The Things We Do for Love (of Writing)

TrigonometryI’ve had a cough for the last three months.

Coughing isn’t a customary occurrence for me.  Neither is having any sort of illness linger for so long.

Part of the problem is that the cough, if one can be said to be such, is largely asymptomatic.  Which is to say a cough is all I have: no sneezing and sniffling of a cold, no aches and pains and lethargy of the flu.

Even the doctor says there’s nothing pathologically wrong with me.

The other oddity is that I only really cough at night.  Of course, because of this, I haven’t slept through an entire night since December without being woken by an uncontrollable paroxysm of tortured hacking.

Water to moisten my throat doesn’t help.  The lemon-flavoured cough drops I’ve been sucking in my sleep (not a nocturnal choking hazard at all) don’t help.

The sickly sweet Benylin cough syrup I’ve since stopped taking worked for exactly four days and then didn’t do a damn thing.

Three or four times now, I’ve improved long enough to believe myself on the mend before relapsing all over again.

But forget all of that, for on the whole, I’m just fine.  I’m still doing what I do: still working, still working out.

Still writing/revising, albeit at times in a hazy, I-miss-uninterrupted-sleep kind of way.

And isn’t that the part that matters most?

In sickness and … even worse sickness

It seems appropriate that my personal metric of health in this has been whether I need to interrupt to my writing, for the last time I had a serious cough is connected to my writing as well.

The year was 2011 and I was, as I like to think of it, “on location”.

More specifically, I was in England on a three-week sojourn.  Ostensibly, this was to visit the English members of my family. However I also went because my historical fiction WIP, set in 13th century England, has a plot that requires a castle set alongside a mountain range with a single mountain pass.

I went there to find this castle, without even knowing beforehand if such a one existed.

Did England even have mountains?

Couldn’t I figure this out using Google Earth and Wikipedia?

Maybe.  Probably.  But my devotion to my writing was such that someone else’s account wouldn’t do; I had to walk the contours of land and take in the sights and surroundings firsthand.

At the same time, half of England got to experience my cough firsthand.

I just couldn’t stop coughing.  I hacked my throat raw.  I gave myself headaches.  My abdominal muscles cramped so badly, I had to start hugging myself.  Pain transformed my cough into more of a gagging exhalation, and eventually I couldn’t even do that anymore.  Still, the urge to cough never ceased.

"On location" at the ruins of Peveril/Peak Castle in Derbyshire, England

“On location” at the ruins of Peveril/Peak Castle in Derbyshire, England

I worried I had bronchitis – that I needed a doctor, but was uncertain how to go about accessing one as a foreign visitor.  Particularly in Castleton, in the middle of rural Derbyshire.

I almost didn’t make it that far.  The day prior, I’d almost turned back for my uncle’s house in London, my goal for the trip unfulfilled.  However, I happened to wander into a bookstore and pick up a book about Peveril/Peak Castle, the place I was meant to visit on the morrow.

The book was very thorough in its description; so much so, I could have just bought the book and been done with it all.  I did buy the book – and several others, in fact – but I also managed to talk myself into just one more day afield.  Just one more day.

That night in the YHA Castleton Losehill Hall – a refurbished, Victorian gothic mansion – I coughed into my pillow so as not to disturb the nice German girls who were my bunk mates.

The next day, I took over 70 photographs of the castle and its surroundings, including one of every interpretive sign posted by English Heritage (which I transcribed when I got back home – some 17, single-spaced typed pages).

I also rambled through the hills for hours, making note of various landmarks and perspectives.

I frightened sheep with my coughing and caused a minor stampede.

But I achieved what I set out to do.

I’ve suffered for my Art

Travelling with a respiratory infection is a fairly extreme example of the lengths I’ll go for my writing.

Some more moderate practices in things I’ve mentioned on this blog before: I don’t owe a TV; I only allow myself to watch Netflix or videos on the weekend; I say no to a lot of social invitations.

The extent of research I’ve conducted into my WIP (20 medieval history books to date, and counting) is also something.

Something relatively new I’ve been doing since last summer is hitting the gym at 7:30am twice a week instead of going over my lunch hour as per usual.

Getting up early enough to do this certainly isn’t fun.  However, those two lunch hours a week I’ve freed up are now devoted to writing.

Something else I recently did – something all writers must do eventually – is overcome my extreme trepidation and give an excerpt of my WIP to people to read.

And not just any sort of people; other writer sort of people, both as a check-in on my progress thus far and reality check into whether I’m even as close to as skilled at writing as I’ve always believed.

But that, my friends, is most definitely a topic for a whole other post.

The mathematics of love

One of the most surprising things I’ve found myself doing for the benefit of my writing is trigonometry.

Peak Castle model 2

Model of Peveril/Peak Castle

Last week, while re-reading all the materials I’ve amassed on Peveril Castle, I was surprised to discover no quantitative information on what the site used to look like.  This despite the ruins containing various artists’ renditions of the castle, both drawings and what looked to be a scale model.

I wanted to indicate in my WIP the length of the castle’s inner and outer baileys.  Admittedly, it’s not critical to the plot of my story, and I could easily convey distance without putting and actual number value on it.

But my protagonist is the sort of person who would know that number … unlike me, who doesn’t even know the square footage of her apartment.

Finally, some relentless Googling yielded the following:

The standing remains of the monument consist primarily of the square keep and a curtain wall enclosing a roughly triangular inner bailey measuring c.100m x 60m….  The outer bailey lies to the south-west where a bank and ditch forms the western boundary of a triangular enclosure, measuring c.80m x 60m[.] [source]

I rejoiced upon finding this because with it, I could figure out each bailey’s length.  I just needed to remember how to find the height of a triangle.

(An isosceles triangle, my mind helpfully dredged from the primordial depths of grade 7 math class.)

A little more Googling (this time, autofill knew exactly what I wanted) and I found myself reunited with good old Pythagoras and his theorem.  A bit of scratch work on the back of an envelope, a conversion of units, and I was then able to write the following in my novel:

I stared across the entire length of Peak Castle — across both baileys toward the rear entrance some five hundred fifty feet away — and couldn’t help but think how small a stronghold it was against the threat it meant to forestall.

All of that was a lot of work for an incidental detail in a single sentence.  But, to me, it was worth it.

It always is.

What’s something unusual you do or have done for the love of your art?  Let me know in the comments.

(Images: J.G. Noelle)

11 thoughts on “The Things We Do for Love (of Writing)

  1. Well, I started believing that I could make it as a writer. Now I’m putting all my energy into that effort. While not neglecting other life, of course. I suppose that could be considered unusual. Maybe. 🙂


  2. I’m sure you didn’t post this so some clod like me could come along and offer advice, but… do you have air-vent heat? When was the last time you changed the filter, and have you tried one of those expensive filters that blocks allergens and whatnot? Sometimes that can make a big difference in the air quality you’re experiencing.


    • I have electric baseboard heat – no filter and incredibly dry. It’s definitely not helping my condition. A friend recommended a humidifier, but I’ve been dragging my heels on it. With how much it rains here, a humidifier seems like it would be as giving a bird a hang glider.


  3. Well, it’s not something I deliberately did. But when I was in hospital suffering from pancreatitis, I literally thought (through the agony and the screaming and begging for someone to make it stop) “I can totally use this in a story”.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m sure you’ve been tested for everything. Did everything include TB and Hansen’s disease?

    Just because they don’t test for something doesn’t mean you don’t have it.

    Hope you figure it out. The cough syrup with codeine was the ONLY thing that ever worked on my kids with coughs after a certain level of severity – it gave them the nighttime sleep that let them get well.

    If you pick a detail it makes sense to make it accurate. You could have easily picked something else. I have a disclaimer in the beginning of PC that there was no attempt to make places accurate if they were real – I kind of grafted necessary bits onto appropriate places. I have enough real detail that you can glide over the others. I think we all do that to different extents – we are not writing history books.


    • Dear God, I hope I don’t have TB. (Pretty sure I don’t; the cough is very dry – nothing seemingly being consumed inside.)

      I Googled Hansen’s disease (having never heard of it) and appreciate your not having referred to it by that other name. Pretty sure I don’t have that either.

      I’ve been on a puffer for a couple of weeks; it seems to be helping. The thing about coughing is that it’s self-perpetuating: coughing causing irritation, irritation causes more coughing.

      Yes, I could have picked another detail. If I hadn’t been able to find out the castle’s length, I would have had to. I think as long as details are within the realm of plausibility, readers will be satisfied for the most part. The more relevant a detail is to the plot, though, the more important it is to be accurate.

      Liked by 1 person

      • ‘The more relevant a detail is to the plot, though, the more important it is to be accurate.’

        Frame that. It is the bedrock underneath the plausibility required for ‘the willing suspension of disbelief.’

        As for the other, I didn’t mean to send you scurrying to Google – more to point out that if they don’t test for something, they won’t find out if you have it or not. Sorry you have such an irritating symptom going on. Like pain, coughing is hard to ignore, hard to work with.

        Liked by 1 person

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