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.
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.
Tomorrow I turn 75. That will certainly be a milestone.
Which of course made me curious about the word milestone. As with nearly all historical explorations, it proved to be exceptionally interesting.
Milestones were originally stone obelisks – made from granite, marble, or whatever local stone was available – and later concrete posts. They were widely used by Roman Empire road builders and were an important part of any Roman road network: the distance travelled per day was only a few miles in some cases. — Wikipedia
One of the main characters of my WIP goes on a journey overland to London, following ancient Roman roads. Might she see a milestone? But of course.
Yesterday was another milestone of sorts: I began a NaNoWriMo push to (try to) write 2000 words a day. Day one: check. Day two: check. (With only a little cheating.) Tomorrow will no doubt be more challenging, but that’s allowed on the day one turns—OMG—75!
Along with writing, I invariably get lost in research. Delving into the Tudors is just a bit crazy-making! At every turn, there’s a fascinating story, at every turn, a mystery to solve—mainly, of late, trying to figure out Queen Elizabeth I’s exceptionally complex family tree. Here’s a crude and over-simplified “chart” that took hours to make.
I’ve been scrambling a bit, trying to sort out my system—and naturally returning to a system I’ve often used before. I record the day, time and word count in a notebook first thing, along with the word count I must meet that day.
At the end of the day, I write the word count met, along with the appropriate smiley or frowny face. For some reason, I find this system motivating. Approaching the end of the workday, I will calculate how many words I have yet to go, and then I go for it—crash, bang, come hell or high!
Mid-day I realized that the notebook I was using was too small so I went looking for a better one. I found one that had only been used a bit four years ago while working on a revision of The Game of Hope. It was moving seeing my scribbled notes. it feels like a decade ago to me now.
Meanwhile, Day of the Dead
Day of the Dead is a delight in Mexico, a beautiful tradition. Here are a few photos from Halloween, when people all over town were getting made up in fanciful ways.
In preparation for NaNoWriMo‘s blast-through-a-first draft-November, I’m following K.M. Weiland’s roadmap on constructing an outline. I’ve outlined my last three novels, but each time it’s like starting from scratch. In any case, I like learning something new.
I began last winter with Weiland’s software, Outlining Your Novel, which is the computer version of her workbook by that name.
All this to say that reading her book this morning, she mentions using old calendars to establish a timeline for a novel. I’ve been working all month on a detailed timeline on Scrivener, but using printout calendars is an excellent idea. Ms know-it-all Google directed me to this useful site, and I now have color-coded printouts of the years 1549 to 1559 with the significant events highlighted. I especially like that I will be able to know the phases of the moon since this was all-important pre-electricity.
Four other blog posts on outlining that may be of interest:
Question: What happens when you live in one house for over 40 years?
Answer: It gets cluttered with unfinished projects and treasures without a place (including letters and treasures from my parents’ cluttered attic).
Question: And what happens when, of an instant, you decide to have the entire first floor refinished?
Answer: Everything must get moved out and surfaces cleared.
This process takes time! Everything must be puzzled out.
One of the treasures without a home I picked up this morning, for example, is a manilla file titled “Crime of the Week.” It’s filled with clippings of the Crimes of the Week as reported in the northern Californian Anderson Valley Advertiser in the 1980s and 90s. My parents had a property in beautiful Anderson Valley (not far from Mendocino, California), and my father used to send me the Advertiser. I began cutting out various Crimes and slipping them away in a file.
The Advertiser is still trucking, but I suspect that the crimes to report these days may have lost some of their last-century charm.
For example, here’s the Crime of the Week from June 22, 1988, picked at random:
CRIME OF THE WEEK
A Westport couple was hanging out the window of their house screaming that they were trapped. Deputies Hillard and Degeyter walked right on in through the front door and transported the couple to Ukiah for psychiatric evaluation.
Or this one (date not noted):
CRIME OF THE WEEK
Miles Reisman of Redwood Valley called the Sheriff’s Office to say a neighbor of his was walking through the neighborhood wearing nothing but a “scrap” around his waist while swinging a dead skunk. Deputy Pendergraft was unable to locate the dead skunk twirler, speculating the man had simply blended in with the Redwood Valley commute crowd.
I’ve long thought that the Advertiser should publish the Crimes of the Week as a charming daily calendar, something a publisher like Workman might be interested in. At the least, I thought I might share some of them on this blog now and then. (What do you think?)
Today the Crime of the Week feature seems to have morphed into Catch of the Day. On October 13, 2016, Catch of the DAY listed 13, with grim mug shots of each.
And thus it is that it has taken all morning to place just one file without a home in Current. :-)
A note to writers of cosy mysteries: the Anderson Valley Advertiser would be an excellent source of ideas for plot and character. There is even a book put out by Bruce Anderson and Mark Scaramella: Mendocino Noir; Crimes Large and Small.
I’m pleased to announce the beautiful Canadian paperback edition of The Game of Hope. It’s fresh and fun to have a new cover. The first person to email me* a selfie holding the book will be sent an autographed hardcover edition.
In other news, I’ve just returned from a three-week trip to the UK, researching the early life of Queen Elizabeth I and the village of Adisham, where I’ve set my other heroine, young Molly the falconer.
In one month, shortly after Canadian Thanksgiving, Richard and I will be heading south to San Miguel de Allende for the winter. Once settled, I plan to NaNoWriMo-write the rough first draft of Molly & Bess (working title). I’m not yet sure if it’s one novel or two. This will be one way to find out.