The Magical Attributes of Amber

Amber lifts the heart, delights the eye, and excites our imagination. We think of amber as a precious stone but unlike most jewels it is not a mineral. Like pearls, diamonds and jet, amber is of organic origin, coming from the petrified resin of ancient forests. The Baltic region produces the best amber as this is from the prehistoric Pinites succinifer tree, which is at least 50 million years old and now extinct.

As the sticky resin ran from these ancient trees, leaves, twigs, fungus gnats, dragonflies and other insects could be caught up and become an inclusion in the amber. These add to the value and reveals priceless information about the flora and fauna of the ancient world. A moment in time frozen forever.

Neolithic tribes believed that amber was a piece of the sun fallen to earth and sunk into the sea. Greek myths claimed that amber represented the tears of Apollo’s daughters, Apollo being the God of the Sun. Priestesses wore amber beads for the magical energy stored in these beautiful stones. Ladies of the court of Rome thought that touching and stroking amber would create in them a youthful appearance, cool their hands in the summer heat and enhance fertility. As amber was said to bring good luck to the wearer, gladiators stitched pieces of amber into their clothing before a fight. Native American amber is said to represent the east wind of grandfather sun, Amber is still seen by many to be a sacred symbol of the sun. It is often called Tears of the Sun, Gold of the North, Hardened Honey, or Captured Sunshine.

The Amber workshop at Catherine Palace

Amber has long been considered to have therapeutic value which will improve health and mental clarity, fight depression and promote healing, particularly for children. A belief that continues to this day as baby teethers, beaded amber necklaces, amulets of amber hearts or crosses, and bracelets, are still a traditional gift for a child. Amber oil is also believed to be effective for rheumatic diseases. Rubbed into the skin it improves blood circulation and eases muscle pains.

Photography is not allowed in the room, so I’m afraid I have no pictures, but we also enjoyed visiting the workshop.

Best of all the attributes of amber is its pure beauty and the hundreds of glorious shades, generally from white through yellow, honey, butterscotch to a reddish brown. The darker the colour, the older the amber.

Catherine Palace

One of the world's most valuable art treasures, the Amber Room in Catherine Palace was made entirely out of amber. When the palace had to be evacuated during World War Two the panels were covered up, but tragically lost, or rather stolen, by the invading Nazis. But it has since been rebuilt, a perfect replica of the original which has taken at least twenty years to achieve. We visited when on our Baltic cruise, which sparked off the idea for The Amber Keeper.

If you own some amber, then keep it in a sealed plastic bag away from heat. Amber is soft and a tiny drop of olive oil will help deal with any scratch. It will always look beautiful and very special, in addition to all its magical properties.

Prologue 1933 

My snow-boots were worn through so that I walked on the ice that coated the rough mountain path, the soles of my feet numb with cold. Gasps of breath formed frozen crystals on those parts of my nose and cheeks not protected by scarf and fur hat. I had long since lost my small pony, the poor animal having bolted home in terror when the guns started, although whether she’d ever arrived is doubtful.

Home, if that is what you can call the house in which I had resided for so many years, no longer existed. It was but a shell of its former glory. I remembered how the darkness of the night seemed to press in upon me, almost as if I were back within those prison walls. I had closed my mind to the horrors I’d left behind, attempted to set aside my fears about those loved ones dear to my heart who had vanished from my life. Instead I’d fixed my weary gaze on the heels of my guide trudging ahead of me, knowing that if I was to survive, I must stay focused. This was my last chance to get out of Russia.

We walked for days, through ice, snow and blizzard, sustaining ourselves with hunks of none too clean stale bread, and with nothing to wet our palates but sucking on icicles. When, hours later, we staggered into a cave my knees gave way and I fell to the ground, weak with gratitude. I remember feeling a huge relief that at least I could rest for a while, thankful to be out of the bitter wind. The last two nights - or was it three -we’d slept in the open, not even daring to light a fire in case the
Bolsheviks should spot it and come searching. Curling myself thankfully into a corner, rubbing my hands and feet in an effort to stave off frost-bite, I pulled up my collar, tucked my knapsack beside me and told myself firmly that I must not fall asleep. I was afraid I might never wake again, due to the fierce cold.

But despite my best efforts I must have fallen asleep instantly out of sheer exhaustion, for I knew nothing more till I was woken by a shaft of daylight filtering into the cave at dawn, and some strange sound that had alerted me. I sat up abruptly, looking around for my guide. He was nowhere to be seen. The man to whom I’d paid an exorbitant sum, every last kopek I possessed, had deserted me. I was quite alone. But as the sound of horses’ hooves clattering over rocks penetrated my befuddled brain, I realised I was about to experience some unwelcome company.

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Life as a Governess in Russia

Russian Imperial Royal Family

Hiring a British governess was quite fashionable among Russian aristocracy during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. They loved English style and wished their sons to turn into little Lord Fauntleroys. Being able to speak English was considered to be a necessary social accomplishment. French too was fashionable among the upper classes so employing an English governess who could speak the language was ideal. A tutor might also be hired to provide instruction in Russian and history, and perhaps someone to teach the piano or violin, but the governess was in charge of everything else. Lessons would take place in the mornings with the afternoons devoted to teaching drawing, painting and sewing for the girls. Boys spent the afternoons taking part in field sports and fishing. Very much in the style of British aristocracy.

Books were hard to find. Those brought into the country were often assumed to be politically suspect and not allowed in, a situation which worsened once the revolution started. Education was seen by the Bolsheviks as a problem since it gave people ideas and tended to make them difficult to rule. Families who owned precious books learned to keep them hidden away, along with their jewels and personal treasures.

Children were expected to take afternoon tea and dinner with their parents, and the governess must accompany them. This requirement differed very much from the situation in England where a governess was held in something of a limbo between servants and master. Millie was thankful that she’d learned about aristocratic etiquette from her former employer. The children, however, were quite capable of embarrassing her.

Discipline was an important part of a governess’s job. Not always easy with children who had led sheltered, spoiled lives. Some governesses lost patience and made them stand on a table, or put sticky paper over their mouth. Millie did not approve of such punishment.

A governess was also expected to attend church with the family most Sundays. The congregation would stand throughout the long service, even the Tsar and Tsarina, and all servants of the household must wear their best clothes. A fine hat was essential, the more flamboyant the better.

She could also visit the British and American Chapel in St. Petersburg on her day off, which Millie did, once she had convinced the Countess that she was entitled to some free time of her own. After the service the governesses would get together to chat as this wasn’t simply a place of worship, but also a social club. It provided evening classes, a library, chess club, choir, amateur dramatics and jolly picnics. It was the place to make friends, and hear of new jobs on the chapel grape-vine. Very much a home from home for ex-pats. It was here that Millie met the love of her life, but did he feel the same way about her?

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A Traditional Russian Christmas

Religious celebrations of any kind, including Christmas, were frowned upon by the Soviet State, and largely banned following the October Revolution of 1917. Fortunately this policy was changed in 1935, although the Festive season became a more secular celebration held in the New Year. Nowadays, Christmas in Russia is normally held on the 7 January, although many Russians celebrate it more traditionally on the 25th December as well, as many other countries do. The official Christmas and New Year holidays in Russia last from December 31st to January 10th.

Some of the old traditions have survived, such as the decoration of a tree, always an important part of the festivity. In the old days a tree would be brought in from the forest and decorated with paper lanterns, bows of ribbon, home-made crackers, spice breads, nuts and sweets wrapped in gold and silver leaf paper. Candles would be attached to the lower branches where they could easily be put out with a wet sponge on the end of a stick. The children would hang up a stocking from the chimney piece just as we do in the UK.

Where the Tsar and Tsarina stood in church.

Traditionally, there were Church services on Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day, also on 6 January. The congregation were expected to stand throughout the long service, even the Tsar and Tsarina, and the church would often be so cold that feet would go numb, as temperatures outside could be as low as minus 25 degrees. All servants of the household, including the governess, were expected to attend in their best clothes, complete with a warm hat and scarf.

Dinner on Christmas Eve generally consisted of twelve dishes to mark the Twelve Apostles. Roast pork was a popular dish, as was goose with apples, venison or lamb. This would be followed by fruit and jellies, candy and little cakes made with treacle or honey, ring-shaped biscuits. Plus a selection of dates, figs, walnuts and chocolates.

None of this delicious food was available during the revolution, however. In a diary I read of the period, written by a British woman, she said: ‘By way of a Christmas feast, we each had two little meat-balls yesterday. We had bought 5 lb of beef at 100 roubles the lb. We were wonderfully lucky getting it so cheap.’ But then on the 5th January she and her friend were ordered by the House Committee to clear snow from the street on the 6th and 7th from 1 to 3 p.m. Even worse, in Moscow people were ordered from their beds on Christmas night to clear the snow from the tram lines as fuel needed to be delivered, otherwise the lights would have gone out. So much for their celebrations.

Millie, who was governess to the children of the Countess Belinsky in The Amber Keeper, did her best to make Christmas a happy time, although she had more immediate problems on her mind.

Set against the backdrop of revolutionary Russia, The Amber Keeper is a sweeping tale of jealousy and revenge, reconciliation and forgiveness. 

English Lake District, 1960s: A young Abbie Myers returns home after learning of her mother’s death. Estranged from her turbulent family for many years, Abbie is heartbroken to hear that they blame her for the tragedy. 

Determined to uncover her mother’s past, Abbie approaches her beloved grandmother, Millie, in search of answers. As the old woman recounts her own past, Abbie is transported back to the grandeur of the Russian Empire in 1911 with tales of her grandmother’s life as a governess and the revolution that exploded around her. 

As Abbie struggles to reconcile with her family, and to support herself and her child, she realizes that those long-ago events created aftershocks that threaten to upset the fragile peace she longs to create. 

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Life in a Russian Prison

St Peter's Gate

The Fortress of Saints Peter and Paul is an important landmark in St Petersburg, and definitely worth a visit. One of the first structures to be built in St Petersburg instead of being used to defend the city, it’s history is far more sinister. It quickly became one of the most feared prisons in the Russian Empire, the building also housing the headquarters of the secret police. During the revolution it was to hold some of Russia’s most prominent political prisoners.

We found it rather chilling when we visited last year although it is now a museum, and remarkably clean and cared for. But we were certainly given a grim picture of the harsh difficulties of life back in the days of the revolution.

Seized by the Bolsheviks at the start of the October Revolution, the fortress was used to bombard the Winter Palace on the night of October 25, 1917. People could be arrested for no justified reason. Perhaps because a relative was politically opposed to the Bolsheviks, or a brother was suspected of having deserted from the Red Army. Or simply because they worked for a non-Russian. In addition, many foreigners themselves were arrested, the Bolsheviks making a list of British who lived in the city, so that they knew who to imprison next. Over 2,000 people in Petrograd were imprisoned and hundreds shot, the prisoners often forced to dig their own graves.

As Millie, my heroine in The Amber Keeper, says:

The prison at the Fortress of Saints Peter and Paul, situated on Zayachy Island in Petrograd was every bit as terrible as I had feared. Transported in a car over the Ioanovski bridge, through the courtyard, and from there to the fortress via Peter’s gate, never had I known such fear. I was numb with terror... Over and over I protested my innocence...

Nobody was listening, certainly not the guard who took most of my clothes and possessions from me and locked me in one of the dark and damp cells of the Troubetzkoy bastion. I tried talking to him in Russian, French and English, all to no avail. He simply ignored me...

There were traders charged with selling food without a permit, soldiers who had broken the rules by stealing property and selling it for themselves, and people who simply looked bewildered, rather like myself. Anxiety, fatigue and fear was evident in all their troubled faces...

I’ve taken out any spoilers, but her agony worsens as she struggles to survive. I doubt her cell looked as comfortable as this one.

Disease was a big problem. Typhoid was rampant as there was no water provided for washing purposes, and because of the filth and the freezing cold. Prisoners were rarely allowed warm clothes to protect them, and no medical help. Not even much in the way of food. They had to rely upon friends and family to bring food in for them, or they would starve.

In the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in the courtyard adjoining, are the graves of the Romonov family, including Tsar Nicholas II, Alexandra and their children. We found the display quite awesome.

This, of course, is the big attraction today, along with the neighbouring beach where families picnic in the summer. It is also used to host concerts, including the Petrojazz annual festival.

Following our visit we took a cruise along the River Neva where we were able to see the wonderful architecture and palaces along the banks. St Petersburg is an amazing place to visit, and if you go, don’t miss the Fortress of Saints Peter and Paul.

The Winter Palace

The Amber Keeper

After her mother’s suicide, Abbie Myers returns home to the Lake District with her young child—and no wedding ring. Estranged from her turbulent family for many years, Abbie is heartbroken when she hears that they blame her for this tragedy.

Determined to uncover her mother’s past, Abbie approaches her beloved grandmother, Millie, in search of answers. The old woman reveals the story of how she travelled to Russia in 1911 as a young governess and became caught up in the revolution.

As Abbie struggles to reconcile with her family, and to support herself and her child, she realizes that those long-ago events created aftershocks that threaten to upset the fragile peace she longs to create.

Set against the backdrops of the English Lake District in the 1960s and the upheavals of revolutionary Russia, The Amber Keeper is a sweeping tale of jealousy and revenge, reconciliation and forgiveness

 Available to buy as ebook, paperback or audio:
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Book Launch for The Amber Keeper

I enjoyed a wonderful book launch, held at Sizergh Castle restaurant last Friday for my new book, The Amber Keeper, published by Amazon publishing in their Lake Union Imprint.

I appreciate that book launches are not essential these days as the market has changed, but it was a wonderful excuse for a party and an opportunity to meet up with old friends. It also gave me the chance to meet with new readers, which was lovely.

The event was organised by my daughter who is the catering manager there. What an amazing team she has working with her. It was a really friendly and glamorous event.

In the entrance was a display of flowers and the books.

And here is the cake they made. Wouldn't you just love a slice?

I gave a short talk telling how my career had progressed from writing short stories on a sit-up-and-beg typewriter, then historical romances for Mills & Boon on a Lettera 22 portable, and on to sagas for Hodder & Stoughton, first on an Amstred 9512 before moving on to an all singing, all dancing computer. Now we're in the age of tablets and ereaders and digital. A fascinating revolution. But I do like to keep a foot in the print market too.

I sold loads of books, which was great. Here is hubby doing his bit selling them while I am busy signing.

Photographs taken by Gary Everatt.
The Amber Keeper available from Amazon UK and Amazon US


NINC conference 2014

I’ve recently returned from a fabulous NINC conference in Florida. It was held at Trade Winds on St Pete Beach. An amazing place with one of the top beaches in the world, and the weather was perfect.

Hubby enjoyed a sail out to look at dolphins, and took some lovely pictures of birds, including this crane about to enjoy a paddle.

View from our bedroom balcony

Spouses and assistants were allowed to attend the first day, which was all about the future of publishing. The panel included Elaine English, an attorney and literary agent, Dan Slater from Amazon, bestselling author Liliana Hart, Hugh Howey and various others mentioned below. They first discussed in what areas publishers, authors and distributors needed to expand and/or revise in order to maintain and build a mutually profitable relationship. It was an interesting discussion with many questions from the audience.

Coffee break between sessions

The general view seemed to be that publishers and authors needed a more equal partnership in today’s world. Authors were encouraged to choose their goal, and get to know their audience. Dominique Raccah from Sourcebooks believed this was the task of the publisher, but others did not agree. Publishers need to create demand, but authors are more in touch with their readers, which is the most important relationship.

Pricing was discussed at length. Some of the panel said if too low it could devalue the book. Compare the price with that of a cup of coffee, which certainly wasn’t cheap at that hotel. Has the perception of the value of a book changed? Katie Donelan from Bookbub said no.
Used as a marketing tool low pricing can be most effective, but not for too long. Authors need to have a strategy. She said that fans will pay the full price because they like and trust you. They appreciate the quality of your work, so long as you deliver a good book. According to Mark Lefebvre from Kobo, 54% of readers who buy a 99c book, go on to buy more books –. The bigger the price drop the greater the sales. But prices are creeping up. A survey has shown that readers first look at what the book is about, then the author before considering the price. Reader data can be useful to know how many people finish your book, but anonymity of readers has to be protected too.

Rights were discussed and it was agreed that authors should take care what they sign re contract, particularly with regard to the non-compete clause. However, it was pointed out that there was little sign of change on this from publishers, who it should not be in a position to own an author, and learn to let go and return rights once sales have fallen.

We should all celebrate the choices now available to authors, the diversity of Indie or Traditional Publishing, as authors can now make a good living without being a household name. This has certainly been my experience.

I managed to sneak a little time relaxing in the sun between session.

We also enjoyed a wonderful buffet dinner on the last night to celebrate NINC's 25th anniversary.

The NINC conference for 2015 will also be held at Trade Winds from September 30 – October 4. Novelists Inc is for multi-published writers of any genre. You need to have published at least two books in order to be accepted as a member. Their conference does not allow you to promote yourself. Nor are there sessions on how to write. They assume you know that already. It is all about how to run your business, what an assistant can do for you, how to sell and promote your work, and deal with all the other tasks authors have to deal with.

To find out more about joining this excellent organisation do visit their website. http://www.ninc.com/


Twelve Rules about Characterisation

1. Know your character and his or her problem.
2. Get inside her skin. Reveal character, emotion and problems, settings and protagonists from your main character’s viewpoint. Live the story through her thoughts and dialogue. Show don’t tell.
3. Describe the character’s external appearance as succinctly as you can, picking out the most essential and intriguing details, interweaving it with dialogue and action. No clich├Ęd lazy descriptions, and don’t overwrite.
4. Show your character through action. Show their body language and behaviour as they react to others.
5. Speech and voice: Make this as distinctive as possible, and different from other characters.
6. Show how the character sees herself or himself. Let her know herself, describe her own appearance, behaviour and inadequacies. And understand her own problems.
7. Show the character as others see her. This will be different for each secondary or minor character and a major part of their role.
8. Show how the viewpoint character sees and relates to those about her. Her friends, family, lover, etc.
9. Use the setting to flesh out the character. Is it a part of her or an alien place? Does she love it or hate it? How does setting affect her and her problem?
10. Make her motivation for any action clear. What makes her choose one particular course of action? Remember she must develop and change as the story progresses and come to terms with herself. She should not act out of character without good reason.
11. Character will affect plot but only if you give her plenty of problems to solve. Action and reaction. Contrast and conflict.
12. Let your character find her own solution. One that is true to her rather than convenient to the plot. Do not contrive an ending to get yourself out of a hole. Do not be predictable.

‘Polly is made of stern stuff. . . the tale of her courage and grit against the backdrop of a Northern city in the grip of depression makes for a powerful narrative.’ 
Newcastle Evening Chronicle on Polly's Pride and Polly's War