I gave my new Agatha Christie bag a bit of an outing yesterday. As it was its first trip out, officially (I don’t really count the trip home from Waterstones Piccadilly on the train because it was stuffed in a suitcase), I wanted to make it a bit special. So the bag and I went to Lidl to do my weekly shopping. In case you didn’t know, the author life is exceedingly glamorous. Mine is especially so, as I don’t own a car and therefore the bag and I had the glorious task of lugging all the shopping home on foot. My feet, not the bag’s feet, unfortunately. I did discover that my new friend, ‘Christie bag’, was particularly good as a conveyor of rice cakes and crisps, though.
When I first saw said bag, hanging there near the till in Waterstones Piccadilly, I was struck by two things: one, that it’s got exactly the same design on it as the mug my kids bought me for Christmas, and two, that Agatha Christie had the needs of writers the world over written there in a nutshell. The quote on the bag reads, ‘All you need is a chair and a table and a typewriter and a bit of peace’.
For me, that’s a quote which requires some serious thinking about, because it’s that easy and that hard. Some decent story ideas certainly don’t go amiss, neither does a brain that absorbs people and bits of the world like a sponge, puts them through the literary meat grinder and spits them out as hero(in)es and villains, and little gems of history or conversation and the like. In essence, however, the Queen of Crime has it in the bag (so to speak – or on the bag, anyway). All those things are true. I think that, if you then want to go on and publish your work, there are a whole other set of necessities that the world of writing entails, but without the important part – the writing – those things become completely unnecessary. You can’t publish something that’s not written. You can’t even read it as a bedtime story to your kids, grandkids, snoring partner or to yourself. You can’t even leave it festering on your hard drive for a decade or more. Which I’ve done. Several times.
Writing the actual words is something that has thrilled me from the day I was first able to string a sentence together on paper with a stubby pencil. It continues to enthral me, and I hope it does so until I take my last breath. But the actual practicalities of writing have not always been so easy for me. Since I began taking my writing seriously in 2007, I truly can’t say it’s been because I had to try and carve out time in between going to work and getting my ‘workplace’ job done, and only writing in my spare time, because that hasn’t been the case. I have been (and still am) a stay-at-home mum, in as much as everything I have done, job-wise and family-wise, has involved me working from home. I have, in my time, sold children’s books, made and sold handmade cards, been an editor, written online teaching resources, been a reviews editor, freelance writer, and pestered magazines until they probably just got so sick of me submitting stories that they gave in and published them, to name but a few. (Note: this is not advice to novice short story writers on story submission! In truth, I had a better plan!).
But being someone who works at home and has also taken the predominant role in cooking, cleaning, washing, looking after and fetching and carrying kids (or making them walk to their various clubs and school and the like, having not driven a car since the late 1990s – long story), and so on, this has often meant my writing needs have been pushed aside, squeezed in between other domestic jobs, or abandoned. Finding that sweet spot between knowing the hidey-hole of every once missing but now sparklingly clean sock and not knowing whether anyone in the home has eaten for a week hasn’t always been easy. There have been many times I would have loved a train commute to work, or even a bus ride, so I could get out my laptop, phone, notepad – anything – and write, but walking the kids to school didn’t quite have the same writerly effect! I tried writing in the playground while waiting for the end of school, but I got some very strange looks and I felt too guilty at ignoring the other parents that I gave that up as a bad job.
In my time, I’ve written in all sorts of places – sitting in front of the telly, kneeling at the side of the bed, in the garden, in the bathroom, in the garage. I’ve taken trips to the park and written in the passenger seat of the car. I have a pretty big desk because I thought a number of years ago that it wold be amazing to have such a luxury, but I more often than not have found myself writing at the kitchen worktop because I’ve really struggled to enjoy said desk, and because, more often than not, it has been in a different room (and even on a different floor level) to the one I have needed to be in. I have developed some kind of uneasy mastery over cooking dinner and writing at the same time! In my current home, my desk is only about ten feet from the cooker, and the washing machine – and thankfully, the kettle and the chocolate biscuits – so I am forcing myself more and more to actually sit at the gigantic thing and type there, because it means I can then use the big monitor. But I do change it up a bit. I doubt I’ll ever be truly comfortable with a ‘designated’ place to write.
That ‘bit of peace’, too, has spent the best part of two decades eluding this writer. I wrote really well during the snatched hours I had when my kids were very small and went to playgroup a couple of times a week. In fact, that was the time I was most productive with short stories, and managed to write and get certain unsuspecting magazines to publish quite a decent number of them, both in the UK and much further afield. But, as things do with families, that all changed as they got older. I had longer on my own, so you’d think my productivity would have gone through the roof. Well… no. I did lots of work, yes, but none of it was the crime, mystery and suspense writing I am currently doing, and which I’ve always wanted to do. (I’m a wannabe Agatha Christie!)
So, all I needed, of course (I told myself), was to change things up and find a better way of working. After all, any surface would do as a table, and anywhere I could park my bum would do as a seat. I had my laptop. I was just seeking that elusive last part. Several years ago, I tried a routine of going to the library and sitting at the table in there for a few hours, but my library is like Piccadilly Circus and I longed for a librarian to say ‘sh’ – and that was just to the other librarians! I had another brilliant idea of going to a cafe. I chose an amazing one. It was run by a woman who baked the most incredible scones and, when I arrived, they were always just coming out of the oven. This lovely lady became curious about what I was doing there two or three times a week, and she asked me outright – ‘Are you a writer?’ She was thrilled when I told her I was, and I sensed her watching me as I worked, which quite amused me. It was a great arrangement, except for two things: one, that she closed down, and two, that I’m surprised I didn’t roll out of the door, considering the number of jam and cream scones I ate in my time there.
I still love working in cafes. I would very much like to live near a cafe that has writer subscriptions – a favourite table booked in advance, as much tea/coffee as I can drink for one set ‘just for writers’ price, and every piece of their advertising promo stating, ‘Claire Ladds – you know, the world famous writer – writes her books here’. Okay, that last one is pushing it a bit (as is the rest, probably), but I’d love it! I get loads of work done when I’m sitting in the vicinity of people whose conversation I only hear in murmurs and who actually don’t want me to talk to them while I’m writing! That makes me sound like a really miserable so-and-so, but I’m not. I doubt there are many writers who can actually get words down while being talked to (or at!), and being expected to answer.
So, I do think Agatha Christie absolutely nailed it. A ‘bit of peace’ can come in many shapes and sizes. It might be sitting in a room in silence (even if that room turns out to be in the bathroom), or in a cafe, on a train or at a park bench surrounded by ambient noise, or whatever works. It doesn’t really matter, just as long as it does the job (preferably without turning you into a jam and cream scone). For me, my latest – and as of right now, my ‘bit of peace’ that gets the words down – is to write at my desk (or the kitchen worktop if I’m sick of sitting there) and writing to the sound of rain for 35 minutes, then having ten minutes off. It’s working better than anything I’ve ever tried before, so I’ll be sticking to it until it stops working. I love rain (which is a good job, living in England!) and so I’m hoping that all I need is my version of ‘a table and a chair and a typewriter and a bit of peace’. And that will do very nicely to get my books written. 😊
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