Hamburg: Writing of the Reeperbahn

When you write a novel, ideally you will write about a place that you know, or at least have been to. Indeed, most authors seem to write their first book or novelette, published or not, about their hometown or home area – unless it’s fantasy or science fiction.  There is no doubt that, all else being equal, a writer will write more convincingly about a place they have been to than one they have not. The Holy Diamond has one chapter about Hamburg – but when I had written the first draft, I had not actually been to the city!


View of the Hamburg city hall and the Alster Lakes from the ruined Saint Nicholas church tower. (Photo: LH Dooley)

I won’t go into the tedious details of how I compensated for this lack of experience, but I will say that compared to writing about places I had been to: Vienna, Salzburg, Frankfurt-am-Main, Luzern, and most of the other locations where the novel takes place – writing about Hamburg – even the small area where the chapter takes place – was a challenge.

A few months after finishing the first draft of the novel, however, I made my way to Hamburg. First surprise: one of the locations that I had included in the story was closed! But otherwise, the city was quite enjoyable.

Highlights included going up the church ruins of Saint Nicholas Church by elevator for a scenic view of the city; a walk along the harbor waterfront; and a boat ride on the two Alster Lakes in the middle of the city. However, the principle area of interest from a novel perspective was a street and neighborhood called the Reeperbahn.

The Reeperbahn has, or had, a “seedy” reputation. A place where tourists went for an epic night out, sailors stopped by at night to recover their land legs, and every cutthroat and sell-sword might go to engage in every debauchery and swashbucklery this side of the Atlantic.


Reeperbahn subway/metro/S-bahn stop. (Photo: LH Dooley)

Today, however, it is a potpourri of everything and anything: KFC, McDonalds, steak restaurants, hostels, hotels, clothing stores, souvenir shops, strip clubs, and a few red light streets or buildings. It’s the old and new (pre and post-Giuliani) Times Square all rolled into one. It is the old Reeperbahn which probably gave the district the best and worst of its reputation. Today it is where everyone goes in the evening: students, tourists, locals, businessmen…everyone who is anyone! It’s the city centre not in the centre.

The Holy Diamond has only one chapter devoted to this part of the former Hanseatic city (Hamburg having been a major city of the Hanseatic League). But it is a key chapter, focusing on the Beetlemania museum.

It was only by good luck that, when conceiving the location for this part of the book that involved the Beetles, that I learned that they had actually begun their historic career in Hamburg. Originally, I had planned for this part of the novel to take place in England – specifically Liverpool – but I had struggled with two problems about this. First, getting the characters there; and second, it would be rather far afield from the German-speaking countries in which most of the novel takes place (except for the start of the novel in Vatican City, and a brief return to Italy in the middle of the novel).


Beatle memories! The old Beatlemania museum, now closed, and a sign for the Beatles-Platz a few meters away. (Photo: LH Dooley)

So it worked out well that I could keep the novel in Germany, while also integrating The Beetles.  Moreover, to my surprise and good luck a second time around, I discovered there was a Beetles museum called Beetlemania right in the middle of the Reeperbahn!

Thus developed my chapter, and it was only during my visit after I had finished the first draft of the novel that I discovered the museum was closed! However, it was both too late to change the novel and, after all, it’s a work of fiction and who knows…maybe it will be back, thanks to the success of The Holy Diamond!

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The Crown of Charlemagne

The Holy Diamond had many inspirations, and one of them is the Crown of the Holy Roman Empire.  In my travels across Europe I have seen many crowns great and small.  There are the crowns in the Tower of London bereft of their jewels, which had been sold to pay for the Hundred Years War (which the Simpsons called Operation Speedy Resolution…).  The crowns of the Kings of France are in the Louvre in Paris.  One can see various versions of the Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Hungarian, and other crowns in their respective capitals.  Most are more similar rather than less.

Most crowns are, of course, circular.  There is nothing within the circle (as viewed from above) or they form a sort of cone.  They have a lot of jewels but no images or words.

The Crown of the Holy Roman Empire, however, is quite different.  Words and phrases run throughout it, either written in pearls or on the plates of the various biblical images.  It’s a folding crown: the Ikea version of a crown if there ever was one.


Front view of the Imperial Crown of the Holy Roman Empire. In The Holy Diamond, the holy diamond relic was said to have been set vertically on the crown’s cross. (Photo: LH Dooley)

It looks a bit sloppily assembled.  The images are medieval, meaning that they are disproportioned.  The jewels are rough, unshaped, and asymmetrical.  Its dimensions are inharmonious.  It appears heavily vertical which conflicts with its lack of horizontal lines.

But all of these give it its unique look – and must be excused given its age; it was crafted between 980 and 1015 AD.



Side view of the crown. Note the hoop that connects the front and rear of the crown. The crown can be unlatched and folded flat for transportation. (Photo: LH Dooley)

In The Holy Diamond, the crown plays an important role as one of the holding devices of the holy relic, as being part of the history of the Germanic lands, and for being one of the recurring clues as to the diamond’s origins and its present whereabouts.

The Holy Diamond is fiction – but inspired in part by the true story – and loss – of the Imperial Crown of the Holy Roman Empire. After World War II, the Nazis hid the crown from the Allies, and for several weeks a US Army investigative team drove around Germany searching for it. This story is told in the book Hitler’s Relics: A True Story of Nazi Plunder and the Race to Recover the Crown Jewels of the Holy Roman Empire. You can find it here:

Today, the original crown of Charlemagne can be seen in the Treasury of the Hofburg Museum-Palace in Vienna, Austria.  Indeed, in this very room, The Holy Diamond characters of Franz and friends pursue their quest to solve the historical mystery that drives them from hostel to hostel.


The room in the Imperial Treasury in the Hofburg Palace containing the Crown of the Holy Roman Empire (left). This room also has a large piece of the True Cross, the Holy Lance, and the Imperial sword and orb. (Photo: LH Dooley)

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Salzburg: The City of Mozart

If Salzburg was ever to be renamed – after all I think the salt (Salz in Germanic) mines are not so relevant these days – it could be called Mozartburg.  Or, if you are nuts about Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II, you could call it Sound of Musicburg.  But for some reason this name seems a bit long and clunky. 


The snow falls on Salzburg! This is the more historic centre on the other side of the river, with the castle on the hill. The Mozart Birth House museum is between the river and the fortress. (Photo: LH Dooley)

But we will agree that Salzburg is Salzburg, and a good enough name for the time being, and move on to what an amazing city it is by whatever name it might go by.  For many people their first – and maybe their sole – exposure to the city is through the Hollywood 1965 film, The Sound of Music, starring Julie Andrews.  The film, which won four Academy Awards, depicts many of the city’s feature attractions masterfully: the white-washed Hohensalzburg fortress on its hill overlooking the Baroque city, the Salzach River that divides the city into two, the Baroque churches and monasteries, and surrounding Alps.


Salzburg castle from afar. (Photo: LH Dooley)

In The Holy Diamond, the Teutonic Knights of the Aryan Order find their first major clue to the diamond’s existence and whereabouts in Salzburg, and they also commit their second major crime within the novel’s chronology.  We will revisit this crime later…so stay tuned.  But suffice it to say, they set up a safehouse in a quiet section of the city center.  More on this neighborhood below.

I have been to Salzburg twice; and when I developed the myth of the Holy Diamond, it was hard NOT to incorporate the city of Mozart.  Wolfgang Amadeus is so imprinted into the city’s character, he himself is such an icon of pre-modern music, and the city’s beauty and architectural perfection so pure that Salzburg was the perfect place to incorporate.  Indeed, in earlier versions of the novel the city plays a slightly more prominent role, particularly the incorporation of a small chapel and burial chamber cut into the hillside above Petersfriedhof cemetery and below Hohensalzburg fortress.  But length-limits are any novel’s cruel master. 

I have been in Salzburg in both a warm, flowery May and a chilly, snow-covered January.  Both have their charms.  When the sun shines on the fortress, its walls are as white as the snow-capped Alps that surround the city.  Flowers bloom from windowsills and the city’s fountains burst with the musical song of spouting water.  In the winter, the white snow coats the cobblestone streets and sits upon the dark, faded gravestones.  During my winter visit the funicular was out of order, so I had to make a slippery ascent and an even slipperier descent along the winding roadway up to the castle.


View of Salzburg from the fortress. The Steingasse neighborhood is between the river and the hill. (Photo: LH Dooley)

One of the quarters that is lesser visited and a bit out of the way from the touristic areas – that is the neighborhood of the Salzburg Cathedral and the neighborhood across the river around the Mozart “living” house – is the Steingasse neighborhood, largely defined by the Steingasse street.  Its narrow, winding streets without shops, restaurants, cafes, or other visitor draws is an oasis of solitude in the otherwise crowded city center.  Footsteps quietly echo against plastered but largely undecorated apartment building walls.  Old ladies small dogs pass by.  The clean police frequent the street less often, resulting in graffiti remaining for longer than the night or two that it might endure in the touristic areas.  It is a whole new city just a dozen meters from the main tourist circuit and well worth the detour.  It is in this area where the Teutonic Knights of the Aryan Order have their safehouse and where they make a key discovery about the diamond’s history.

Coming soon…a tour of the Mozart Birth House Museum!

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Luxury Bus Ride

Just a short note to tell you about the most awesome bus I have ever ridden on! The Lux bus which drives amongst the Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, and Germany is the most awesome bus I have ever been on.  I’ve been on some bad buses – particularly one in Kazakhstan where when it rained the water seeped through the roof and dripped over all of us passengers. But I’ve never been on such a nice bus as the Lux bus!

IMG_2432 IMG_2433

Lux bus seats. Note how there are only one seat per side. Blackberry sits on shelf left of seat (right photo). (Photos: LH Dooley)

The back half has “solo” seats with just one seat on each side. The seats have nice material, good arm rests, and leg rests that pop out. On the side of the seat, along the window, there is actually a small counter that can easily hold a small bag, phones, or food. Beneath that are shelves to hold food, books, or whatever else.

And best of all, there is free WiFi!

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Locked and Loaded

Travel Locks: Or How to Not Get Robbed during a Trip

Ever had something stolen from you on a trip? Ever been walking around, reached for your camera when you saw a beautiful statue or medieval tower only to grasp nothing but air in your bag? Or you go to pay for your ice cream, museum ticket, or get out your bus ticket only to find that your pocket is empty, or your purse has everything but your wallet?

If you have, then you know it’s an awful experience. And your things are probably never going to be stolen when it’s most convenient. And when your belongings – whether just a wallet or a whole bag with your clothes, computer, passport, and toiletries – are stolen while on travel, you have entered an abyss of anger and frustration.

You might be somewhere where you do not know the language, you don’t have any backup items (toiletries, IDs, bank cards, etc.), but you need to replace everything as soon as possible. It will turn a pleasant stroll beneath the Eifel Tower or on the Charles Bridge in Prague into a nightmare of running in circles for 10 minutes looking for your stolen goods, panicked explanations to the police, sitting in a police station for at least 30 minutes waiting impatiently for your turn to file a generally useless complaint, and then reflecting on where you went wrong. This is when for minutes, hours, then years you get to flounder in your own regrets.

 It is when if you had only done one or two things different, it never would have happened.

So what can you do to prevent this tragedy?


Locks will not prevent every kind of theft, nor can they be used everywhere, all the time. But if you have a backpack, it’s a good idea to lock the zippers together. It’s amazingly easy for someone to unzip your bag, reach in and grab a few things, and walk off without you feeling that anything happened way back behind your back.

Or they could sneakily grab your bag from under your table or chair, or sitting on the chair next to you.

The possibilities are endless. But you can reduce the chances of these thefts with the following locks and devices; and the right tactics to use them:

The zipper lock. This zipper lock is different from other locks because of the long, flexible wire that can easily pass through zipper holes. As you can see, I can fasten several zippers altogether. It makes it impossible for anyone to unzip my bag, reach in, and run. Yes, they could clip the lock, but why would they go through that much trouble when they can just move on and go after the next victim? These locks are usually available at specialty camping and travel stores.



The zipper lock: keeping your bag closed. Note how the flexible wire lock can be strung through several zippers. (Photo: LH Dooley)

Bag and locker lock (small). This lock is good for suitcases and backpacks, especially when the bags have zippers made for locks. This lock has less “reach”, but since the locking mechanism is solid steel it’s a bit more sturdy. You can get this at any store. It’s also good for hostel lockers – usually. And this one is TSA friendly.


Small combination padlock that goes perfectly into the zipper lock holes. (Photo: LH Dooley)

Carabiner. Do you like to rappel? Or mountainclimb? If so, you already have a carabiner. If you don’t, go buy one – or a few! These are great for latching your bag straps together and fastening them to chairs and table legs. Or you can attach two bags together. It’s easily to snatch and grab one bag, but I can guarantee you – someone who tries to grab one bag but ends up grabbing two, with the second one sort of awkwardly dangling and flopping around – will be confused and drop both and run.



Parade of locks sitting on a MacBook Air 11 (BlackBerry placed among the locks for size reference). Left to right: small combination lock, small carabiner, mid-size carabiner, Blackberry. (Photo: LH Dooley)

Carabiners are also great for attaching food bags, umbrellas, and even camera cases to your straps, so you can have a two-hands-free walking tour of wherever you want to go!

Aside from these, there are full-sized, locker padlocks. These are good, but I don’t use them because they are too heavy, and in a hostel locker are often too large for the lock holes in the door handles.

Keep it safe, keep it locked!

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Visiting the Kaiserburg, and How to Spell Nuremberg

One of the first clues to the history and whereabouts of the Holy Diamond, in the novel The Holy Diamond  is the Kaiserburg in Nuremburg.  Before I tell you about this fascinating palace-fortress, I want to note that both the site and the city were a bit challenging to write about within the novel, as they go by different names and/or spellings.

The Kaiserburg could also be called Imperial Castle and Nuremburg Castle, or less commonly the Imperial Residence.  For simplicity’s sake, I tried to stick with one name within the novel, or the Kaiserburg which in English means Imperial Castle. You might also say Reichsschloß, but I will let German linguistics experts weigh in on what the difference is.

Nuremburg the city, in terms of spelling, was an even greater challenge.  First, any word with the German ü can be spelled, in English, as ü, u, or ue.  So a common word that one might see in history books (such as those used to research my novel, The Holy Diamond) would be Führer, Fuehrer, or Fuhrer.  All of them are correct and widely used.  Second, Nuremburg could also be spelled Nurnberg, Nürnberg, Nuernberg and of course Nuremberg.  I settled on the latter if, for no other reason, than that is what Wikipedia seemed to suggest.

Back to the Kaiserburg…

When I visited the Kaiserburg, I had not completely conceived my novel.  If I had, I would have taken more photos!  I think at the point in which I had visited the Kaiserburg, I knew I was going to write a novel about a diamond, but I had neither a plot nor locations.  Not only did I not envision the Kaiserburg as being in my novel, but I had not considered Nuremburg in general.  Had I known it would become a central, prominent location of my novel I would have both spent more time there, visited more sites, and taken more photos!

Nonetheless, I at least visited the Kaiserburg in its entirety.  Not necessarily by choice.  The interior is only visitable by guided tour.  Oh the guided tour!  Enemy of my time and patience…

In my many travels, I am occasionally (fortunately not always) confronted by the guided tour or NO tour; ie. If I want to visit something, it’s got to be guided, or I ain’t gonna see it.  Wow, what a predicament 

Guided tours are not EVIL, but they are a bit annoying.  Why?  They take longer than my mind and feet move, they usually involve waiting around for the start, and they are usually more rather than less tedious.  It’s a personal observation, of course… but this is a personal blog.

Sometimes I decide that I have neither the time nor the patience for the mandatory tour; but as often as not, I suck it up and sit on my butt impatiently waiting for the guide to call the assembled to order.  Thus it was at the Kaiserburg.

It was a beautiful, sunny early October day.  The gray, cloudy skies Germany is famous for were nowhere to be seen.  The tour begins as I describe it in my novel: in a courtyard surrounded on one side by stone and wooden ramparts on which bright, red leafy vines were growing.  After purchasing my ticket for the guided tour – which was the only way one could enter the palace-castle – I sat upon a bench waiting impatiently for some twenty minutes, reading Lonely Planet Germany on my Amazon Kindle (keyboard version, at the time) and planning the following steps of my day in Nuremburg. 


The autumn-leafed courtyard of the Kaiserburg. (Photo: LH Dooley)

Eventually, though on time, the guide appeared and we were led up steps into the Kaiserburg.  I will not repeat my description of the tour, but only mention a few highlights.  First, most of the palace is precisely as I described it.  The first room is rather bare, and I paced impatiently while the guide prattled on in German long after I had finished reading the two-page description of the hall in English.  The best feature of this first hall was the commanding view over the city.


The two-level chapel in the Kaiserburg. It features prominently in The Holy Diamond. (Photo: LH Dooley)

Second, the two-level chapel was definitely the highlight of the palace.  Its layout is as described in the novel, though as the lower chamber is closed I can only guess (or imagine) what it looks like.  It was, however, in truth a chapel of the Teutonic Knights as stated in the novel.  The rest of the Kaiserburg is not especially memorable – but for the replica of the Crown of the Holy Roman Emperor, the real one of which sits in the Hofburg Treasury in Vienna.  The guide told the story of how the crown had been removed from Nuremburg by the Hapsburgs and put in Vienna in the city’s Fine Arts Museum (Kunsthistorisches Museum), returned by the Nazis to Nuremberg, then returned to Vienna by the Allies.  A bit of a complicated story that serves as a microcosm of the tangled history of the Germanic lands.

A history which, in its own way, is explored in The Holy Diamond.Image

The first hall on the guided tour of the Kaiserburg. (Photo: LH Dooley)

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Fan of Eurovision? Maybe you don’t know what it is?

Well The Holy Diamond might be one of the few novels, if not the first, to feature the beloved and despised, but ever thriving, European song contest that gave birth to Abba, Celine Dion, River Dance, and others.

Without spoilers, all I can say is that The Holy Diamond features the Eurovision song competition in a big way!  Douze points (twelve points, which is what the first place contestant gets from each country) was never so important in the history of Europe as in The Holy Diamond.

This year’s Eurovision will be hosted in Copenhagen, Denmark – which is also where in the novel (by total coincidence, since the first draft of the novel was finished 6 months before the 2013 Eurovision final in Malmö) where the neo-Nazi organization, the Teutonic Knights of the Aryan Order, are based.


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How I Stopped Dreaming and Finally Wrote a Novel

How Long Did it Take to Write The Holy Diamond?

I’m Done, but Where Did I Begin?

Every novel writer has a story about their story. Each is as different, and the same, as the novels themselves. You can write a novel about writing a novel. Or write a novel about a novel about a novel…

But how long did it take The Holy Diamond to be written?  For aspiring and current writers, it’s an interesting subject that I’ll relate in some detail.

The original idea came at five o’clock in the morning in Washington, DC area when I woke up sneezing from allergies in the basement guest room of my friends’.  With each sneeze I saw stars and fumbled in the search for my inhaler, all the while thinking about how to write a story involving a diamond and music.  It was a question I had been grappling with for a few weeks for a number of undisclosed reasons. 

That was January, 2011.

Minutes later, I came up with the idea of writing a short story in a sort of non-fiction style about the history of a diamond that imparted mystical, musical skills. It’s origins were to be uncertain: a meteorite that had crashed in the Oracle of Delphi in Greece, discovered beneath the ground at some other historical site such as Stonehenge, etc. And it was only supposed to be a five to ten page short story.



Part of the Nuremberg city wall, looking down from the Kaiserberg. My visit to Nuremberg was a key inspiration to writing The Holy Diamond, where much of the story takes place. (Photo: LH Dooley)

Unfortunately, the story in a sort of creative, non-fiction format, starting from antiquity to present day, could not be done in ten pages. Or twenty. Or fifty.  At page 75 or so (Microsoft Word single space), where the story had gotten to a love triangle between Johann Strauss, Jr., Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz-Josef, and Empress Elisabeth (or Sissi), I realized – my short story was not short, and wasn’t getting any shorter.

And then I began my first (and only) creative writing course in Malmö University, Sweden, where I learned the key elements of creative writing and fictional writing: character, plot, setting, dialogue, and language. One important thing we learned was that it is harder to write less than more.  The course went from August 2011 to January 2012.

During that time, I came up with the idea of making a proper novel out of my fictional non-fiction history.  I had a concept and a chronology, but I needed a story and characters.  Throughout August to December I worked hard on the plot and characters, with a final “sprint” of outlining the story during Christmas vacation 2011.  Then on 24 December 2011, I started the novel.  In a hole there lived a hobbit… or something like that.

As I finished my creative writing course, I shifted my time into writing the novel.  And wrote and wrote… Sometimes even writing from places where the novel took place (like Vienna and Salzburg); or going to places where I knew a part of the novel would take place (such as Jönköping, Sweden).

In early October 2012, I finished a first rough draft that I sent to friends.  Several intelligent and generous friends read it, provided feedback, and by 22 December 2012, almost a year to the day of the first words that began with “Chapter 1”, a much better, second draft was done.

After making weak attempts to find a literary agent, I decided to go the route of self-publishing.  But not the “vanity” way.  I hired a proper, experienced editor in June 2013 and, after several back-and-forths, by the end of April 2014 we had a final novel.

And that novel finally got published on 3 May 2014!

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After about one year of thinking, one year of writing, and one and a half years of revising and editing, The Holy Diamond is ready! In e-book from Amazon sites and paperback.

You can find all of the links for purchasing the novel here:

I’m happy to sign copies, and answer questions of any sort, novel related or not.

Happy reading!

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Paperback Proof!

Just got the paperback proof from CreateSpace! It came within three days, which is amazing since it went from South Carolina to Europe via UPS. 

I’ve included the Irish Times headline to show that the photo is current – ie, not a stock or archive photo.

What next? Approve the proof, and then get it available on


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