The Old-New Synagogue and the Golem of Prague

I was lucky to visit Prague just as I was editing The Artifact Hunters, and we spent four days researching for Isaac’s backstory and childhood experiences. Prague is a beautiful city, occupied by the Nazis, who turned the country into a “Protectorate”.

The Old-New Synagogue and Josefov

Terezin in morning fog. An eerie sight of the graveyard of prisoners next to the camp.

Isaac Wolf, my main character in The Artifact Hunters, is a secular Jewish boy growing up in the Josefov sector of Prague, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic). Before the Nazis occupied the country in 1939 Isaac would have been very familiar with the Old-New Synagogue, but the Nazis closed it during the occupation. Built in 1270, it is the oldest surviving synagogue in Europe. I don’t have a picture good enough to share – it is a small old building.

Of course, the Nazis dealt harshly with the Jewish people of Czechoslovakia. We also visited the concentration camp of Terezin outside of Prague, a haunting experience. The book by Michael Gruenbaum in my Resources, below, is set in Terezin.

Stumbling stones in Prague.

One of the things that caught my attention while we toured the Josefov sector was something called “stumbling stones”. The streets of Prague are still largely paved with rough ancient cobbles. The stumbling stones were made to commemorate those who were victims of the Nazi regime, and are brass replacements for the cobbles, and inscribed with the names of the dead.

The Golem of Prague

A view of the cemetery in Josefov, which frightened Isaac in my story. It is odd – people were interred over the centuries on top of previous generations.

The Synagogue also contains a mystery of sorts. Legend has it that in 1580 Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel made a creature out of clay and brought it to life by placing the sacred name of God, written on parchment, in the mouth of the creature which he called the Golem (other stories say that he inscribed a word on the creature’s forehead, but the result was the same). He made the Golem to protect the Jewish people of his time from persecution.

But the Golem became an out-of-control monster, killing at random, so the Rabbi tricked his creation, removed the parchment, and the Golem fell to pieces. It is said that Rabbi Loew placed those pieces of the Golem in the attic of the Old-New Synagogue, where it remains today.

Resources:

Somewhere There Is Still A Sun, by Michael Gruenbaum with Todd Hasak-Lowy, Aladdin, 2017.

“A Legendary Protector Formed From a Lump of Clay and a Mound of Terror”, by Edward Rothstein, The New York Times, September 11, 2006.

Also: https://livingprague.com/inspirational/prague-stumble-stones/

 

Ancient Clocks, From Greece To Prague

Because the Death’s Head Watch and time travel play such an important role in The Artifact Hunters, I used other time pieces in the story.

The Antikythera Mechanism

In 1901, in the Mediterranean Sea off the Greek island of Antikythera, an artifact was retrieved from an ancient wreck. It is a complex clockwork from ancient Greece capable of predicting astronomical events, and is now known as the Antikythera mechanism*. It is also one of the magical artifacts depicted in The Artifact Hunters, as time plays a huge role in the story.

Derek J. de Solla Price(1922–1983) with a model of the Antikythera mechanism

This mechanism, which may date as far back as 60 BCE, has 37 gears that track the movements of the sun and moon, allowing ancient astronomers to predict eclipses. Some have even called it an “analogue computer.” X-ray imaging has allowed a reconstruction of the device, whose history is lost in time.

The Prague Astronomical Clock

Naturally, in this story that features time travel, an Antikythera mechanism, a Death’s Head Watch, and a boy from Prague, I felt it was important to include the fascinating Prague Astronomical Clock in the Old Town Square.

One of Prague’s most well-known and arresting attractions, it is more than a timepiece, and because it dates from 1410, is also the world’s oldest operating clock. In addition to an astronomical dial, which follows the cycles of sun and moon, there is, on the hour, the “walk of the Apostles”, and figures flanking the clock that also move. You can find videos of the clock as the Apostles move through the chiming of the hour. I was lucky enough to watch it in action one morning a few years ago.

In this image that I took while watching the clock you’ll see four figures flanking the clock. The skeleton, representing, naturally, Death, is a figure that also is featured in The Artifact Hunters.

The astronomical dial is an astrolabe (an astronomical clock) that includes a moving zodiacal ring. There are numerous stories about the clock and its importance to the Czech people, including the significance of the skeleton of Death which nods its head as the clock strikes. The clock is silent between the hours of 11 PM and 9AM. Try to watch the clock in action on one of the many videos available – there is one in the detailed article below that also explains the mechanism.

Resources:

“The Jewel of Prague: The Oldest Astronomical Clock in Use”, by Stefan Andrews, The Vintage News, March 8, 2018.

*Fun fact: A replica of the Antikythera mechanism can be seen in the American Computer and Robotics Museum in my own hometown of Bozeman, Montana.

And a Reminder!

Authors in the time of Covid need all the help we can get. If you enjoyed The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle, and think you’d enjoy The Artifact Hunters, please consider pre-ordering from one of these fine book sellers, with my thanks.

Country Bookshelf (signed copies! With fun stuff included!)

Amazon

Bookshop

Time Travel

One of the more popular science fiction tropes is that of time travel. Is it possible? What would happen if it were? How, in fact, does time work? The idea of time travel is exactly what I wanted to explore with the Death’s Head Watch in The Artifact Hunters.

Einstein’s Theories of Time

Physics professor, and genius, Stephen Hawking

Albert Einstein, in his theories of General and Special Relativity, has a lot to say about time. Specifically, Einstein suggests that all time is relative, looking from one fixed point in time or space to another. In addition, gravity affects time by bending space so that objects move on a curved path, causing what physicists refer to as “time dilation”.

These two concepts – relative time and time dilation – explain why an astronaut returns to Earth a tiny bit younger than if she’d remained on the planet. This is a concept that’s been explored frequently in science fiction, for example in movies like the 2014 film Interstellar in which an astronaut returns to find his daughter an old woman near death after he encounters time dilation.

Is Time Travel Possible?

Is it possible to travel through time? Theoretically yes, but no actual method of travel has been shown to exist, and those that may be possible (like worm holes that intersect bent space) are likely to end in a bad way for the fragile human body.

Time travel paradoxes, like the law of unintended consequences, are also science fiction staples. For example, if you go back in time and accidentally kill your grandfather, how will you exist in the future? And if time travel is shown to be possible sometime in the future by some means we have yet to identify, where are the time travelers from the future right now – are they sitting next to you on the bus?

As much fun as it is to speculate, that’s all we can do with time travel for the moment – play with it in fantasy and science fiction.

Resources:

A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes, by Stephen Hawking, Bantam Dell Publishing, 1988

How To Build a Time Machine, by Paul Davies, Penguin, 2001

The Death’s Head Watch

I had a lot of fun writing The Artifact Hunters, partly because, well…artifacts! I could use real items from history, and things from legends, and things from fairy tales, because just about anything could become a magical artifact – an item that could be endowed with magical properties.

The very first of these is something I discovered by accident.

A Creepy Skull

Scary-looking but also fascinating, a Death’s Head Watch that happened to pop up in my research immediately inspired the story of The Artifact Hunters, because I wanted my story to have something to do with time.

And, mind you, this watch is a real thing.

Watches were invented in the seventeenth century, and word as pendants, what we would call today “pocket watches.” In the 17th and 18th centuries, certain of these pocket watches were housed in a silver case that resembled a human skull. Yes, a skull.

These watches are creepy, but that was the point – they were meant to remind the user that death is always on the horizon. Hence some were inscribed with the words memento mori (“remember that you will die”, in Latin). About the size of a small apple, they are also often elaborately decorated with engravings that made the message even more plain: images of Adam and Eve, images of Death with his sickle, images of castles next to huts to remind the user that wealth doesn’t prevent one’s eventual demise. The skull encased the watch face and movement and the watch is viewed by opening the jaw.

Mary, Queen of Scots

Legend has it that Mary Queen of Scots carried a Death’s Head watch. Upon her execution it was reportedly given to her favorite lady-in-waiting, but the watch disappeared for centuries. Recently a London museum has tried to verify the identity of a Death’s Head watch as the one owned by Queen Mary. The mystery and history of this watch gave rise to my idea that it was a Witch’s Watch, and was cursed.

To find out more about the particular watch in The Artifact Hunters you’ll have to wait for the story!

Resources

“The Macabre History of Death’s Head Watches”, Timepiece Chronicle, October 7, 2015. 

Also, if in London, visit the Clockmaker’s Museum. Reportedly, the Death’s Head Watch in their collection is the one owned by Mary, Queen of Scots.

Shhhhh!!!! A Secret Revealed!!!

The Artifact Hunters

Many of you already know that I have another book coming out August 25. It’s called The Artifact Hunters. Now, my publisher wanted me to write a “stand-alone” novel. Although Artifact Hunters is mostly set in Rookskill Castle (home of The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle), and although some of the characters from Charmed Children appear in Artifact Hunters, my publisher is calling it a “companion novel.”

But I’ll let you in on a little secret.

I’m calling it a sequel.

What’s It About?

There are some differences between the two books. For one thing, Artifact Hunters takes place two years after Charmed Children, though World War 2 is still raging. For another, this new story is told from the point of view of a Jewish boy named Isaac Wolf, who has escaped Nazi-occupied Prague, and arrived at Rookskill Castle carrying a box containing…something magical. Mysterious. Scary.book cover

And Isaac is being pursued by…well. It’s kind of creepy, as you’ll find out.

And here’s the coolest part. Time travel. Yup – there is time travel in The Artifact Hunters, so you’ll see some really neat places in the past.

If you’ve read Charmed Children, you’ll also see familiar characters, like Kat Bateson. And you’ll find some answers to what happened to others, like the magister, and even Lady Eleanor.

And what about that weird castle itself? Are there other creatures about, ghosts and such? Hmm.

Ah…Artifacts!

You may wonder about artifacts, about what they are. Here’s what Amelie (remember her? She’s Kat’s sister in Charmed Children) has to say:

Amelie said, “Kat saved everyone in Rookskill from a monster who was using a magical artifact.”

“What does this mean, a magical artifact?” Isaac asked.

“An artifact is an old object, of any kind,” Amelie said. “Jewelry. A sword. A mirror. A potion. But a magical artifact is infused with power. Some of the stuff of legends, like, you know, Excalibur. Or Aladdin’s lamp with the genie inside or the Chinese emperor’s nightingale. Other objects may have magic but no stories about them. Yet.” She paused. “A magical artifact can be just about anything.”

I’m going to be discussing some of these artifacts and some of the historical aspects of World War 2 and such over the next few weeks. I made fascinating discoveries during the writing of this book, and I really can’t wait to share.

Because I believe there is magic in this world.

Please stay tuned, and check out The Artifact Hunters, available for preorder now – thanks!! – at any of these fine booksellers:

Country Bookshelf (signed copies! With fun stuff included!)

Amazon

Bookshop

New Author Visits For New Times

Teachers, librarians, and parents of homeschooled kids – I’ve revised my “Speaking” page to reflect the fact that I won’t be traveling for a while. I hope you’ll check out my offerings to breathe a little “authorly” depth into your school program.

It seems that life has changed for us all, and isn’t going to go back to normal for a long time.

In response to this new normal, I’m revising my author visits and presentations, and going “all virtual”. You’ll see on my speaking page that I’ve generated a set of packages that will hopefully meet your class or library group needs.

I’m open to modifications, as we all need to be flexible. But I hope you’ll contact me. Let’s build a better world for your students together!

Here is a video of me reading from THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE. Enjoy!

A Respite in Yellowstone

In these troubled times, I hope this brings you some respite, as a tiny mini-vacation. This video is especially suitable for young kiddos, ages 5-9.

I live not far from Yellowstone National Park. It’s a special place to me. My son and I spent many days when he was little wandering through the Park’s thermal features, watching the animals from a safe distance, and enjoying the natural beauty and wonder of the place. My first novel, FAITHFUL, is set in Yellowstone.

And so is my first picture book: VOLCANO DREAMS: A STORY OF YELLOWSTONE.

I know that lots of you may have had plans to visit Yellowstone this summer, and now you can’t because of the pandemic. I made a short video to show you some of the beauty of Yellowstone, and take you on a mini-vacation.

I hope you enjoy this partial reading of the book, with its wonderful illustrations by Marlo Garnsworthy, and some of the photographs I’ve taken in the Park over the years.

You can learn more about Yellowstone, the super volcano, and do some fun activities here. Also check the book page for downloadable resources.

Big Picture Story Coach – Now Open

This may seem like a strange time to open a business. Social isolation, social discord…it’s confusing, horrifying, often overwhelming. And we all feel helpless, much of the time.

Creating a Safe Space For Readers

But I think so many have so much to say, whether in story form or memoir, fiction or non-fiction. As a writer I use the deep well of emotions that come from responding to times like these to frame stories that I hope will help. As a writer my life’s mission is to create a safe space for children to deal with complex issues and emotions of their own.

I think it’s a natural extension of that mission – to create a safe space – that I decided to take on another role, and learn to become a book coach. Thanks to everything I’ve learned (and am still learning) from Author Accelerator, I’m opening a business, Big Picture Story Coach.

Creating a Safe Space For Writers

If you are a writer who is struggling with a manuscript, or a wishful writer wanting to begin to express your ideas on the page, book coaching may be for you. Book coaching is holistic, developmental, and my mission as a coach is to create a safe space for you as a writer to either learn the skills or conquer your current project.

Take a look at the link above to my coaching business, and feel free to contact me with questions.

Using insight and a dose of magic to change the world, one book at a time.

An Interview with Angie Smibert

I’m delighted to host Angie Smibert, whose next spooky book, THE TRUCE, is out today! I’m going to dive right in…….

Please give us a brief summary of THE TRUCE.

This is probably a bit more set up than summary. (Don’t want to give away any spoilers.)

In the third book of the Ghosts of Ordinary Objects series, it’s December 1942 in the small coal mining community of Big Vein, Virginia. By now, Bone Phillips (12) is growing accustomed to her a Gift, a family Gift, as her Mamaw calls, and maybe even begun to embrace it. Bone can see the stories or ghosts inside ordinary objects. But there’s one object her beloved Uncle Ash has forbidden her to touch: his dog tags from the first World War. He came back from that war a changed man, and every year about this time, he needs to escape for a while. He packs up the truck and his dogs and asks Bone to declare a truce with her dreaded Aunt Mattie while he’s gone. Reluctantly, Bone does. However, the truce is soon threatened by a discovery in the mine:  a body—wearing Uncle Ash’s dog tags. Bone has to use her Gift to solve the mystery. And that’s all I’ll say for now…except there is a ghost dog involved.

I love the premise of Bone’s gift. And Bone is such an interesting character. Tell us how you think of her – is there a bit of you in there?

The story started with a sense memory of swimming in the New River as a kid, much like Bone does in the beginning of Bone’s Gift, the first book in the series. I remembered the feeling of being that kid who didn’t want summer to end or to particularly grow up and be the ‘little lady’ that other people expected. Bone was born out of that feeling.

This is the third novel in the series. Will there be more?

That’s it for now! I’m playing around with a short story, though.

These three novels are set in rural Virginia, where you live. How do you feel about the connection to place in your writing?

Actually, I live in a city—Roanoke—in Southwest, Virginia. However, I grew up in Blacksburg, a small college town west of here. And my mother’s family is from McCoy, a rural area outside Blacksburg along the New River, where there were coal mines until the 1950s. One of them was called Big Vein. My grandfather and his brothers were miners there—until he got hurt. Then he took over his father’s store. In fact, I kept that store in the books. In many ways, writing these stories has been an exploration of this place that I came from. And as Eudora Welty wrote, “One place understood helps us understand all places better.”

You weave folklore into the story. Talk a bit about that.

Appalachian folklore is part of the place, the characters, and even the plots of the books. Bone loves stories, from folktales and legends to movies and books. However, she doesn’t like real-life stories—so, of course, that’s why I gave her the Gift of being able to see those.

In each of the books, Bone or one of the other characters—like Uncle Ash—is always telling a folktale or ghost story from the region. Plus I also used a particular story as the “spine” (for lack of a better word) of the plot. For instance, in Bone’s Gift, Bone’s life mirrors a story she’s telling called “Ashpet”—the Appalachian version of Cinderella. In Lingering Echoes—which is set at Halloween—the ‘spine’ tale is Stingy Jack, the origin story of Jack O’Lanterns. At the heart of The Truce, there’s a ghost dog story.

Ghost or spirit dog stories are popular in the mountains of Virginia and North Carolina. (And also found in many other folklores.) A ghost dog might come to warn someone about an impending death. Or the big black dog might actually be there to claim a wicked person’s soul. However, in a few stories, the dog is protecting someone or some thing, such as a fabled silver mine. And as I said, in the Truce, there is a ghost dog and he/she might be near a mine.

The Truce is set at Christmas, which might not seem like a time for ghost stories. But it is! (Think A Christmas Carol!) An old Appalachian custom (as well as old Celtic/British one) was to tell ghost stories, particularly on Christmas Eve. (I won’t get into the whole Old Christmas day thing here!) This is probably a holdover from pagan Winter solstice practices of telling scary stories and making noise to drive away the spirits. So, of course, Bone is excited to tell some spooky tales for Christmas, but she also gets to live one involving a ghost dog.

For more on folklore and history in the series, please see my resource page: https://www.angiesmibert.com/blog/?page_id=1861#ghostsresources

What’s up next for you?

I’m working (slowly) on a spooky magical realism-type story set in the early 1970s in Appalachia that involves (so far) an old resort turned into an artist commune and a ghost or two. I’m also still teaching writing. That takes up a lot of my time lately. 😉

Thanks, Angie!

What I’m Learning When Starting Something New

In my last post I wrote about how I’m opening a new business, Big Picture Story Coach. This is the first time I’ve even thought about becoming a business owner. I know this might be a strange time to be starting something new but I’m excited. (Fortunately, this business is freelance and home-based.) I’m learning a few things along the way that I thought I’d share, as you might like some of these resources.

Taking a Course

Taking the Author Accelerator course was the most important step on this new path. For one thing, there’s a tremendous amount of craft-based knowledge in the program, so even if I hadn’t decided to become a book coach, I got my money’s worth. But Author Accelerator also provides templates for building a coaching business, everything from how to handle client needs to what to/how to charge. I took the additional Business course for an even deeper understanding, and I’ll be signing up for future masterminds and other add-ons. This was the most expensive investment I’ve made so far, but it’s already paying for itself in client fees.

Building a New Web Presence

My new business needed a URL, so the next thing I did was go to GoDaddy (where I have an account already for my other website URLs) and look up several possible names to find one not taken. I settled on Big Picture Story Coach because it said everything about my new business – that I am a story coach (not an editor) and that I work on the holistic side (not copyediting or ghostwriting). Purchasing that domain cost almost nothing.

I’m also a writer with a long-standing website in my own name, and I didn’t want to have to manage a brand-new extra website, or pay to build one. It turns out that I just need to add a page to my existing site, and link that URL to the existing site. That happens this week, with my favorite web designer Websy Daisy.

Managing the Business

After conferring with my accountant I decided to obtain a state LLC for the business, which gives me some protection and separation from my personal finances, and doesn’t cost much at all. As soon as I can get back to my bank (thanks, coronavirus) I’ll open a separate bank account and manage it through QuickBooks.

Designing For Fun

Nothing has to be fancy. You don’t need a logo. Hiring someone to design you a logo can cost a lot of money. I’m sure that if I went to the designer I use for my bookmarks, etc. he’d do a spectacular job. It’s a local business, by the way, and I love them and their quality results.

My homemade logo

But to save myself the hundreds of dollars and still have something fun, I made my own simple logo using Canva. Because my URL/LLC name doesn’t have a good visual, I added Fox Tales to my business name, and was able to create a logo by using my existing fox logo (that fox is an image that came from my husband’s family). I used the fox’s tail to represent a quill feather and added a drop to represent ink. Simple and clean, and Canva made it easy. I use Canva for all sorts of things, from Twitter posts to Facebook headers to posters.

From there I could design a letterhead, business cards (I love Moo for their quality and price), and templates for the forms to send to clients.

There are lots of other business tips and tricks that Author Accelerator taught me, and I can’t say enough good things about this group. If any of the things I’ve shared here helps you at all, let me know!

Stay well, be safe.