At My Writing Desk – Where All Hell Breaks Loose

This month’s post was prompted by a question posed by the inimitable Simon Turney along the lines of: “What is on your writing desk at the moment?”

So I had a look and what I found made me think. For on my writing desk I unearthed many objects that I had not used for months, possibly years. They were buried under the weight of more recently valued items. I believe that when Simon put up his question he had books in mind and I have plenty of those but it was the other things which set me thinking about the ways in which where I write affects how I write.

I found myself considering the process of writing so I started to look at it from the perspective of the place where I sit and make up stories. I am fortunate enough to have a study with a large desk in it. The room has many other things in it and the desk itself carries a heavy burden such that the area for my writing is becoming ever smaller. Several visits to the local tip and frequent donations to charity collections have largely failed to arrest the encroachment.

The centrepiece of my writing desk is a large monitor screen which I plug into my laptop when I write. I find a larger screen makes it easier to read not only what I am writing but also internet sites I visit and so on. The screen actually belongs to my daughter and when she eventually gets back from the far side of the universe planet, there might be a bit of a scuffle about ownership. For now, it’s mine. I also plug in a proper mouse – proper, not real. I can’t be doing with the ineffective little touchpads on my laptop.

Then there are some speakers – though strictly speaking they are on a shelf above the desk – but they are very important. When I write in earnest, I generally listen to music – sometimes through the speakers or, if there are others in the house, through my headphones which are on the desk too! The music is on now and Cyndi Lauper is singing Time After Time – I love that song.

What else? To my left there is an old angle poise lamp. I tend to start writing before it’s fully light in the winter and the lamp has become a close personal friend, shedding light where there is often only chaos. To my right is a portable hard drive which is plugged into the laptop and I save files to several places so that, should there be some digital disaster, I will have an up to date copy of my work somewhere.

So we have the technology in place and the desk seems a crowded space already but we haven’t got to the research materials yet! The most important element is my collection of handwritten notes and these are at my left hand – by the way, I’m left handed. These are the stuff of the novel, jotted down as they occurred to me or as soon after as possible. I get a lot of ideas when I’m swimming but it’s a bit tricky to write them down until I’m dry. The notes are vital; they keep me heading in the right direction like little signposts along the road. As I write a scene I check through the slips of paper again and again because ideas don’t generally pop into my head in any sensible order.

Further along to the right of the desk is the most important ingredient of all: a mug of coffee – there will always be one there. If the mug is not there, then neither am I.

On the shelves all around me are many, many books. Some are handy because I’m dipping into them constantly at the moment. The work in progress is Rebels & Brothers Book 3 – no title as yet – which is set in 1468 and 1469. For this book I am constantly referring to the Middleham Castle guide because it has a handy floor plan in it. I have several reference books close by: Sarah Gristwood’s Blood Sisters, Susan Higginbotham’s The Woodvilles and John Gillingham’s Wars of the Roses. Many others are littered elsewhere in the room, including historical atlases and individual maps.

So, how do I start creating a scene when I sit down to write in this cosy little environment? I may read through one or more previous chapters, especially if I’ve had a break of more than one day. I may not write the scenes consecutively although I know where the overall plot is going. So, I type the chapter number and a working title for it which includes when and where it begins. I type these in large red text. Why? I don’t know why. I started that way and I’ve never seen any reason not to. It makes them easy to spot when I scroll through the pages.

Then I begin, but how do the first words of the chapter come? For a long time, I used to wonder about that but now I don’t. I am just grateful if the words come – how, I don’t care about. I tend to know when I’m ready to have a go at a particular scene but some scenes I need to build up to, for example large set-piece battles.

Battle scenes require preparation on two levels: firstly, detailed research on what is known about the battle. This will usually be several primary accounts which I have synthesised to make a coherent source. There will be photographs I have taken at the site, perhaps videos. Images need to be on screen or on the already cluttered desk so that they are easy to look at as the scene is developed. The other level of research concerns where the story itself is going during the course of the battle. The battle is just a vehicle for advancing the story – albeit, hopefully, a spectacular vehicle.

I must start with a clear idea of the point of view in the scene. Today’s scene features Lady Eleanor and it is told from her point of view. She is feisty, impulsive – explosive, even. Sharp words will be exchanged, perhaps blows and there will be much raw emotion too. In other words, as they say, all hell may break loose! She is one of my favourite characters to write so I’ll probably enjoy today a great deal.

I often begin with a piece of conversation even if later I remove it. It breaks the ice and gets the characters talking about what they are doing. This may not help them much but it seems to help me. I know what must happen in the scene but I don’t always know how it will happen. The characters will decide that sometimes. If I am true to the characters the story will seem real but if I try to bend them wholly to my pre-conceived plan, they will put up a struggle.

There have been a few times – not many – when a new character has forced their way onto the page and into the story without warning. In some cases their candle flares and dies swiftly but once in a very long while a character emerges from a writing session and stays for a long time. I don’t think this is a spoiler but for anyone who has read A Traitor’s Fate, one such character is Agnes, a waif that Ned comes across in a forest. Agnes just popped into the story one day and changed where it was heading. I loved her so much I just had to keep her in. Where did she come from? I’ve no idea! That’s one of the things which make writing fun.

I am writing the scene, glancing at my scribbled notes, reminding myself constantly how the chapter must end. Sometimes the words tumble out like a torrent and I struggle to record them before they are swept on and lost to me. Other times it seems as if each syllable must be chiselled out of stone and the pauses in between are long and uncomfortable. Even the characters seem nervous at such times as if my uncertainty has afflicted them somehow too.

When does the scene end? Sometimes I can get it right first time but mostly I can’t. I will go on too long and then think: the reader will be falling asleep over this. Or I stop too soon and think: the reader will be lost without more words of explanation. And at the end of most chapters there is the hook, the spur to make the reader bother to turn to the next page. How do I judge this? Alas, I am new to this craft of writing and my judgement is not always sound. My rule of thumb is: do I want to know what happens next? If so, that’s a start. If my editor does, then it’s even better and if the test readers do, then I leave well alone.

There will be places in the scene that I am unhappy with as I write but I will highlight them in yellow and then move on. It could be a phrase I am not sure about or it might be that I can’t remember a detail, a name or a place. Either way, I mark it to come back to. I might even leave it highlighted for the editor to make a ruling on later. Even when I’ve finished a scene, I will always come back to it later. I will re-read it and edit it – always cutting and only rarely adding. I will tweak the verbs, delete some of the adjectives and take out most of the adverbs. I will read it aloud – especially conversation. If it doesn’t sound right, it’s on borrowed time.

Then I go to my spreadsheet which lists every scene and what happens in them. I update it – perhaps I end up splitting a chapter into two. Perhaps I included in the writing some steps which I had not considered when I first devised the plan. Every chapter entry also includes page numbers, the character whose point of view prevails and a code which signifies whether it is finished for the time being or still a work in progress.

Then I look ahead on my scene schedule: what is next up? I’ll need to get my head around that for the next session. The spaces in between writing sessions are usually as important as the writing. I put post-its in my research books and close them, I put my laptop into hibernation – not forgetting to save everything first! Then I pick up my empty coffee mug and pause for a moment as I consider clearing some of the dust-covered clutter from my writing desk. Then I shake my head and go downstairs to do something that is not writing. 

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