looking back, steps forward – 2015 into 2016

Yes, another tedious “year in review” post to add to the many cluttering your feed. But hopefully something of interest:

My great achievement for the year was finishing the first draft. Tentatively titled “Fool’s Gold” (I still don’t like it, but I’ve got to call it something), I’ve spent the last half of the year learning to edit. It is a long, slow, strange slog, but worth it. On the rare days I get a brainwave for improvement the “flow” is almost as fun as rough drafting.

I’ve found John Adamus’ Fix Your Shit Month posts invaluable in identifying plot and construction holes I didn’t even know existed. I’m also finding that copying my favorite works longhand makes it easier to both dissect what makes the words work and get into the writing groove.

Concrete goals for 2016: I’m not sure how to quantify editing progress as I’ve been told repeatedly that it can take years. I do aim to do at least half an hour a day. I’m also copying a paragraph or two of good writing each day to see if I can learn by imitation.

I’m also going to seek more frequent critiques and beta reading.

Biweekly links 12-22-2015

Historical links: necklaces from the Cheapside Hoard
Historical links: necklaces from the Cheapside Hoard being mounted for display. Source: AstleyClarke.com

Merry/Happy [insert holiday here]!

First glimpse of lost library of Elizabethan polymath John Dee – delicious animated images of marginalia and pop-up elements in books from Dee’s famous library. A sneak preview of an upcoming exhibit at the Royal College of Physicians that I’d give my eyeteeth to attend. Here’s hoping they do an exhibit catalog!

How much do you know about Elizabethan money? I only got 50%, maybe you can top me.

Where there’s a quill … help to unpick manuscripts from the days of Shakespeare – a crowdsourcing project in which volunteers transcribe 400 year old documents. I love it when technology intersects with primary sources in an effort to make them available to everyone! Check out Shakespearesworld.org to get started.

The Studiolo of Francesco de’ Medici – a secret room created in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio, it’s a beautiful example of a study/cabinet of curiosities popular in the sixteenth century.

Brahe and Kepler: the original science bros

Through my research on Dee and Kelley, I’ve enjoyed discovering other colorful figures from Rudolf II’s court. Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler interested me the most, as much for their “odd couple” dynamic as for their accomplishments.

Statue of Brahe and Kepler
Statue of Brahe and Kepler outside Strahov Monastery, author’s own

Brahe, a Danish nobleman, pursued astronomy despite the ridicule of most of his family. Of a somewhat extravagant personality, he famously lost his nose in a duel (over a mathematical formula) and replaced it with a metal one. His entertainments for his noble patrons included his pet drunk elk and a court jester that lived under his dining room table.

When not partying like a rockstar he made a log of precise celestial measurements, all without the aid of a telescope(!). Of several personal facilities his largest was Uraniborg, his observatory/alchemical lab/research institute, which he ruled like a king until the actual Danish king stopped funding him.

contemporary engraving of Uraniborg
Contemporary engraving of Uraniborg, courtesy Armagh Observatory

If Brahe was larger than life, Kepler was…not. Noble but impoverished, he almost became a minister before taking a post teaching mathematics in what is now Austria. Though interested in astronomy from an early age, poor eyesight prevented him making celestial observations of his own.

Plate from Kepler's De Stella Nova
Plate of a planetary conjunction from Kepler’s De Stella Nova, courtesy Bill Blair’s site

So, a flamboyant genius with a personal scientific playground and a mild mannered, nearsighted professor…sounds familiar…

Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo as Tony Stark and Bruce Banner
Kepler may not have turned into a green rage monster, but Brahe would have loved the Iron Man suit. Courtesy Collider

But I digress. How did the Renaissance science bros come to work together?

Partly through correspondence – they exchanged letters for years on astronomical questions. They finally met in Prague. Brahe arrived in 1599 at Rudolf II’s invitation, to become his imperial astronomer. A year later Brahe invited Kepler to work as his assistant. After several months of Kepler’s uncertain employment and an argument over access to Brahe’s logs, they formalized a commission to work together.

Not a month later Brahe died. Kepler inherited both his post as imperial astronomer and Brahe’s logs – the latter not without a fight. Brahe’s family wanted to lock them up, but after acrimonious negotations Kepler finally gained access to the data. He used it to create the Rudolphine Tables, the most accurate star and planetary tables of their time. The precision of the measurements also allowed him to prove that planets travel in an ellipse and improve upon Copernicus’ heliocentric model of the solar system.

(My understanding of physics and complex astronomy is limited and beyond the scope of this blog post. Corrections are welcome in the comments section!)

Circling back to my book: Neither Brahe nor Kepler appear in it as they were active in Prague long after my 1580s timeframe. It’s also unlikely Dee or Kelley met either of them, though Brahe corresponded with Dee about the 1572 supernova and a 1577 comet. But, they are another example of the great minds attracted by Prague’s scientific golden age.




biweekly links 12-9-2015

Infographic: Women Onstage and Offstage in Elizabethan England – includes Shakespeare’s “Dark Lady”, early actresses, and cross-dressing.

From Magic to Science: The Intriguing Ritual and Powerful Work of Alchemy – discusses the philosopher’s stone in the context of spiritual transmutation and eternal life.

More Bard: review of Ross Duffin’s “Shakespeare’s Songbook”. “Shakespeare’s audience would more likely have gained their knowledge of myth and history from popular song than from Ovid…” – parallels to the current popularity of the broadway musical “Hamilton”.

More magic: Academy of Arcana opens doors downtown Santa Cruz, aiming to be nexus for mystical community. Part school, store, library, museum, and salon, they provide “secular instruction in history, lore, [and] practice of mystical traditions”. And their proprietor bears a striking resemblance to Dumbledore/Dee.

a tale of two alchemy museums part 2: Museum of Alchemists and Magicians of Old Prague

If Speculum Alchemiae provides an example of a real alchemy lab, the Museum of Alchemists and Magicians of Old Prague reflects the fantasy. And that’s not a bad thing.

This former residence of Edward Kelley’s in the Donkey in the Cradle house (many of Prague’s older buildings have names based on their “signs”) placed him conveniently near the royal court in Hradčany (Castle Town). The tower and its spiral staircase date from the sixteenth century but I’m not sure about the rest of the house.

spiral staircase
I ran into a lot of spiral staircases in Prague, but this was the tightest, steepest, and oldest

My chief interest was the top floor of the tower where Kelley allegedly had his alchemical lab. Though the reproduction of his study seemed plausible I doubt any of the items were original.

reconstruction of Edward Kelley's study near a window with candle, desk, velvet upholstered chair and sideboard with goblet
Dee’s diaries suggest Kelley enjoyed the finer things – velvet chair and wine goblet fit right in

Explanatory text describes Kelley’s life and sticks to the known facts – mostly. The writer, Vincent Bridges, suggested an association between Kelley, Shakespeare as a spy (?) and the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets. He’s one of only two scholars I’ve found that espouse this notion so I don’t know what to make of it, but there you are.

Included are wax models of historical figures, most notably a flying Rudolf II (?) and one of Kelley himself, complete with (alleged) wooden leg:

Back of Kelley wax mannequin, showing wooden leg

The “lab” got still more theatrical as I went along, including artfully arranged broken glass representing a lab accident, a homunculus, planets on strings, and a 6 foot long bellows.

6 foot long bellows
Not sure these existed but it’s awfully impressive, isn’t it?

I can’t finish without mentioning Kellyxir, the alchemy-themed bar attached to the museum. Winding glassware adorns the ceiling and “Mrs. Kelley’s” menu includes alcoholic and non- “elixirs” with names that translate loosely to “wonder medicine of the mountains”, “the key to awakening” and the like. I had something called “bear milk” with rum which was quite pleasant. It was a fun afternoon.

ceiling of Kellyxir alchemical pub with glassware and tubing
Alchemical ceiling of Kellyxir, courtesy Charlotte Dries

With its fanciful (?) stories and funhouse trappings the Museum of Magicians and Alchemists of Old Prague has as much to do with real alchemy as Hollywood does with real life. But it works. The historical Edward Kelley was something of a showman so I think he’d approve of black-lit magical circles and flying emperors in his old home!