows that poor diet and lack of exercise were as responsible for her uncle’s heart attack as the stress of getting blamed for Tom King’s death, she still wants to find the culprit. Not her brother David’s eagerness to sell the business and get back to his accounting practice, not her boyfriend Rob Juarez’s overprotective concern, not Chafee County Sheriff's Detective Quintana’s pleas, not even the rock through her window warning her off can stop the young ranger’s need to find the truth about how Tom King died on her watch.

Groundwater (To Hell in a Handbasket, 2009, etc.) kicks off a new series that combines outdoor action with more than a modicum of old-fashioned detection."
-- Kirkus Reviews, January 15, 2011

These publications are two of the "Big Four" that librarians and booksellers pay attention to when making decisions about ordering books. The other two are Booklist and Library Journal. I'm thrilled to be batting .500 (so far). ;-)

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

I'm Interviewed on Writers Who Kill

Today and next Wednesday, the 19th, the blog Writers Who Kill is posting a two-part interview that E. B. Davis (Elaine Douts) conducted with me recently. She got into the nitty gritty details of my three publishers and why I chose each one. It should be interesting reading for anyone who is trying to get a book published these days or who wants to learn more about what authors go through to do so. I hope you'll read today's interview and return and read next week's. I'll be checking for and responding to comments there, so if you have a question, ask it!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Today's Mystery Author Guest: Lois Winston

As promised yesterday, fellow Midnight Ink mystery author Lois Winston is visiting my blog today to answer my interview questions and ones asked by my blog readers. To read her bio and see her photo, please page down to yesterday's post. Above is the cover photo for her January 8th release from Midnight Ink, Assault With a Deadly Glue Gun.

When Anastasia Pollack's husband permanently cashes in his chips at a roulette table in Vegas, her comfortable middle-class life craps out. She's left with two teenage sons, a mountain of debt, and her hateful, cane-wielding Communist mother-in-law. Not to mention stunned disbelief over her late husband's secret gambling addiction, and the loan shark who's demanding fifty thousand dollars.

Anastasia's job as crafts editor for a magazine proves no respite when she discovers a dead body glued to her office chair. The victim, fashion editor Marlys Vandenburg, collected enemies and ex-lovers like Jimmy Choos on her ruthless climb to editor-in-chief. But when evidence surfaces of an illicit affair between Marlys and Anastasia's husband, Anastasia becomes the number one suspect.

Boy does that sound like a juicy plot! See what Lois Winston has to say in response to my questions below, and feel free to ask her additional questions in comments.

1. Who or what inspired you to start writing and when did you start?

Some kids know from the moment they pick up their first #2 pencil that they want to be a writer. That wasn’t the case with me. The idea never occurred to me. Then, one night while on a business trip, I had a very vivid dream. This in itself was strange because I generally don’t remember my dreams. But not only did I remember this one, on successive nights the dream reoccurred, unfolding like the chapters of a book. I started writing it down. When I finished, I had a 50,000 word novel that spanned 35 years -- totally unpublishable, but that didn’t deter me. By that point I’d been bitten by the writing bug. Nearly sixteen years later, I’m still writing.

2. What tools and process do you use to “get to know” your characters before and while you’re writing the books?

I keep a database where I jot down physical characteristics and personality traits for each character. I also like to find photos that match the way I imagine my characters look. In my books I often use celebrities as reference points in describing my characters because it’s easier for readers to form an image in their minds that way. For instance, in my Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mysteries, I describe Anastasia’s mother as bearing a striking resemblance to actress Ellen Burstyn. That way, even if the reader isn’t familiar with the celebrity mentioned, a quick Google search will pull up photos. Beyond that, I give my characters free rein to develop as they want to within the parameters of the story.

3. How do you construct your plots? Do you outline or do you write “by the seat of your pants”?

I’m a “pantser” who has been forced to become a “plotter.” Having already published several books, I can now submit on proposal (three chapters and a synopsis.) So I don’t waste months working on a book only to find there’s no interest in it. However, writing proposals means I now need to outline my stories. Editors need to know your characters’ goals, motivations, and conflicts, along with your plot arc before they’ll make a commitment.

4. In the age-old question of character versus plot, which one do you think is most important in a murder mystery and which one do you emphasize in your writing? Why?

I believe both are important. No one wants to read about cardboard characters or stale plots. However, in a mystery, plot is paramount. Still, I want my characters to come alive on the page, be both interesting and believable to the reader, and never TSTL (too stupid to live).

5. What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a writer and what inspires you and keeps you motivated?

Very few writers sell the first book they write. Or if they do, it’s after countless rejections and many revisions, often taking years. Patience is key, but when God was handing out patience, I was too impatient to wait in line. So for me, the biggest challenge has been learning to be patient. And it doesn’t end after that first sale. I made the decision to leave my first publisher. It was the right decision, but it couldn’t have come at a worse time in the industry. As a result, it took two and a half years after the release of my second book for me to sell my third book. Did I mention I don’t do “patience” well?

What keeps me motivated? The voices in my head are constantly threatening to beat me up if I don’t keep writing about them.

6. What is a typical workday for you and how many hours a day (or week) do you devote to writing?

This varies by day and week. I juggle three separate careers. Besides writing, I’m also a designer and an associate of the literary agency that represents me. Some days are divided between all three, some days between two of the three, and some days are spent on only one. It all depends on which deadlines are the most pressing.

7. What advice do you have to offer to an aspiring author?

Don’t give up! This is a tough business. Even NY Times bestselling authors deal with rejection. If you can’t handle rejection and criticism, you’ll never survive. If you can channel the rejection and criticism to spur you to improve your writing, you have a good chance of achieving your goal of getting published.

However, if you want to get published because you think it’s a quick way to fame and fortune, go buy some lottery tickets instead. The general public only hears about the 6 and 7 figure deals scored by celebrities and a select few bestselling authors. The truth is that for every 6 and 7 figure deal, there are thousands that are low 4 figures. The average advance for a first time fiction sale these days is $5,000 or less. Most are much less. And subsequent advances aren’t that much higher. I know bestselling authors who can’t afford to quit their day jobs.

8. Now here’s a zinger. Tell us something about yourself that you have not revealed in another interview yet. Something as simple as your favorite TV show or food will do.

Well, you can easily find out my favorite TV show and food on my website, so no secret there. And in previous guest blogs over the years, I’ve divulged that motion sickness sidelined my career as an astronaut before it ever got off the ground. However, I don’t think I’ve ever told an interviewer that I used to play the violin -- very badly. Hence, the “used to.”

9. What are you working on now and what are your future writing plans?

I’m hard at work on the third book in the Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mysteries series. Look for Book 2 in January 2012 and Book 3 in January 2013. Beyond that, I have some book proposals my agent is shopping around.

10. Is there anything else you would like to tell my blog readers?

First, I want to thank you, Beth, for inviting me to be a guest at your blog today.

Your readers can learn more about me and find the first chapter of Assault With a Deadly Glue Gun at my website. In addition, Anastasia and her fellow editors blog at Killer Crafts & Crafty Killers, where you’ll find crafts projects, recipes, guest authors and more.

Throughout the month of January, I’m doing a blog tour and book giveaway in celebration of the release of Assault With a Deadly Glue Gun. You can find the schedule at both my website and at Anastasia’s blog. Everyone who posts a comment to any of the blogs over the course of the month will be entered into a drawing to receive one of 5 copies of Assault With a Deadly Glue Gun. (If your email isn’t included in your comment, please email me privately at to let me know you’ve entered so I have a way of getting in touch with the winners.) In addition, I’ll also be giving away an assortment of crafts books on selected blogs, so look for those as well.

Thanks, Lois!

Monday, January 10, 2011

Tomorrow's Guest: Lois Winston!

Tomorrow fellow Midnight Ink mystery author Lois Winston will be a guest on my blog. Lois is celebrating the publication of the first mystery in her Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery series, Assault with a Deadly Glue Gun. She's an award-winning author of romantic suspense, humorous women's fiction, and mystery. She's also an award-winning designer of needlework and crafts projects for magazines, craft book publishers, and craft kit manufacturers. Like the protagonist in her Anastasia Pollack crafting mysteries, Lois worked for several years as a crafts editor.

Lois answered my interview questions, and I'm sure you'll be intrigued by what she has to say. Then, feel free to ask her some questions of your own. Also, anyone who leaves a comment on tomorrow's post will be entered into a contest to win one of five copies of Assault with a Deadly Glue Gun that Lois is giving away on her virtual blog tour!

Friday, January 07, 2011

New Year's Goals and Resolutions

Recently I started a discussion on one of my local writing group's yahoogroup about our writing goals and resolutions. You see, stating those goals and resolutions in a public forum makes them feel more real in our minds and makes us feel more accountable. And that means we are that much more likely to actually meet those goals and fulfill those resolutions. How to I differentiate a goal from a resolution. To me, a goal is a work target, while a resolution is a promise to make a change in behavior.

So, to make me even MORE accountable, I'm going to restate my goals and resolutions here. My writing goals are to:

1) promote two releases (Deadly Currents in March and the paperback/e-book versions of A Real Basket Case in November),
2) edit two manuscripts (Wicked Eddies, book 2 in the RM Outdoor Adventures mystery series, and the 3rd book in the Claire Hanover gift basket designer mystery series), and
3) write the 3rd book in the RM Outdoor Adventures mystery series.

My writing-related resolution is to spend more time on writing and editing this year and less on promotion and networking. This is going to be tough, because opportunities are there for an author to spend an infinite amount of time promoting and networking. My hope is that after a few years of doing this, I can be smarter about it and select only those opportunities that have the most payback potential.

My non-writing-related resolution is to shed a few pounds. I'd like to get those holiday pounds off, plus a few more. We'll see how that goes!

So, spill, folks. What about you? What do you plan to accomplish in the year? What are you going to change or improve on? Do you have any specific goals or resolutions related to writing or reading Let me (and the rest of my blog readers) know!

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Southeast Asia Trip: Part 2, Myanmar (Burma)

Yangon, Myanmar (Burma)

This is the second half of my trip report on my Southeast Asia trip. On the morning of Monday, December 6th, we feasted on the huge buffet breakfast at the Traders Hotel in Yangon, which our temple photo safari trip leader, David Cardinal, told us was arranged by continent (and it is!). At 8AM, the group met up with our guide, Haymar. We walked into the center of this city of 6 million residents to see some original British colonial buildings and the central market, and wound up at the docks on the Ayeyarwady River. There we photographed the stevedores unloading river barges, and ferries and water taxis unloading passengers. Two photos are below. In the second, the larger child is wearing thanaka cream, made from ground tree bark, which is used as a sunscreen and skin lotion by the Burmese. At lunch we sampled Burmese dishes such as pickled tea leaf salad and mild curries.

In the afternoon, we visited the huge Shwedagon Pagoda, the most revered Buddhist site in Myanmar (photo below), over 2500 years old and rebuilt several times. The stupa roof is covered with 90 tons of gold, and the wind vane on top of that is encrusted with 1100 diamonds and 1400 other precious stones, and is topped by a 76 carat diamond. The pagoda is surrounded by many other temples and Buddha statues and is teeming with visitors and teams of women earning merit by sweeping the tile flooring. Here, as in many Buddhist sites in Myanmar, visitors were required to remove shoes and socks to show respect. We stayed and took photos until well after sunset.

Bagan, Myanmar

We took a short morning flight to Bagan on December 7th, meeting our guide, Aung, at the airport. First we visited the Shwezigon Pagoda, with four 13 ft Buddha statues in standing positions. We also saw a building housing statues of the 37 nats also worshipped by locals. Nats are spirits of powerful elders who met violent/untimely deaths. After a stop at the Wetkyi Inn Gubyukayi temple, we saw the Tharabar Gate, where locals bring their new vehicles to be blessed for protection by the two gate nats. We lunched at the beautiful Elephant Garden restaurant overlooking the Ayearwaddy River and checked into the Thiripyitsaya Sanctuary Resort on the river. In the afternoon, we visited a laquerware factory, where I bought more Christmas gifts. Then we drove to the Shwesandaw Pagoda, built in 1057 and said to contain some of Buddha's hairs, to take photos of the sunset lighting up the 4400+ religious monuments across the plain, built in the 11th-13th centuries, from our choice of the five terraces. A heart-stopping sight!

Wednesday morning, three of our group took a hot air balloon ride, while the rest of us climbed the Mee Nyein Gone temple to photograph the other temples at sunrise (photo below) and the balloon eclipsing the sun. We rode in a pony cart back to the resort, ate breakfast, then saw the Htilomino Temple, built in 1211 on the site where King Nandaungmya was chosen over his four brothers to be the crown prince by a leaning umbrella. Next stop was the Ananda Pagoda, a local favorite built in 1105, with hundreds of frescoes in niches depicting stages in Buddha's life. A singer/dancer and instrumentalists entertained us at lunch at the Beach Bagan restaurant, then we rested before taking a boat ride on the Ayeyarwaddy River to a seasonal fishing village. We photographed people at work and play (such as drinking palm sugar alcohol, see photo below). After our return, Aung's mother cooked us a delicious dinner at her home.

December 9th, we began at 8AM by wandering through the local market taking photos, then drove to Mt. Popa, where a monastery sits on a sheer volcanic plug 2400 ft high, with 777 narrow steps up to the top. We didn't climb up, but we visited the nat temple and monkeys at the bottom (photo below) and ate at the Mt. Popa Sanctuary Resort on the mountain overlooking the monastery (photo below). On the way there, we stopped at a roadside stand demonstrating how peanut oil, palm sugar, and palm sugar alcohol are made, with samples. On the way back, we stopped in a remote farm village to give pencils to school children (photo below) and take photos of farmsteads. After returning to Bagan, we were entertained by marionettes at dinner, including Mr. and Mrs. Honest, the poorest couple in every village. :)

Mandalay, Myanmar

On Friday, we took a short morning flight to Mandalay and were met by our guide Yan, who took us to Sagaing Hill (Sacred Hill), home to many nunneries, monasteries, temples, Buddhist universities, etc. Our first stop was a free school for 1100 young nuns and novice monks, where we donated our remaining pencils. Then we photographed the nuns at Sakyadhita Thilashin nunnery lining up for and eating lunch (photo below). Umin Thounzeh temple, with its 45 Buddha statues in a curved arc was next (photo below), followed by our own lunch and checking in at the Mandalay Hill Resort Hotel.

In the afternoon, we toured the Golden Palace monastery, the only piece of the ornately carved wooden palace of King Thibaw Min that was saved from World War II bombing. That was followed by the world's biggest book at Kuthodaw Pagoda--729 marble slabs, each in their own stone "cave," on which Buddhist texts were inscribed. The paper edition was printed on 38 400-page volumes. Our last stop was the Sutaungpyei (wish-fulfilling) Pagoda atop Mandalay Hill (photo below). We went to sleep to the soothing chants of Buddhist monks bestowing a week of continuous blessings on the city.

We spent the morning of December 11th taking photographs at workshops: gold leaf making, silk weaving, embroidery, and marble carving. Then we toured the Mahamuni Buddha temple. The bronze Buddha is believed to have been created 2500 years ago, as an actual likeness of Buddha made during his lifetime. Male devotees applying small squares of gold leaf have built up a layer of gold on the statue 9 inches thick (photo below). While there, we observed an extended family bringing young monks and nuns for their initiation rites. After lunch at a local tea garden and a rest at the hotel, we drove to the town of Amarapura to photograph the famous 1.2 kilometer U Bein Bridge from the shore, atop it, and boats (photo below). The longest teak bridge in the world, it connects an island in a lake to the shore.

Back to Yangon, Myanmar

Sunday, the rest of the group went to the Inle Lake area of Myanmar while Neil and I flew back to Yangon to spend a final night before heading home. Haymar met us at the airport and took us to a local nunnery and monastery, where we photographed monks lining up for and eating lunch (photo below). Then we toured the huge Scott Market and stopped at the Hey Day stall in the jade section to buy jewelry Christmas gifts (the owner is a friend of David Cardinal). After lunch at a local tea garden, we went to the Chaukhtatgyi Temple to photograph the huge reclining Buddha statue there (photo below). We returned to Traders Hotel to discover we'd been upgraded to a suite because the hotel was full due to a Chinese wedding there that night (we took wedding photos, of course).

On the 13th, after taking full advantage of the hotel's extensive breakfast buffet, Haymar took us to photograph the royal barge on Kandawgyi Lake, to walk around the Chinatown area, and through the National Museum, especially to see the huge Lion Throne, covered with gold and jewels. After a final lunch at the Fig Tree tea garden that offered a huge selection of inexpensive and yummy dishes, we headed to the airport to begin our long journey home, returning with thousands of photographs, suitcases stuffed with Christmas gifts, and heads stuffed with amazing memories.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Southeast Asia Trip: Part 1, Cambodia

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

This is the first half of my trip report on my Southeast Asia trip. After four flights and 28 hours of travel, we fell into a comfy bed at the Blue Lime boutique hotel in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The rooms and furnishings are all concrete, but with mattresses and cushions are comfortable, pretty, and clean. After breakfast at the hotel on Sunday, November 28, we walked to the Royal Palace compound and hired a guide to give us a tour of the complex and the Silver Pagoda (called that by Westerners for its silver tile floor, and called the Emerald Buddha Pagoda by locals for its Buddha carved from a huge raw emerald). After a walk along the Sisowath Quay on the Tonle Sap River, we returned to the hotel for lunch and a swim, then toured the National Museum, followed by a drink at the Foreign Correspondents Club. Next was a fish foot massage (photo below), where ticklish small fish nibble the dead skin off your feet, then for dinner, a popular Khmer dish, fish amok (mashed fish with curry seasoning served in banana leaf cups).

Monday morning we took a wild ride in a tuk-tuk through the city's busy streets to the Russian Market, where I bought Christmas gifts (lots of silk!) and pencils to hand out to children later. After a lunch/swim break at the hotel, we rode another tuk-tuk to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a high school converted by the Khmer Rouge into a torture facility. Out of 20,000 prisoners who went in, only 7 made it out alive. Next stop was Wat Phnom, the hillside temple from which the city gets its name, and the ritzy Raffles Hotel for drinks. We walked to the riverfront, passing a bustling local fish market, ate dinner at the Mekong River restaurant, and walked back to the hotel.

Siem Reap, Cambodia

The morning of November 30th, we met our driver who took us by car through the countryside to Siem Reap. We stopped at the Skun Village, where we turned down the opportunity to sample fried crickets and tarantulas, but Neil let a live tarantula crawl on him, to the amusement of other tourists. We stopped again to take photos of an Angkor-period sandstone bridge and arrived at the Prince D'Angkor Hotel early afternoon. There, we joined our temple photo safari leader, David Cardinal, and the rest of our small group for a late lunch. Our first photo stop was the north gate of Angkor Thom, then we toured the Preah Khan Buddhist monastery complex, built around 1190, until after sunset. The group dined at The Soup Dragon and said goodnight to each other at 9PM.

We met at 5AM Wednesday morning to drive with our guide Sopheap to Angkor Wat and join hundreds of international tourists lined up to take sunrise photos of the temple complex (photo below). By 8AM, we were eating breakfast outside the gates, then we returned to tour the interior. After lunch and a swim at the hotel, we reconvened with the group to photograph the Neak Pean (Coiled Serpents) temple built on an artificial island in the manmade Pool of Jayavarman. Next stop was sunset at the Pre Rup crematorium/funerary complex built in the late 900s AD as a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva. Dinner was grilled exotic meats, including kangaroo, ostrich, and snake, at the Cambodian BBQ restaurant.

We met even earlier at 4:45AM on December 2nd to drive to Banteay Srei (Citadel of Women), built in the late 900s AD, for sunrise photos. The temple is smaller than most of the others in the area, but is also the most beautiful. Its hard red sandstone walls are covered with expertly carved ornate decorations (photo below) that have held up very well. When busloads of tourists began to arrive, we left to eat breakfast at a restaurant outside the gate. Next stop was the Cambodia Landmine Museum and Relief Center, which I blogged about on Inkspot. After a mid-day rest, we returned to Angkor Wat to photograph the extensive bas relief murals on the walls, including the "Churning of the Sea of Milk" Hindu legend and depictions of the 37 heavens and 32 hells. Next we stopped at Bayon to photograph its bas relief carvings and take photos of the temple at sunset (photo below).

We "slept in" and were able to sample the hotel's breakfast buffet before meeting the group at 6:30AM Friday. We visited the Ta Prohm temple, which was built in the late 12th century and was featured in the "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" movie. The temple was only partially restored and many huge trees whose roots are intertwined in the structure were left (photo below). When large tour groups swarmed in around 10AM, we drove to Prasat Kravan (the Cardamon Sanctuary) to photograph its bas relief portraits of the Hindu god Vishnu. After lunch at the Butterfly Garden restaurant and a rest, we walked through the Terrace of the Leper King maze and along the stone wall carvings of the Terrace of the Elephants (photo below). We ended up at the Bayon temple again and photographed the huge stone faces on its roof (photo below).

We rose again at 5AM on December 4th to drive to Rolous and photograph sunrise at the temple of Bakong and monks leaving the nearby monastery to collect their daily alms. Then we took photos of ox carts lining up to take tourists for rides and walked through the town's market, photographing the stalls and people. After a 10AM brunch, we drove north to the large Beng Mealea temple complex. It was recently opened after a German group finished de-mining the area in 2007 and is not reconstructed. Huge mounds of stone blocks showed where arced ceilings had collapsed. Next stop was an ancient quarry, where temple blocks were cut out of a stream bed, then the long drive back to Siem Reap. The next day was a travel day, flying from Siem Reap to Yangon, Myanmar (Burma) via Bangkok, Thailand. My next post will cover Myanmar!