Whining Won’t Help: Research in the Time of the Plague

I’m thirty thousand words into my new Kate Hamilton book and feeling generally out of sorts because I should be in England right now. My new book (working title The Burden of Memory) takes place in late August, the beginning of autumn in the UK. Some of the scenes are set on the Suffolk coast. Others are set in Cambridgeshire. The problem is I don’t really remember what the landscape looks like in Cambridgeshire. I need to be there. I need to see for myself.

Well, that’s not going to happen.

I feel like whining.

Because whining never helps, I decide to do what I can.

The first is online research. Did you know Cambridgeshire is part of England’s nearly fifteen hundred square miles of fenlands—a naturally marshy agricultural region with black peaty soil, supported by a system of draining channels and human-made rivers? I didn’t either, but I can work with that.

Feeling encouraged, I pull up a map of the fenlands in Cambridgeshire, only to realize the route Kate would have driven from southwest Suffolk doesn’t actually go through the fens. Well, shoot. Next stop—Google maps. Sorry—no street view is available, but I click on the satellite view, which shows me a lovely patchwork of green fields. That helps.

Next I pull up the online websites of large Cambridgeshire farms, villages, and cultural points of interest, like ancient forests and medieval priories. Most of the sites include photographs. That helps, too, although it sends me on a rabbit trail, researching a lost tenth-century priory near St. Naots, recently located beneath a Waitrose parking lot.

Okay, back to the book.

What about the weather in late August? How long are the days? What crops are being harvested. What do the hedgerows look like, and what are the animals doing to prepare for winter? Are birds gathering to fly south?

Fortunately, I know where to find answers. Besides www.timeanddate.com (a treasure trove of seasonal-related information), I own a set of four vintage books from the British Ladybird Nature collection: What To Look For In Spring, …In Summer, …In Winter, and …In Autumn. They are beautiful little books, published in the late1950s by Wills & Hepworth Ltd., written by author and biologist E. L. Grant Watson and gorgeously illustrated by the internationally renowned painter of British birds and wildlife, C. F. Tunnicliffe, RA. Both gentlemen are now deceased, but they have left a precious legacy.

I open What To Look For In Autumn, and I am there, in England, zipping up my waxed cotton jacket, smelling the unmistakable scent of newly cut oats, and hearing the cry of wood pigeons as they circle above the stooks to gather seeds. Nearby, starlings with their black beaks, pink legs, and spotted black plumage enjoy ripe blackberries in the hedgerow. A red squirrel circles up the trunk of an oak tree, then peeps around to see what I’m doing. The scent of far-away woodsmoke brings back memories of my favorite village pub.

Inspired and energized, I make a cup of tea and return to my work-in-progress.

In the time of plague, we do what we have to do.

No whining allowed.

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