25th Trillium Award

At the Desk: Richard Merritt

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Richard Merritt, at his handwriting desk

For each book that sits on our shelves or rests in our hands, a writer has spent countless hours researching, organizing, writing and rewriting. In Open Book?s At The Desk series, writers tell us about their creative processes and the workspaces that inspire them.

For Richard Merritt, the writing desk represents an important shift in the way books are written — his large four-partners desk (above) being where he wrote, longhand, in his early days, and his modern computer desk (below) being where he writes today, and where his book On Common Ground — a history of a culturally important region of oak savanna near the Niagara River — was eventually finished.


I was surrounded by Niagara?s history as I wrote my book, On Common Ground: The Ongoing Story of the Commons in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Our family home, the c.1794 Sheehan-dePuisaye house, was used as a military hospital by the British during the War of 1812. The property does not, unfortunately, overlook the Commons but as I gaze out the front window from my desk I can see the historic River Road, the Niagara River beyond and depending on the season, New York State. Most of the tens of thousands of characters in my book probably sailed, galloped, walked, ran, marched or rode on some conveyance past these windows.

The book was written at the desk in my study that contains many cluttered bookshelves and banker?s boxes of reference materials. The room is also a living museum of various artifacts, primarily of Niagara provenance.

When I first started writing my manuscript for the book about four years ago, I was still writing in long hand on lined paper with a sharp No.2 HB pencil on my wonderful antique four-partners desk so I could easily spread out all my notes and references as I laboured away. I would then transcribe to Word on my computer. This became increasingly impractical as deadlines threatened and so I eventually switched to writing full time onscreen with printer and scanner nearby — all nicely ensconced on a sturdy ancient ship-captain?s chart table. A comfortable Windsor chair with cushion helped to soothe the long hours of sitting.

While I was writing the chapter ?The Battle of Fort George,? and later the notes on the military hospital at Butler?s Barracks, I had the very real and distinct sensation of several wounded soldiers standing behind me, looking over my shoulder as I punched in the text on my twenty-first century computer terminal.

For inspiration and relaxation I often played background music of the period in which I was writing. Occasionally I would get bored with this routine and revert to hand writing the manuscript, but this time on the large dining room table or out in our sunroom.

I frequently took long walks on the Commons or ventured into Paradise Grove with pencil and paper in hand; I usually discovered something new or thought of important revisions during these field trips.

Throughout this period I was still practising ophthalmology nearly full time in my office in nearby Niagara Falls. My time spent at the desk was often a welcome refuge from my regular busy profession.

For more information about On Common Ground: The Ongoing Story of the Commons in Niagara-on-the-Lake please visit the Dundurn website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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