Where Do You Want to Write Today?

For the last month, you might know I’ve been taking part in National Novel Writing Month as well as leading the group. I’m pleased to report I passed the 50,000-word target on 29 November.

Because the project took up so much of my time, it now feels like there’s something I should be doing, except that there isn’t. The manuscript is tucked away in a drawer, and its dawning on me that I’m free to pursue other projects. At the moment, there’s a non-urgent opinion piece I want to write, plus an idea for another novel tangentially related to the one in the drawer. That, and it’s fun to use the word tangentially.

When you’re writing to a deadline, or even if you’re not, it’s sometimes necessary to write wherever and whenever you can. I was tackling my novel at break times and lunchtimes, and sometimes in front of the TV at night. But how difficult is it to find your optimum writing spot?

English: Mist over Aberfeldy A band of mist al...
Mist over Aberfeldy A band of mist along the Tay covers Aberfeldy at dusk. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve heard about a number of authors who have cleaned out their spare room, installed a desk, ensured they have no distractions, yet went back to an old favourite spot because the created one simply wasn’t conducive to writing. I once experimented with sitting right behind the front door. There was plenty of light, the noise level wasn’t excessive, and I knew nobody was going to barge in, but something about that place made me feel uncomfortable.

These days, I do the majority of my typing while standing with my back to my bedroom window, and my laptop or Freewrite on the end of the bed. When writing by hand, I can do that in a café, on a train, or during a dull literary event trying to look like I’m avidly taking notes. I find it difficult to be in a silent place, because even the noise of the pencil or a page turning sounds like a terrible racket.

By far, though, my favourite writing place of recent times was in the town of Aberfeldy overlooking the mountains. The piece in question was my dissertation rather than fiction or poetry, but I would consider going back there if I had another big project to tackle.

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If you’re a fan of The Big Bang Theory, you’ll know that Sheldon Cooper is particular about which seat he chooses, particularly in his own apartment. Writers can be similarly picky about where they pen their works.

Among my writer friends alone, there is one who writes better with absolute silence and another who penned most of her novel in a noisy student pub. There is no right or wrong way. For my own part, I’m typing this entry in one of my favourite places: at the bottom end of my bed, standing with my back to the window. But when I’m stuck on a project, I sit on the mezzanine floor of a particular cafe in town and it usually unblocks my flow.

On Saturday, I was given the opportunity to attend a one-off writing group at the secluded Barry Mill near Carnoustie to raise funds for its restoration. After a tour and a demonstration of its working waterwheel and machinery, the nine or so attendees followed the stream back to the weir through acres of wild flora.

The tranquillity, location and history of the place was supposed to serve as inspiration for a poem or prose piece – and it worked. It took me some time to put something together, but I managed to write three verses, using the mill as a starting point, and nearly everyone had written something for reading out. It didn’t help, however, that it was raining onto our notepads for much of the visit, or that two of the chairs collapsed – mine included – before the session even began.

So if you feel your writing is becoming a little stale, try going somewhere else. Not everyone is able to escape to the countryside, of course, but it might work even to move location within the same general area or even the same building. Before I discovered my current spots, I experimented with a number of places before finding one that felt just right.

I’ll leave you with an electronic postcard of Barry Mill.

Find your niche.

Where and how you write is as individual as the work you ultimately produce. There are many examples of writers who need a particular space, certain items on their desk or a strictly-observed time of day, and there are others who can churn out stories in the back of a taxi. Shortlist gives a few examples. I fall into the back-of-a-taxi category.

When I’m at home, I prefer to stand up while writing, normally using an ironing board to rest my materials. I sit all day in an office and it’s a relief to be on my feet, plus the health benefits have been known for some years. In February, for instance, Tom O’Donnell took a satirical look at the health dangers of sitting down all day.

Minimal modern writing desk
Minimal modern writing desk (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, it’s also my least favourite place to write as there are many distractions around the house, such as tidying or loading the washing machine. To that end, I sometimes write in a cafe or a library. Unfortunately, I’m not often able to stand up there, but I find I concentrate better as I only have one desk, and there are no chores needing done.

The background noise is also a consideration, as there’s a fine balance to be sought. When I write in the University of Dundee library, I always choose the Group Study area. I find silence quite conducive to writing, but I’m also on edge because every rustle of paper or drink of water then stands out a mile, whereas a consistent ambience can more readily be tuned out. The opposite is also true. I’ve tried to write in Dundee Contemporary Arts, but the noise is loud then quieter as the audience enters and leaves the cinema, and this is just as distracting.

Of course, such distractions can be overcome with headphones. For the last year or two, I’ve written to the soundtrack from the film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It’s an unwieldy title, but the Nick Cave music helps my writing along no end.

The need for writers to use their personal rituals makes me wonder whether there’s a market for a dedicated studio nearby. I have a few artist friends who rent individual rooms in a converted mill and can work undisturbed at their convenience.

Considering the average size of the studios, I reckon it would be possible to squeeze up to four soundproofed booths in one of them, allowing each writer to stay in his or her own customised bubble. An Internet search shows the nearest dedicated writers’ studio is in Nottingham, with a handful scattered around the US, and that’s a long way to travel from Dundee just to find the ideal environment.

However, if you are in the city of Discovery, Hotchpotch is taking place tonight at The Burgh Coffeehouse on Commercial Street. It’s an open mike night for writers, where you can read your own material or come along to listen. More information about Hotchpotch on the Facebook page.

A Time and a Place.

A few weeks ago, I was listening to Sleeper’s 1996 track Sale of the Century, and the following lyrics jumped out at me:

Let’s take a photograph
We’ll burn all the negatives

These days, very few photographs are taken on film, but that’s how it would have been done at the time of the CD’s release nearly 19 years ago. As we fast approach New Year, it started me thinking about how the language we use can inadvertently place a piece of writing in a particular era.

For instance, I own a computing book published in the late 1970s or early 1980s in which the author writes, “When I was a young hacker…” But he’s not talking about accessing any systems illegally; the term hacker originally meant someone who was merely proficient at using computers.

I’ve just finished reading Quiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips. The story is part fiction, but based on a series of murders that happened in the 1930s. She uses newspaper sources from the period. One of these talks about the matrimonial bureau the killer used, and another mentions a colored porter working at a hotel. Although the actual date is mentioned at the beginning of each chapter, this sets the action in a social context. These days, of course, there are no matrimonial bureaux left while the latter term has become widely unacceptable.

It’s very difficult to know how language will change and it’s therefore difficult to adapt accordingly. You might write a story today about a character who watches a Netflix film on her tablet device, but within a decade, she might have it streamed directly into her head by BrainMoviez. Indeed, the word film itself is an anachronism, as it was part of the same technology mentioned in the Sleeper track.

One way around this potential obsolescence is to mention that a character is, for example, listening to music or driving a car without mentioning the source of the sound or the type of car. Yet that can deprive the reader of a sense of location. Even when a writer tries to create a sense of timelessness, there are often hallmarks that signal when the piece was written. Most readers will realise this and take it into account.

I’m now going to back up this entry to a floppy disc, dial into the Web, and post it.