Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer. . .Richard III, Shakespeare, 1594

Darkness comes early on a winter night in Wolfenbuettel

The reading room windows in the winter darkness

Then was the long cold winter of research. Now is the summer of bringing it all together and the 70-degree sunshine doesn’t make it any easier. Last February I got up in the dark, dressed warmly, and walked down the cobblestone streets of Wolfenbuettel to the seventeenth-century armory which houses the newer books of the Herzog August Bibliothek. I took the elevator up to the reading room, chose a vacant table, plugged in my laptop, and checked at the desk for the books I had on order from the older collection.  Taking 4 or 5 books to my table, I entered them into my database and set up a Word document for each. I liked to sit near the back, where I could see out all of the large windows that surrounded three sides of the room. Once in a while I would look up and see dark clouds rolling in or snow falling softly or the bright blue sky of a crisp winter day–the drama of weather shaping my day.

The reading room windows on a winter day

The coldness of winter keeping me inside

Should I pause for lunch, take a walk, or just grab a quick coffee in the café down the hall? In any case I would work until 6 or 7 each evening, distilling information, taking notes, describing illustrations, recording thoughts, and sometimes transcribing whole pages to analyze later. Travel narratives, almanacs, medical self-help books for the “common man” —I rotated genres to keep it interesting.

Now I am home, with databases that house 70 secondary sources, 120 primary sources, and 253 individuals who either wrote or were mentioned in the sixteenth-century primary sources. I sit down at my desk with my database on the MacBook to my right, my notes on my double-screened desktop pc to my left, and the document I am writing straight ahead, surrounded by history books to help me review background and context, on the Reformation, on New World plants, on sixteenth-century medicine. It seems impossible to take it all in, as indeed it is, so I focus closely on my outline, developing one topic at a time, building up to the point of each section, each chapter, one step at a time, 6 to 8 hours a day. I write, immersed in a world of sailing ships and Galenic medicine and illustrated herbals. What did sassafras and maize, sarsaparilla and tobacco, exotic plants from the Americas, mean to the apothecaries, farmers, and townspeople of sixteenth-century Germany?

Data, notes, and current document in place

Data, notes, and current document in place–but, alas, the blinds are closed

But this is a place of February sunshine, of walks in the wilderness, grandchildren on the beach, serendipitous visits, and supper on the patio. Windows to the world interrupt the rhythm of my writing and their call is irresistible. Still I have turned in the introduction and first chapter and am halfway through Chapter Two. Here in the sun, the writing is going well.

Grandchildren on the beach

Grandchildren on the beach

One thought on “California and the Sixteenth-Century Summer

  1. I guess a reference to ‘a place in the sun’ here would be anachronistic… Good luck on your writing, in spite of those delightful distractions 🙂

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