For a lock-it-down quiet pandemic life, my husband and I have been moving around quite a bit. In November, we closed down our rural house in Ontario in anticipation of going to San Miguel de Allende in Mexico for the winter. We’d last seen our house there over two years before when we returned to Ontario unexpectedly for medical reasons. And then Covid, of course, and the world closed down.
Fast forward to last November. En route to San Miguel, we stayed in Kingston, Ontario, not far from where our daughter and her family live. Our son and his wife came up from New York State with their baby, and a wonderful family time was had by all. We’d all self-tested negative before getting together, and so could hug freely and without worry, making for a very special holiday season.
Richard and I were due to fly south on January 7, but did an abrupt swerve because of the Omicron surge, heading back to our house up north. I’d hardly even settled when I went by ambulance to a local hospital to be operated on for a burst appendix. Yes, quite a surprise!
My operation was a little over two weeks ago. I’m feeling more and more myself, and so have ventured down to my “bunker” — the lovely little room off our basement that’s my writing space.
This is how I found it:
It felt like time travel. What had I been working on? What was I researching? And why?
Obviously it had to do with Elizabethan England and my increasingly tangled Young Adult biographical novel about teen-aged Elizabeth Tudor, the future Queen Elizabeth I.
Princess Elizabeth, artist unknown.
I’ve been going through the usual periods of despair known to all writers, alternating with periods of optimism, swinging from one to the other and back again. The last few days have been hopeful — I’m back at work, and that makes all the difference.
The image at top is Moon2 by Netherland artist Rob de Vries (Rookuzz on Flickr). I like how this image evokes feelings of being both lost and found. What I take to be a broom is a special touch. I subscribe to Every Day Poems, which sends out a poem every morning together with an image, usually a photo. Of late, they’ve been showing the work of this artist, and it immediately grabbed me. De Vries very kindly gave me permission to use his images here. He’s described as a photo-realist artist, but I like his abstract work best, which I gather is photo-based. I’d love to know more about his process.
I’ve come to understand that if I don’t spend at least some time early morning with my WIP (with mug of coffee), it’s quite likely not to happen at all that day. I have a “Cup ‘o Work” habit first thing—usually in bed, and always with my laptop and a hot mug of half decaf/half caffeinated coffee. (It used to be full-on decaf, but this year has been stressful and I’ve fallen back on old bad habits.) It’s often an hour, and sometimes as much as two.
I have this luxury now, of time, and the means to spend it as I wish. So then why do the days seem so squished, and why do I most often look back on the day’s hours with guilt and regret.
Here’s what can eat up time:
- Figuring out &$%^*@ passwords!
- Trying to figure out why I’m not getting text messages on my iPhone, but do on my laptop? Or some such tearing-hair-out-by-the-roots puzzle!
- Why do some emails show up in illegible code, and others pristine and beautiful?
- Computer freeze-up. (Is everything I touch today going to malfunction?)
- Doom scrolling. This could be a function of quarantine lonliness, I think, a longing for connection. An hour can go by in a snap. Every now and then it’s rewarding—i.e. the woman who tweeted reading Josephine B. after having it by her bedside for over 20 years—but 99% of the time it’s only depressing because it doesn’t fulfil the need.
Household chores I’m happy to do, often listening to an excellent podcast or book on tape. I space them out as movement breaks from my computer.
But the other thing that eats up my time is my self-inflicted perfectionism. Even now, as I’m typing these words, I wonder if I’m going to allow myself to “send.”
For one thing, I pride myself on the visual that I attach to a post. How to make that fast and easy? It’s not coming up with a beautiful image that’s hard: what’s hard is coming up with the perfect image. And then there’s the matter of attribution, which I feel is ethically important, but that can take time.
So, okay: from now on I won’t give attribution but invite those of you who yearn to know to use the delightful tineye.com to discover the artist.
And maybe my sentences won’t be perfect, either. Can I live with that, in exchange for expression?
We shall see.
But I won’t leave without telling you of a wonderful podcast I discovered today: Dan Blank’s The Creative Shift. I’d tell you more but a password is required. (Insert grinding teeth.) As is, time for bed … and a good book or three.
My love to you all. Really and truly. And especially to the reader who posted to Twitter.
It has been so long since I posted here I couldn’t figure out how to do it. My last post was at the end of October of last year, so close to six months ago. It feels more like a year to me, in part because of our molassas-slow new reality.
That post was The guilt, angst and joy of research, which helps explain the reason for my disappearance: Research!
I’m having what I consider a non-productive day: I’ve not written or edited a word. Resistance rules!
I’m fond of the French word flâneur, meaning an idle person who strolls about without object, who putters around, in other words.
Paul Gavarni, Le Flâneur, 1842
I’m especially fond of the verb form flâner, which means to stroll. Flânerie is the act of strolling, and that’s the kind of day I’m having. Distracted, easily side-tracked by shiny objects, unofficially off-track.
Or is it?
One of the things I came upon this morning were the animated portraits I made some time ago through My Heritage. It’s meant to allow people to animate photos of family members (which I found just a little creepy), but enchants me when used to animate historical portraits.
For example, based on a close-up clip from this portrait of Princess Elizabeth …
ATTRIBUTED TO WILLIAM SCROTS,
Elizabeth I when a Princess c.1546
… I made this charming animation:
Needless to say, I then had to make animations of most of my cast of characters.
A word of caution however
“Flaneuring” (our household verb) can also lead to overwhelm. In rediscovering these animations, I found I had computer folders of desktop contents five layers deep. It’s like an archeological dig.
The drawing above is a self-portrait I made for a delightful course on Domestika.org: The Art of Sketching: Transform Your Doodles into Art by Mattias Adolfsson. The Domestika courses are professional, very well done, and really inexpensive. I find them irresistible.
I hope wherever this finds you that you are finding unexpected joys in our life of confinement. I have more to say, but I’ll leave this short—an icebreaker, if you will, after a long silence.
As one might have said in the 16th century, Has’t a valorous day.
I recently read an article by the elusive Ryan Holiday, a professional book researcher. He made one very important point—at least to me. He said that the first step in researching is to acquire a research library which will include books that you will likely never read. He calls it an anti-library.
We all have books and papers that we haven’t read yet. Instead of feeling guilty, you should see them as an opportunity: know they’re available to you if you ever need them.
This is exactly what I do: buy too many books, print out too many articles, and read only a fraction of them. So now I’m going to stop feeling guilty about it.
Two of six shelves for the WIP. Note the white tag in the lower left. It reads: “Sun Court books at the back.” In other words, I’ve run out of shelf space.
One of my rules as a reader is to read one book mentioned in or cited in every book that I read.
I often scour footnotes for references to books the author has relied on. Lately, I’ve acquired two books in this way and they have proved to be invaluable.
One is Elizabeth’s Bedfellows; An Intimate History of the Queen’s Court by British historian Anna Whitelock. She was one of the experts on a documentary on Elizabeth I. I ordered her book and immediately on opening it saw details I badly needed to write a scene that had me stumped. I will only need a few chapters of this book—at least for this WIP—but they are gold to me.
The other book is a paperback edition of Houses of Power; The Places the Shaped the Tudor World by Simon Thurley. (Note that this book can be hard to find, at least in North America. I finally found a used copy on Abebook.com.)
I have a number of works by this wonderful historian, but this is the book that made me gasp. It’s full of the floorplans of Tudor palaces at that time, and amazing details as well. In no time flat, I began to mark it up.
A research trick I use: for a print book I own, if the “search me” feature is available on Amazon, I will add it to a list. Say I’m looking for events in 1553: I’ll search for that year in the Amazon link of the book—note that it has to be the print edition—and this will give me the pages to go to in my copy of the book. It’s an instant index to the type of thing that would never show up in an official index.
Since posting this, I’ve had the pleasure of listening to a podcast interview of Professor Simon Thurley on The Tudor Travel Show. Fascinating! He also has two free online lectures I’m looking forward to listening to: Tudor Ambition; Houses of the Boleyn Family and Ruling Passions: The Architecture of the Cecils. As well, he has launched an invaluable research website that provides up-to-date information on royal palaces: RoyalPalaces.com.
Dr. Sarah Morris of The Tudor Travel Show (above) is an invaluable source of information, both through her Tudor Travel videos and podcasts, but also through her writing: her two novels about Anne Boleyn—Le Temps Viendra (I and II)—as well as the abundantly detailed non-fiction account In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn, written together with On the Tudor Trail podcaster Natalie Grueninger.
The art at the top is from Bibliodessy.
The novel I’m writing now is set in mid-16th century England. During this time period episodes of black plague and the quickly lethal “sweating sickness” came and went. With each epidemic, enormous numbers of people died.
Long ago, when I started to research, these events were simply blips on a timeline. With the advent of our Covid-19 world, such facts became far more vivid to me. I hadn’t understood the fear and heightened state of caution epidemics caused.
A 16th-century story to set the stage: a man and woman in a village in England lost children to the plague. Another child was born, and when plague returned to their town, they sealed shut the windows and doors of their home. Thanks to their precautions, their child survived: his name was William Shakespeare.
Shakespeare wrote “King Lear” (and “Macbeth,” and “Antony and Cleopatra”) during plague years when the London theatres closed down. (The rule was that once the death toll went over 30, playhouses had to close.) In short, he was out of work and had time on his hands.
“King Lear” is one of his bleakest plays, written while living in a bleak time:
The mood in the city must have been ghastly – deserted streets and closed shops, dogs running free, carers carrying three-foot staffs painted red so everyone else kept their distance, church bells tolling endlessly for funerals … (The Guardian, March 22, 2020)
Plague also changed the nature of the plays he wrote. Plague killed off men in their 30s, so the demographic of both his actors and audience changed.
Although A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe is not, in fact, a contemporary account—Defoe was a master of what I would call fact-based fiction—it is thought to have been well-researched. I was struck, reading it, how well-organized England was in combating epidemics. For example, if infected, people were prevented from leaving their homes. One needed a certificate of health in order to travel. Interesting!
Certainly, it is reminiscent of what we are going though today:
City authorities are sane and composed concerning the spreading plague, and distribute the Orders of the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London. These set up rules and guidelines for the arrangement of searchers and inspectors and guardians to monitor the houses, for the quieting down of contaminated houses, and for the closing down of occasions in which enormous gatherings of individuals would assemble.
Here’s a truly contemporary word of caution from 1665:
This poem by U.S. poet Daniel Halpern was published—astonishingly—seven years ago in Poetry Magazine. (Likewise astonishingly, he doesn’t remember writing it.)
There are fewer introductions
In plague years,
Hands held back, jocularity
No longer bellicose,
Even among men.
Breathing’s generally wary,
Labored, as they say, when
The end is at hand.
But this is the everyday intake
Of the imperceptible life force,
Willed now, slow —
Well, just cautious
In inhabited air.
As for ongoing dialogue,
No longer an exuberant plosive
To make a point,
But a new squirrelling of air space,
A new sense of boundary.
Genghis Khan said the hand
Is the first thing one man gives
To another. Not in this war.
A gesture of limited distance
Now suffices, a nod,
A minor smile or a hand
Not in search of its counterpart,
Just a warning within
The acknowledgement to stand back.
Each beautiful stranger a barbarian
Breathing on the other side of the gate.
Stay safe! Stay healthy!
Links of interest:
Shakespeare in lockdown: did he write King Lear in plague quarantine?
Shakespeare wrote King Lear in quarantine. What are you doig with your time?
5 People Who Were Amazingly Productive in Quarantine
What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Living With Pandemics
I’m not even going to guess how long it’s been since I posted to this blog. It feels like forever. As with any long pause, I begin with the thought: So much has happened! Where do I begin?
I’ll begin with where I am right this instant:
I’m in my lovely office our log home in Northeastern Ontario (as seen above). I’ve just sent my Work-In-Process (Progress?) to a freelance editor. She’ll have it back to me in a week, so I have time off—time to attend to all the things I neglected in the mad-dash-crazy-scramble to get something legible to send. Not easy!
My last post was written on November 3 of last year—my 75th birthday. I had just begun NaNoWriMo—and I’m happy to report that I did succeed in writing over 50,000 words that month (50,077, to be exact). I’ve now 93,000, but much of it is in outline, so something is going to have to give. YA novels shouldn’t be greater than 80,000, to give you some idea of the pickle I’m in.
Regarding said pickle, I sent this image in my covering letter to the editor:
How I got here
My life was upended in January, and now, six months later, I’m just starting to get my feet back on the ground. To fill you in, my husband had DVT (deep vein thrombosis), necessitating surgery and long hospital stays in Toronto. We left for our home up north just as Covid19 was ramping up. My husband is still wheelchair-bound but on the mend.
And I’m back at my desk. :-) At last.
A typical exercise in frustration
Note: The search for a photo for this post sent me down the usual rabbit hole, only to discover a warren of tunnels leading to other rabbit holes. Sound familiar? Here’s how it went for me this afternoon:
- My photos on my iPhone weren’t showing up on the Photos app on my MacBook Air. Why?
- Google “answers” did not help—the directions weren’t at all like what were on my screen, likely because my computer and operating system are sorely out of date.
- I was told I needed to update something or other, and so I tried. No luck.
- SO: I dug out a newer computer, a beautiful MacBook Pro which I’ve never used because I detest the feel of the keyboard. I thought I would check to see if the directions made sense on it (newer operating system and all).
- By this time I’d forgotten my original problem. Plus, I’d discovered new ones.The Safari bookmarks on the new computer weren’t syncing to those on the old, and the Scrivener file on the old wasn’t syncing with the new.
- And then, of course, the photo I’d originally been looking for turned out not to exist, so I decided to take a photo of the greatest addition to my writing life. Of course, that’s the moment when the greatest addition stopped working.
Problem 1: wrong mouse.
Problem 2: dead batteries in my wireless keyboard (that the greatest addition to my writing life requires).
Problem 3: the thread in the keyboard was impossible to secure without a proper screwdriver.
Problem 4: finding a proper screwdriver in this house isn’t easy.
Problem 5: Even with said proper screwdriver, it still wouldn’t work. Good thing I had another wireless keyboard. Batteries changed, properly threaded with proper screwdriver, but hey: the keyboard needed to be “paired” to the actual (old) computer before the greatest addition my writing life would smile for the camera.
Happily ever after
Ah, now all is forgiven. And HERE—ta da!—is the greatest addition to my writing life:
I kid you not. I can’t believe I’ve struggled all this time without one. I’ve been working on multiple Scrivener files on my little MacBook Air. Scrivener files are huge. (More on that later.)
BTW, I mentioned in my post last November, that figuring out the Tudor family tree was driving me batty. (I’ve run out of words for crazy in this post.) I finally resorted to using MacFamilyTree to help me figure everyone out—and it did. It also helped me understand why I had been going … ah? … berserk trying to sort it all out with post-its. The Tudor family trees are enormous, and most everyone is related to most everyone else.
But that’s enough for today. I’ve solved my puzzles by classifying them as insignificant. The power of words! I can move on.
Stay safe, stay healthy. Stay sane!