How and where I write
Jane Austen wrote by hand on small sheets of paper hiding them if anyone came into the room. Anthony Trollope paid his manservant to call him at 5.30am so he could get in three hours writing before he left home for his day job. Proust wrote in a cork lined room and J G Ballard in a nondescript suburban house. I have a friend who composes her best work in coffee shops, because she doesn’t like the silence at home.
I am lucky in having a study. I type at an old table with a Formica top. On it sits my principal tool, an iMac with a 27” screen. Why so big? Because I can have three A4 equivalent pages displayed at a time, making moving between documents, or parts of the same document easy. I can have my browser open on one side of the screen and the document I am working on on the other. A simple touch of my mouse enables me to swipe sideways to other open documents – one always is Google Earth.
I use Word. It has had its ups and downs but for most writing is better than anything else. I have tailored the screen and the commands to my own preferences. If I am writing dialogue or a radio script I use Celtx, which lays everything out as performers, directors and producers need to see it. I tried but abandoned Scrivener, sold as a productivity package but worse than useless in my view.
My table also has an assortment of pens and pencils in a plastic desk tidy my daughter gave me when she was six, Post-It notes, a note block, a desk lamp, a bowl full of dongles, wireless mikes and general detritus, and a small brass clock that no longer works and I don’t know what to do with. There is a large magnifying glass and a Swiss army knife. The surface of the table is slightly slippery and my mouse pad is kept in place by a 1lb brass weight given to me by a friend’s widow. There are two remote controls, for amplifier and CD player, a phone and a calculator. My printer sits nearby, a high speed Epson that is good at double sided work.
Next to my table is an old Welsh dresser stuffed with an assortment of books, most not used for immediate writing needs except for a copy of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. Part of one shelf houses books with material I have published. Some of the dresser houses research files for various projects, some completed.
On the wall above my computer is a picture of my old college and a pen and ink drawing of a desert landscape with two saguaro cacti. They remind me of the desert Southwest USA, my favourite part of the world.
The window overlooks parked cars with trees and houses in the middle distance. If I am busy I don’t look out. Sometimes I draw the curtains because bright light makes my screen hard to see. On the two foot deep windowsill is a collection of little objects acquired over the years and family photos.
Next to the window is a tall set of shelves housing essential materials (paper, envelopes, ink cartridges and so on), and reference books. The most important are the Shorter Oxford (3rd ed.), the Chicago Manual of Style and the Oxford American Dictionary. I also have several dictionaries of slang and the Economist Style Guide, along with Ben Bova’s brilliant book the Craft of Writing Science Fiction that Sells. A manual of old seafaring terms is there as well, seldom used. There are atlases, and a lot of maps. My favourite of these is an airline pilot’s map of Western Yemen.
Behind where I sit is a wall lined with books, much science fiction, books about WW2, London, H G Wells and California, together with assorted books I cannot even begin to catalogue. I no longer throw books away, because seven years ago my wife and I moved house 5,000 miles, and abandoned over 1,000 books in the process, saying we would not need them again. We were wrong.
Most of the reference books are downstairs in a place that would be a library if it weren’t our living room. They are downstairs so that if I want to look something up it forces me to get up and walk downstairs, taking minimal exercise, but taking it. Here are Butler’s Lives of the Saints (12 volumes), a complete Oxford English Dictionary, numerous dictionaries of other languages, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, the 6th ed. Shorter Oxford (the dictionary to which I usually turn if the 3rded. upstairs doesn’t serve for any reason), Collins English Dictionary (it sometimes has better word definitions than Oxford), a magisterial encyclopaedia of the grape, the Oxford Companion to English literature and Oxford Book of Quotations. There is also a Concise Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, Oxford Companion to Music, Kobbe’s Complete Opera Book, Fowler, Gowers and others.
Why do I need all these books? Surely one can look anything up on the internet? The simple answer is, no you cannot. If you want the correct etymology of a word (the plural of “dwarf” springs to mind) you will try in vain. If you need details of the life of an obscure saint, or an obscure English engineer, you may have difficulty on the Internet. Similarly if you want an authoritative discussion of the origins of “Jack and Jill went up the hill” (I did a few days ago) you need the Opies’ marvellous reference work. There is a second answer: I like reference books.
All of this paraphernalia, together with the Internet (accessed via Safari, Opera, Firefox and Chrome depending on my needs) forms an extended memory. I no longer need to remember details, nor to make many notes. The only difficulty is knowing where I looked something up, in case I need to document it. Scrivener can do this but my way is simpler. When I look things up on the internet I bookmark relevant references until I have finished with whatever I am writing. Easy, fast and reliable.
When I have finished a piece I read it out loud to myself. That often sends me back for a further round of changes.
My writing habits are erratic. I revise in the morning, before breakfast, or in the middle of the night if I can’t sleep. If I have a creative spurt I spend all day at my computer, but sometimes days or weeks pass when I achieve little. Sometimes I listen to music or watch old movies, and but mostly I read. I don’t recommend my compositional methods to anyone, but they seem to be tolerably effective for a person whose prose style in first drafts is as dull as ditchwater (or ditch-water).