Story can happen anywhere. Scenes from my novels have unfolded in a busy Glasgow airport, in a poorly lit hotel room in Dallas, on a kitchen counter in Auckland, in the passenger seat of a car rolling through rural Ohio, on a coffee table in Johannesburg.
When deadlines loom, writers write, no matter where life finds us.
Still, my favorite place to work is at home in a single, purpose-built room above our garage. In this sacred space, I gather my research books around me, meet with my cast of characters, and follow them about, jotting down everything they say and do, until their tale is finally told.
Let me take you on a virtual tour of my writing study, while I share 10 Things Every Novelist Needs.
1. Every novelist needs a door. See that one on the left, with the lock? On the other side, a hand-made sign hangs from the knob, warning all comers, ”Do Not Enter.” Even if you don’t have a whole room to yourself, even if all you have is one corner of a spare bedroom or the other end of your dining table, use a room a divider, hang a blanket, prop up a cardboard screen—something, anything that lets people know, “I love you, but please stay away just now. I’m writing.”
2. Every novelist needs inspiration. One foot inside the door and we’re greeted by shelves filled with historical novels from various time periods. When I get stuck, when I can’t seem to rub two words together to create a spark, I grab a novel by someone whose work I admire and read a page or two. Not so I can copy their style—heaven forbid!—but so I can recapture the natural rhythms of Story.
3. Every novelist needs resources at the ready. The Internet is invaluable, but you still need lots of reliable books at hand. We’ve taken just three steps up to a landing, where yet another bookshelf holds court. These were resources for my lighthearted contemporary novels. I wrote just two—Mixed Signals (1999) and Bookends (2000)—plus a novella, Fine Print, in a collection called Three Weddings and a Giggle (2001)—before turning to historical fiction for good, but even contemporary stories deserve our best research efforts.
4. Every novelist needs a restroom. Go ahead and laugh, but you know it’s true. The necessary at the top of these steps started out as a closet. When I realized how much time it took to walk down the stairs, through the office, along the sidewalk, into the house…well, you get the idea. And invariably I’d find something to distract me while I was away from my desk. So, once finances allowed, we called a plumber. Now this very small room serves a very fine purpose: it keeps me in Story.
5. Every novelist needs a collection of books about writing. As you can see, even my wee necessary offers plenty of reading material. This is where I keep all my books about the writing process itself. Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel, William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, Browne and King’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure, and two dozen more favorites.
6. Every novelist needs to read the classics. At the top of the steps sits a bookshelf full of British fiction classics: Austen to Barrie to Buchan to Hardy to MacDonald to Scott to Stephenson. When I’m writing a novel set in a particular time period, I’m also reading a novel actually written during that time period. So, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, published in 1747, was on my night stand while I was writing Here Burns My Candle, set in 1745-46.
7. Every novelist needs a globe. Maps are marvelous too. Anything to give us a sense of place, wherever our novels might be set. This is a wider view of my study, showing the table of resources behind my desk, my old lighted globe, and a 19th-century washstand I picked up for a song.
8. Every novelist needs an obsession. Mine is, obviously, Scotland. To the left of my writing desk begins my Scottish collection of books—Architecture to Art to Birds to Costume to Covenanters to Customs to Domestic Life to Edinburgh to Festivals to Folklore to Food to Galloway.
To the right of my desk, more shelves containing the rest of my Scottish collection—Gardens to Highlands to History to Jacobites to Letters to Money to Poetry to Religion to Ships to Tartans to Travelers to Writers. These are, to be honest, older photos from tidier days. Stacks upon stacks of new additions are waiting to be shelved. When we build more shelves. If we build more shelves.
9. Every novelist needs physical objects that capture the time and place of his or her Story. This side of my desk includes a pewter plate, a horn spoon, and a tartan sachet filled with Scottish lavender. It’s easily a dozen years old, yet still as fragrant as the day I bought it on the Isle of Mull, and the best way to quickly dispatch a headache.
Here are more tactile memories of Scotland: a fragrant candle, a teacup, a flock of sheep, an antique paper knife, a Victorian magnifying glass, and a wee blue-and-white Saltire flag.
10. Every novelist needs a place to take a nap. This is where I curl up to read and mark manuscript pages after I finish a chapter. If I fall asleep reading my own book, that’s a definite sign it needs more editing. The needlepoint pillow of “Rose” from Fair Is the Rose was a Mother’s Day gift. And, for all fans of American Girl dolls, that is indeed Felicity on the side table.
There you have it: a virtual tour of my writing study, along with a few thoughts to consider for your own writing nest.
If you have questions about writing fiction or about my Scottish novels, kindly Leave a Reply.
It’s an honor to count you among my readers. Haste ye back!