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Aug 27, 2012

A Day at Burg Satzvey with Jeannette Gräfin Beissel von Gymnitch, Part II. The Interview

Tracie Mayer and I wanted to find out more about the fascinating woman who reduced the attendees of the AIWCC Annual General Meeting to tears with her stories about the foundation she started to help troubled and abused children. After the countess showed us her home (see Part I), we had a chance to ask her some questions.

TM: Was there a certain event that triggered your founding the Jeannette Gräfin Beissel von Gymnich Stiftung in 2008? 

JGBvG: Yes. A couple years after I moved into the castle, I noticed a group of kids sitting around the campfire after all the tourists had left the jousting festival. They didn’t look like they had taken part in the festival because the people who stayed overnight stayed in medieval costume all the time. So I sat down and joined them.

I found out that these are children from one of the homes in Cologne. The adults called my husband to see if they could stay overnight and sleep in their tents. My husband replied that they could stay for the weekend for free as long as they’d be willing to help clean up the grounds. 

The next year they came again and slowly came to have more responsibility [helping out]. So my husband and I became interested in these children and we began raising money for them for Christmas presents and going to visit them. We built a relationship with these kids, ranging in age from 3-12.

We convinced a music company to invest in a children’s home. I kept writing them but we never heard back. Well, at Christmas we went back to visit the children, and my husband said, “It looks like you got a new Volkswagen van, where did you get that?” It turned out the music company had sent them 78,000 DM. With 48,000 of that money they bought the van.

We asked the directors of the home, where the rest of the money went. They weren’t very open about it, so we said we would bring the newspapers out here if they didn’t tell us. They told us they would never let us again set foot on the premises. Next Christmas we had to pass Christmas gifts through the fence. 

Soon after this two of the pedagogues decided to open their own organization in Brühl, und I immediately joined forces to help and managed to raise much money over the following years.  During one golf tournament I raised €77,000 in one evening. And a bank topped it to  €100,000 by Christmas. We opened two new homes and that’s when Mr. Schumacher, the head of the Schumaneck Organization proposed, “You can’t keep helping us to open a new home every year, it is so hard to find adequate personnel.. Why don’t you start your own foundation?” And that’s when I did it.

TM: Can you describe a typical day in the running of the charity?

JGBvG: I really don’t have a typical day. I try to figure out what and where money is needed and make plans. For example, I raised €33,000 for the complete group of 54 kids to have a summer vacation camping trip this year. I raise money for dolphin therapy, for furniture, for school excursions, for toys and clothes, for glasses and hearing aids. We brainstorm and then we just do. And of course I spend time with the kids. I feel very close to the children in Brühl, but I also know that there are so many children in Germany who are in dire need of basics, such as food, a clean home and some t.l.c.

TM: What has been your biggest triumph?

JGBvG: The biggest triumph would definitely be that golf tournament. But also writing books and motivating people to help me. Basically just doing things I never dreamed possible. 

TM: What's your favorite thing about castle life? Your least favorite thing?

JGBvG: My favorite thing is a summer evening when I can sit on the terrace and enjoy the roses when there aren’t too many people here because there are always so many people here. And the trees. I love to look at the favorite room in the castle is my office because I can sit there with a wonderful view overlooking the tops of the trees. My least favorite thing is the stairs, the heating, the leaking roof...

TM: Do you have a hard time reconciling your American identity with that of your Austrian one? 

JGBvG: No. I’m definitely American.

TM: Who is your greatest source of inspiration?

JGBvG: You know, I sometimes think of Gandhi as he walked around India in a loincloth. The people who are great are the ones who are quiet, not the arrogant ones wanting to brag about their money.

Our interview had come to an end with this inspirational woman, but we each had one last question which turned out to be the same question: 

TM: Where do you get all your energy from?

JGBvG: Sometimes I feel like I’m running on low batteries. I know that I definitely push myself too much. But I get energized when people find out about my books; and I have found that my energy level is affected by the kind of feedback I get out of my day. I try to go to the gym four mornings a week. The day comes to a close around dinnertime and then I turn off the phone.

As Tracie sums it up so succinctly: at which point the countess is no doubt thinking and making plans for tomorrow.

Aug 25, 2012

Niteblade : Let's Celebrate!

Niteblade opened its literary doors in 2007, just about the time I started writing seriously, as in submitting-work-serious. There have been many markets that have come and gone since then, and I have tried my luck with many of them, but Niteblade is still with us and still going strong. I'm proud to say that Niteblade was one of my very first sales! And if you've been following the blog train so far (I'm stop #18, I think), you'll realize that this theme reoccurs - Niteblade is a good place for authors starting out (and also returning authors - I'll get there again, someday!). The story that Rhonda Parrish, editor and publisher, picked up, Behind Blue Eyes, appeared in Issue #8, Of Warmth, Of Dragons, with wonderful illustrations by Marge Simon, including the one for Behind Blue Eyes.

Behind Blue Eyes by Marge Simon

BBE was one of those rare things - a story formulated and written in a burst of inspiration I got while editing a scientific paper about ants. That's right. Ants have always been great fodder for horror movies, and I couldn't resist making them a part of the second SF story I ever wrote. The idea (but not the ants) later morphed into a 'future event' for what has now become my first SF novel, Gravity's Gift (still in revision). In other words, I wanted to write a novel that would lead to the situation described in the story.

But the short story - a flash piece - was dark and nasty and not my usual type of story. So I didn't know where to place it. Then I found Niteblade, a cozy (but not safe, never safe!) home for dark fantasy and science fiction. I also have to say, it felt like being part of a family, as Rhonda has always included all her authors, past and present in her announcements and connections. I appreciate that, and I'm glad to be associated with the magazine and to help Rhonda celebrate her fifth year, 20 issues strong and verging on 21.

Twenty-one is a great number. It's the product of two prime numbers, three and seven, both of mystical quality. In Celtic mythology, three is everywhere, triple-headed goddesses, triple horns, curses that always come in threes. Seven abounds in many religions and myths. There are seven wonders, seven hills in Rome, and seven deadly sins. Combine those two numbers in a multiplicative way, and you get 21. It's a Fibonacci number - and it's got a lot of other names as well. That's right, 21 has street cred. It's a legal drinking age in many countries and the 'coming of age' age in many others. So if 5 years and 21 issues means that the magazine has 'come of age' then that's a great reason to celebrate. But I believe that genuinely good magazines continue to grow and evolve - rather than ripen - and Niteblade is definitely one of them.

We're getting close to the back of the blog train, and we're having a great time. We found that case of champagne they hid in the back of the closet, the fake blood, and the monster masks. Don't mind us at all. At least we're not dancing in the aisles. Not yet. You may have just hopped on from the previous carriage, Mark Rigney. Tomorrow we'll be leaping to the next one back at Dark Fantasy and Horror Central itself with a guest post from Sandy Leibowitz. 

Here, take this bottle with you, it's still mostly full, and pass it around.

Aug 22, 2012

A Day at Burg Satzvey with Jeannette Gräfin Beissel von Gymnitch, Part I. Getting There

Put two women in a Mini and aim them away from Cologne. What happens? They get hopelessly lost, but because they are so righteous, they of course deny it. Just outside of Aachen, Tracie Mayer and I really had to admit it. Then we finally figured out how to program the %&$!?*# GPS and got ourselves headed in the right direction.

I was already plenty nervous as it was. I had been to Burg Satzvey many years before when we took my son to one of their jousting plays. I had been totally entranced with the authentically costumed purveyors of all that was medieval. There had also been a man flying hawks and falcons. It had been a magical day, and the grounds, including the courtyard, stuck in my memory so tenaciously, they served as a rough model when I designed the exterior of Burg Lahn, the imaginary part Gothic-part medieval castle near the Rhine, in my Schattenreich series (Book 1: Primary Fault).  

This courtyard inspired my fictional one.
 I'd never been inside the castle, so I was eager to see if anything – anything – I had thought up for the castle interior would turn out to be correct. I was nervous about meeting a real, honest-to-goodness German Countess and hoping I wouldn't do anything immensely stupid. Now nearly an hour late, we pull into the long driveway of the castle ( and debate where to park. Ever the intrepid reporter, Tracie pulls right up to the chain guarding the wide open courtyard flanking the castle. The castle and grounds are even more breathtaking than I'd remembered them. The formerly moated castle, still retains a large pond, populated by what appear to be very contented ducks. 

We approach the front door and ring the bell just as an attractive broad-shouldered man on a bicycle rides up. 

“Uh oh,” I said to Tracie.
The man asks us who we’re looking for.
“Jeannette,” Tracie calls out.
Die Gräfin,” I quickly chime in.
He holds out his hand. “I’m her husband. She’s waiting for you.”

Instantly charmed, we follow the Count of Burg Satzvey, Franz Josef Graf Beissel von Gymnich, through the rounded wooden door and into the castle foyer.

Jeannette, Die Gräfin, is exactly, precisely, the appropriate description of the slender, dark-haired Countess of Burg Satzvey. Tracie describes her so: pretty, poised and intelligent; she walks and talks with purpose. 

I couldn’t agree more as she shows us her home and tells us with much enthusiasm about the long history (officially est. 1368) of the castle, spiced with both honorable and scandalous incidents. I was pleasantly surprised to find some things (especially the dining room!) matched what my imagination had conjured quite well - except for the details about the hand-carved chairs. I may have to steal that. 
"No castle is complete without peculiar furniture," said Hagen von der Lahn, a fictional baron.
 After collecting Jeannette’s spry and witty 93-year-old mother (who could easily pass for 70), we adjourn to the cozy Italian bistro Da Marcello in the second courtyard that also houses a banquet hall (a former cow stall!) roomy enough to seat 400 people. 

Jeannette Gräfin Beissel von Gymnich is the daughter of a U.S. diplomat and a refined woman of Irish and Viennese descent. Born in Bonn, Germany, she grew up in South America and Europe. Arriving in Hamburg at 19, she worked in advertising and remained there for 12 years. She met and then married Franz Josef  Graf  Beissel von Gymnich, who in 1981 began the jousting and other historical events held at the castle which is also his birthplace, Burg Satzvey. (He was born in an upstairs bedroom.) 
The Countess spoke to our club about her foundation at this year’s AGM, where she had club members in tears about the fates of the children her foundation supports. We wanted to hear more about her foundation, the Jeannette Gräfin Beissel von Gymnich Stiftung. See Part II, The Interview.

There are many activities for all ages at Burg Satzvey throughout the year including castle tours (minimum of five persons), Ritterspiele (medieval tournaments),  Halloween fest, Maifest (with Hexenmarkt) , Christmas and Easter markets. Information and booking at

Not only does Jeannette successfully manage an entire castle in addition to having raised a family (son and daughter), she's also an accomplished author of both fiction and non-fiction works. Here's the bibliography:

1.   Luxury Houses Schlösser-Castles-Châteaux Germany: Castles in Germany (Luxury Books), ISBN 978-3832791735, teNeues Verlag, January 2007 – coffee table quality

2.   Und Flog in anderes Land, ISBN 978-3897053397, Emons Verlag, August 2004 – a medieval novel with a highly accurate historical basis

3. Aldikadabra, ISBN-10 3926224177, Zeitgeist Verlag (1999) – a collection of magical recipes from the supermarket!

4. Frauen und ihre Schlösser – mehr als Glanz und Gloria, ISBN 978-3868732528, Knesebeck Verlag, March 2011 – highly readable and a rare view of 19 chatelaines and the German castles they manage

Her newest book (no title as of yet!) will profile 30 businesswomen and entrepreneurs in North Rhine Westphalia, Germany and is due out in December 2012. 

Aug 1, 2012

Looking for Ground Truth in the High Fens

In seismology, ground truth is jargon that originated when discrimination of earthquakes and other seismic events from small nuclear blasts was a hot research field. It refers to the collection of data to verify the source or location of a seismic event other than just the seismic data available on a network. It could include satellite imagery or infrasound data, for example. That's a mouthful, but it really just means, verifying where something happened, seismically, from as many different kinds of data as are available. It's important, especially if the event places suspicion on a (possible) rogue state for testing nuclear weapons, to be able to verify the source of the event with as many kinds of data as possible.

Not as important as monitoring rogue states, I view research for fiction writing as an essential form of ground truth. These days, mostly, writers use the Internet as a primary source (more than is good for us), and when that isn't sufficient, must delve into books, scientific papers, newspaper articles, pursue conversations with experts, and watch films and documentaries. This kind of ground truth is especially important for historical fiction, but anytime you're writing fiction that takes place somewhere you don't know well or have never been to (a star system, the Jovian planets, or Des Moines, Iowa, for example), ground truth is highly desirable and sometimes fun.

Last Thursday, I did a bit of ground truth for the third book in my Schattenreich series (Double-Couple) by visiting the Hohes Venn (High Fen), part of the Ardennes and quite complicated geologically (meaning, I don't know enough about this to try and tell you about it). I think the important thing is that an impermeable layer of rock (in this case, I think it's Cambrian shale) creates the environment for the fens. I was mainly interested in the possibility that the Hohes Venn was potentially a sacred place in Iron Age times for the Celtic tribes that populated Belgium and the Rhineland and therefore had access to the moors and bogs that make up a good part of the fen.

There's not much literature - at least any I've found so far - to suggest it was a proven sacred place, but its proximity to the well-populated areas suggests that it could have been. And moors are well known for keeping their secrets - including bog bodies, valuable sacrificial items and so on (see, for example, the excellent, Dying for the Gods from Miranda Green, ISBN 978-0752425283). Well-preserved corpses and other artifacts have been discovered elsewhere in Germany when the peat bogs were mined and their contents exposed to the surface. But the Hohes Venn is a natural preserve and so is not subject to extensive peat bog mining.

Absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence, so I assumed I was safe in just making up a sacred sacrificial place in the fen that would still hold its 'power' today, two centuries after the Celts would have roamed its forests and bogs. I wanted to 'walk it' myself to get a feeling for what it would be like, all the better to add that something special to my story, and as further impetus to seek out additional information and literature (yes, research is downright addictive sometimes).

So, here's a bit of ground truth from the Hohes Venn, courtesy of my walking companion, Klaus Hinzen.

Approaching the High Fen

The journey is the way.

A bomb crater, now a vibrant biotope

The bog lake

Cotton grass

One of the many bogs with very red-tinged waters