I was recently invited to take part in a series of guest blogs entitled ‘Where I Write’ by my old friend, the historical novelist Martin Lake. The idea was to do quite a short piece detailing space, process and the preferred tools of the trade. So this is me…
When I started working on the project that became Shark Alley I still had a fifth-floor office at the University of Fukui, writing at an old metal desk by a huge window, its massive concrete sill cracked by earthquakes, looking out across a vast cityscape towards snow-capped mountains and the Sea of Japan. I finished it in a much less dramatic setting, a cold downstairs study at the back of our house overlooking a wild garden in an unfashionable suburb on the outskirts of Norwich, the hometown to which I returned, taking a teaching post at the University of East Anglia. The most exciting part of my view now is an old wooden shed. This has become a home/office which I guard jealously against any suggestion from my wife that it would make a better bedroom for our son. Because I now work exclusively from home I spend more time in here than is probably healthy. My schedule is largely in synch with my kid, so I work when he’s at school, often returning to my desk at night after he’s gone to bed to focus on my own writing rather than online teaching or manuscript appraisal, which constitute the day job.
As a writer, I have a straightforward rule: I must add some new words to a draft every day. When I’m working on a big project, I will keep a weekly word count. Planning and research is done as and when, and if I have any downtime I’ll be reading. I’m not opposed to discovery writing, but I like to have a rough idea of where I’m going. I’m never really off the clock, and am constantly running story ideas and scenes in the back of my mind, keeping careful notes. As far as inspiration goes, most of the time I don’t see it coming and it’s rarely planned. I’ll be doing one thing and thinking about something else and it’ll happen: disparate elements will momentarily collide and suddenly there’s an idea. I write this down, think about it, and then try and write some more. As long as I don’t break the ‘everyday’ rule, the magic happens. Oh, and coffee. Lots of coffee, and the occasional small sherry.
My study is quite small, and I cannot deny that there are ‘man cave’ elements. I have an ergonomic L-shaped desk, a Charles Jacobs ‘Three Level Workspace,’ and a generic office chair with a broken cylinder base that I’ve rigged with a narrow drainpipe and duct tape. I always have my leather motorcycle jacket thrown over the back of it; an ancient, battered thing that makes me feel oddly secure. I’ve always worked on generic/custom PCs, upgrading every couple of years, and aside from a brief flirtation with Linux a few years back I’ve stuck with Windows and the latest version of Microsoft Office. I have a big AOC monitor, balanced on a very old, beige plastic stand. This is a relic from the days of the Commodore Amiga, which I need to keep my screen at eye-level and thus be kind to my back. It has a tray that I can fill up with unfiled paperwork and the various glasses I must now switch between to do my job. There are two ‘Deadstone Valley’ figures on top: a zombie pirate and Victorian soldier. These were the Shark Alley mascots, the protagonist being a writer of penny serials about pirates who finds himself in a real sea story while travelling on the doomed troopship Birkenhead.
I also have the Sky router stuck on my desk, because the damn thing doesn’t work right on the floor, and a Panasonic cordless phone that goes off every time I try to concentrate. Decent reading light is provided by a crane-like standard lamp that followed me home from work after my previous employer made me redundant. I like to listen to old music when I work, so I have two cheap speakers that are filled with dancing jets of LED-lit water for no adequately explored reason. In fact, my whole computer lights up. There’s a clear plastic window in the base unit emitting an eerie blue glow, as does my keyboard. I also have a figure of the Metalunan Mutant from This Island Earth (1955) that my son gave me for my birthday along with an ‘Interocitor,’ the alien machine Rex Reason has to build in the movie as a test of intelligence. These are very important. If asked where you get your ideas you should always say, ‘You need an Interocitor…’
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