Most articles and books that provide writing advice share ‘how-to’s based on techniques used by successful writers. They tell inspiring stories that offer insight on the what, the how, and the why of a certain writer’s writing process. Yet I’ve often wondered if there’s also value in learning about where and when they write.
In his book Write Like the Masters, William Cane explains that the place a writer chooses as their writing space can affect not only the number of words they produce but also the quality of their writing.
Back in te day- before the conjoined usage of the terms ‘corona’ and ‘virus’ occurred to most of us- I used to write at a corner table of a busy cafe. Irrelevant background noises consisting of conversational murmurs, robotic sounds coming from the espresso machine, the whizzing of the overhead fan- somehow created a perfect dome that allowed me to write in a disciplined manner. All this changed when COVID-19 hit planet Earth.
For months I struggled to write in an environment where either silence was so loud I could hear the clock ticking, or, I had family members and pets popping their heads in the doorway every five minutes.
The following is a journey through time into the very places where some of the most beloved writers of our time sat down to draft the very stories that charmed off our socks.
Roald Dahl’s writing hut
The year is 1989. Roald Dahl, the creator of the BFG and Fantastic Mr. Fox has just published Matilda, a fan favorite. He walks us into his backyard towards his writing hut located just above the garden. From the outside, it looks like a miniature version of his country house with white walls and a charming yellow door. Inside, there is just enough space to accommodate two desks, a filing cabinet, and a large armchair at the very center. The walls are covered with framed photographs and postcards.
He recalls he’s been writing in this hut for 4 decades. “You couldn’t possibly work in the house with the vacuum cleaner and things”, he chuckles. As he makes his way towards his armchair he explains that he comes here every morning and every evening. He’s the only one to ever step inside the hut, except for Alma the nanny goat who occasionally manages to sneak in.
After adjusting himself into the armchair he pulls up a wooly blanket over his long legs and places his writing board onto his lap. It’s a custom-made wooden board covered with green billiard cloth. Turning on the desk lamp he says that the first thing he does is sharpen his pencils. He then pours himself some hot coffee from a red thermos.
Before his writing begins, Roald Dahl brushes off the-day-before’s-eraser-crumbs from his writing board, it’s part of his daily routine.
Stephen King’s former barn
The year is 1989. We follow the filming crew of Master of the Macabre into Stephen King’s mansion. Inside, we look around at what used to be the barn. At first glance, it looks like a bookstore. The walls are covered with neatly shelved books and there are several rotating book stands displaying buffets of paperbacks.
In the center of the room are two adjoined L-shaped desks. Stephen King is typing away into a robust word processor with a green screen. The clicking sounds of his fingernails against the keyboard are in sync with the upbeat music coming from the jukebox.
“Usually around 8 o’clock/ 9 o’clock I’ll come up here, crank up some rock’ and roll on the stereo and write till about noon. And later at night, when everyone is asleep, I’ll come up again and write something fun”, he explains with a cigarette in-between his lips.
Fast-forward 31 years, he’s on a Zoom call with fellow writer and friend, John Grisham. When they get to the topic of describing each other’s writing routine, he does an excited little dance. Not much has changed as to where and when he writes, that is, except for the annoying dings (online notifications) that distract him while he’s writing on his Internet-equipped computer.
John Grisham’s once-summer-kitchen
It’s the late spring of 2020. John Grisham is squinting at the sun and enjoying a calm Virginia breeze. He’s sitting just outside his office “which I’ve never shown to anybody”, he explains. The cottage-like building with daisy yellow walls and flowers blooming on the window sills used to be the summer kitchen to his farm 25 years ago. Ever since he’s accommodated it into his writing space, it’s the one and only place he goes to write in. Grisham describes it as a dark and quiet place with no phones, Internet, or music.
He refers to the hours between 7 and 10 as the best time of the day, and January to March as his most productive months. His routine has rarely varied in the last ten to fifteen years. “It’s the same spot, same computer, same cup of coffee- the same type of coffee”, he reveals.
George R.R. Martin’s mountain cabin
Unlike Grisham and King who write in the same sweet spot they snuggled into three decades ago, Martin changed his writing fort several times.
Between the late seventies and the early eighties, George R.R. Martin used to “write all day in his red flannel bathrobe” in an office space inside his Santa Fe home. But deciding he needed a more secluded office, he bought the house right across the street and turned it into his writing retreat- a change in scenery that worked for a while.
With the heightening popularity of his book series, A Song of Ice and Fire, he grew busier and so did his need for a quieter, undisturbed writing environment.
It’s a late summer day of 2020. Martin is in a secret cabin up in the mountains of New Mexico, where he’s spent his post-pandemic months working on his long-anticipated book, Winds of Winter. In his Not A Blog he describes his day-to-day, a routine of a sort.
First thing in the morning he sits in front of his computer- a WordStar 4.0. MS-DOS machine (technology that dates back to 1987). Somedays he writes well into the night, on other days, he calls it quits at noon to address emails or phone calls. At night, after a dinner meal shared with one of his minions (assistants), he winds down with a book or a movie.
There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to customizing a writing space. However, if writing regularly is a priority, there is value in either identifying where this sweet (writing) spot is, or, in making an existing sweet spot even sweeter.