By Gretchen Woelfle
Remember those vocational quizzes they gave us in grade school? You write down what you like to do, and your perfect career pops up. I can’t remember what they told me I should become, but I figured it out on my own, decades later.
After many jobs circling the book-writing field – copyeditor, researcher, picture researcher, book and art reviewer, scriptwriter – I stumbled upon writing for children, thanks to a job layoff. And it fit me perfectly.
Two of my passions are reading and traveling the world (with a side order of hiking and cycling), and I shamelessly indulge them all on the job. The reading never ends. Before, during, and after writing a book, I continue to read books about my subject. The traveling usually comes before I begin writing.
My latest book, a middle grade novel, All the World’s A Stage: A Novel in Five Acts, illustrated by Thomas Cox (Holiday House, 2011) takes place in Shakespeare’s theater company in 1598-1599.
I took several trips to explore the Elizabethan footprint of the City of London, the original walled square-mile of the present-day metropolis. My daughter lived in London at the time and loaned me her extra bicycle.
The City, teeming with people in 1599, today houses financiers during the day and virtually no one at night. Bicycling through the deserted streets on a Sunday evening, trying to find relevant sites for my story, was an eerie experience. It felt like an Elizabethan time-traveler might round any corner and lure me into a hidden alley.
Guided London Walks took me to forgotten corners of Shakespeare’s London. The archivist of the Worshipful Company of Carpenters, housed on the same ground since 1429, led me to the library at Guildhall, scene of a frolic in my novel.
Not much sixteenth century architecture is left in London, so I took a twenty-five mile cycling trip to the Elizabethan Hunting Lodge in Epping Forest to soak up atmosphere.
Much of All the World’s A Stage takes place backstage in Shakespeare’s theatre. I took the normal tour of the new Globe and visited its museum, but that didn’t get me backstage. A phone call to the press office revealed that the theater was dark only one afternoon a week, but yes, they would give me a personal tour then.
I even managed to climb up to “heaven” (above the balcony) from where the gods descend. Essential to my research, of course, was my attendance at all the Shakespeare plays I could fit in. The company at the Globe is magnificent. Will would revel, I trow, in both its traditional and contemporary productions.
Any writer will tell you that only a small part of his/her research ends up in the final book. The Elizabethan Hunting Lodge didn’t make the cut in All the World’s A Stage, nor did the history of the Worshipful Company of Carpenters. But an unrelated (so I thought) trip to Aldebugh, Suffolk’s Moot Hall and a stunning skyscape that afternoon, did.
My first book, The Wind at Work: An Activity Guide to Windmills (Chicago Review Press, 1997) meant a trip to the Netherlands for on-the-ground research.
I visited the usual suspects: Zaanse Schans, a cool tourist destination with lot of working windmills; and the Kinderdijk for a boat ride past nineteen water pumping mills (which inspired my second book, Katje the Windmill Cat, illustrated by Nicola Bayley (Candlewick, 2006)).
Also tax deductible were days cycling to the Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum, and Rembrandt’s House, all of which contain marvelous paintings, drawings, and etchings of windmills, some of which ended up in the book, and one (Rembrandt) on my office wall. No need to call Interpol – it’s a reproduction.
Most intriguing was my visit to one of seven hundred Volunteer Windmillers, all trained and licensed by their Guild, as he ran a restored windmill one Sunday afternoon. No other tourists around, just me and my windmiller discussing the finer points of history and engineering as the giant wooden gears creaked and groaned.
I learned things that no book had told me: Every self-respecting miller hung a lump of rancid pork fat from a rafter, to grease the gears. And to keep out woodworm, my windmiller ran his mill every weekend. The ubiquitous creaking and groaning makes Mama Woodworm avoid the mill and seek a still, quiet site to lay her eggs, which would otherwise hatch, eat the wooden gears, and destroy the mill.
A different sort of adventure awaited me back home in California: a private tour of a wind turbine factory in Tehachapi and a windy hike through a nearby wind farm on the Pacific Crest Trail. Those turbines are enormous and beautiful: sculptures in the landscape.
Some wind farm opponents bemoan the ruination of the view, but the Dutch windmills that we find so charming now, endured the same complaints when they were built. I’ll be writing an updated edition of The Wind at Work this summer, and searching out more wind turbine adventures.
I’m now writing biographies, and, while I didn’t choose my subjects for their places of residence, I have tracked them from Virginia to Nova Scotia, to the English countryside, and on to Paris, France. Tough job, I know, but hey, it’s my destiny!
In the photo above, Gretchen and her illustrator, Thomas Cox, are standing at the Globe Theatre in London.
From the promotional copy of All The World's A Stage:
Suddenly a hand gripped the back of his neck. "Cutpurse!' Kit is caught!
Twelve-year-old orphan Kit Buckles, seeking his fortune in Elizabethan London, has bungled his first job as a pickpocket at the Theatre Playhouse where the Lord Chamberlain's Men are performing. To avoid jail, Kit agrees to work for the playhouse and soon grows fond of the life there: the dramas on- and offstage. Things get truly exciting when Kit joins the plot to steal the playhouse from the landlord who has evicted the company.
Based on fact, this coming-of-age story offers a vivid picture of life behind the curtain at Shakespeare's theater.