Writing Ritually and Habitually

Some writers can write anywhere, anytime, under any conditions. Some of us need routine. And some of us have obsessive compulsive rituals we need to follow for any writing to happen. I am pretty adaptable in my habits but I do have preferences. This is my favorite way to write:

Place: I recently converted part of my finished basement into a writing space and art studio. Prior to that, I was sharing a desk with my husband in an alcove of our bedroom and using the kitchen counter for art projects. I’m sure you can imagine the mess I was making. In the basement studio —I call it my subterranean lair, because in my head I am a superhero— I have sliding glass doors and a large double window for natural light and lots of plants just outside for a view of nature as well. I have a long countertop area to use for drawing and an area for my computer and monitor at the other end. My easel stands in front of the window for my canvases. This setup keeps my on my feet for not just for art but for writing, too. Standing is my preferred posture; it’s better than sitting on your kiester all day. Trust me, I‘m a doctor— at least until August 31st! Besides that, it makes it easier to move around. If I’m working out a scene in my head, I might pace or dance around if I have music playing. And that is definitely a healthy habit to have!

Time: I seem to have all my best ideas in the wee hours of the night, and alas, so many of them are gone by morning. However, when something truly inspired wakes me up, I have a notebook and pen nearby so I can tiptoe to the bathroom and scribble it down. As for my lengthy writing sessions, I prefer to start first thing in the morning, write for at least an hour or two and break off for my exercise; I usually don’t write in the middle of the day. I also may write in the evenings, just before bed, but often that leaves me unable to turn my brain off for sleep. Not cool; I love sleep.

Music: I like to write with music on in the background, but it isn’t absolutely essential. Complete quiet is fine, too. When I do have music on, it is usually classical, jazz, or soft electronic music. The only time that changes is if I’m writing something ‘energetic’ like an argument, a comedic scene or a big revelation. In that case, I might put on dance music or loud rock. Under normal circumstances, though, I get too distracted with the lyrics. For drawing and painting, I choose my music based on the mood of the piece I want to create. Sometimes, it’s not even music but nature sounds that make the backdrop to my artwork.

Beverages: Early morning writing requires coffee, at least two cups. And by cups, I mean giant mugs. If I find myself writing in the afternoon, then I have tea. And after 5:00, well it’s happy hour, right? Seriously, though I don’t over-imbibe while I write. Occasionally, a whisky or a pint is a little lubrication for the creative mind, but too much of that and you end up with a mess on your hands and a whole lot of rewriting to do! (See this episode of Drinking Adventurously for more on that subject).

Goals: In paying attention to the habits of other successful writers like Stephen King, Lisa Scottoline, John Grisham, and Nora Roberts, the single habit they all share is setting writing goals. Perhaps it is as vague as ‘a page a day’ —if you are writing a page that is filled with dialogue, that might not be very many words, whereas a scene-setting narration with lots of description might have a high word count. Other goals may be specific to word count, chapter completion, character development or plot resolution. My goals are usually tied to plot resolutions. In other words, I write until I finish up a scene at an appropriate spot. It isn’t always the end of a chapter, but that is most often the way it ends up.

If there is one thing I’ve learned in writing these past four years, there is not a right way or a wrong way to write, as long as you keep writing! Tell me, fellow writers, what are your rituals?

Small Cuts (18) Elaine

To find links to all parts of this story, please visit the Small Cuts Page. Here is Elaine:

I moved on autopilot. My life for the last two weeks had seemed like a film in which I was merely a supporting actor. I left decisions up to James’ family, my family. I was still out of work, told to take all the time that I needed. I was numb, disconnected, wanting to wake up from this nightmare. Mom and Dad came to stay with me right after the accident up to the day after the funeral. All the commotion and chaos keeps you from fully realizing the loss. Once everyone had gone, all that remained was wilting flowers, leftover casseroles and the echoes of cliched condolences. And Oliver.

It was the first night I was alone that the story of James’ connection to Genevieve made the six o’clock broadcast. Must have been a slow news day in Philadelphia. How on earth had that bit of information got out? It had been bad enough dealing with James’ death and Gen’s grave condition without having reporters asking us to bear our guilt in front of the cameras. It was hideous. Wait, did I say guilt? I meant grief. Oh, god….

It was true, it was true. This was all because of us—Oliver and me. Somehow James and Gen must have figured it out. I needed to talk to Oliver. He was the only one I could really talk to now. He had maintained a discreet and appropriate manner when we were in public—just close enough to be the grieving friend. Add Genevieve’s condition to the situation, and he was very much the sympathetic character. Whenever we found ourselves alone, however, his true feelings were apparent. He loved me, he still wanted to be with me, even though things had gone so terribly wrong. In my emotional state, I found myself leaning on him. I picked up my phone and called.

At first Oliver tried to find other explanations, but that was just wishful thinking. He eventually admitted that James had probably seen him drive by our house and had likely followed him into the city. Then, he told me after Genevieve’s things were retrieved from the wreck of her car, he discovered that she had the address of the Park Hotel entered into the GPS on her phone. That was the final proof if you asked me. I had dropped the phone and run to the bathroom to throw up. I heaved and heaved until there was nothing left. Now my body felt as empty as my heart. I slumped against the toilet and wept. That’s where Oliver found me.

“Baby, here, let me help you,” he said, lifting me into his arms. I was too weak to resist. He carried me from the bathroom to my bedroom and laid me on top of the covers. Then, sitting on the edge, brushed my hair from my face.

“He’s dead because of me. This my fault,” I said. I grabbed Oliver’s wrist as he reached again to touch my cheek. “We killed him, Oliver. And we nearly killed Gen, too.”

Research Notes – The Great War (12) The American President Hesitates

My current work in progress is a historical novel partly set during the Great War. In order to write the time period accurately, I’ve been spending many hours reading and researching. I hope you find these bits of history as interesting as I do.

Woodrow Wilson became the 28th President of the United States in 1913, after serving as President of Princeton University from 1902 to 1910, and as Governor of New Jersey from 1911 to 1913. Despite being a politician from the Mid-Atlantic states, Wilson was born and spent his early years in Virginia and Georgia, during the time of slavery and The Civil War. The dreadful war that tore the United States asunder had a huge influence on Wilson’s reluctance to commit an American army to fight on foreign soil, even for their closest allies. Nevertheless, by 1916, the USA was neutral in name only.

The war was fought not just with guns and bullets, but with food, clothing and other supplies. Barbed-wire, for instance, had been invented as a means of corralling the huge herds of cattle in the American West. Now it was being used as an obstacle to the soldiers trying to cross the ‘No Man’s Land’ between the trenches on the Western Front. These goods had to be brought in by ship from noncombatant nations willing to supply either side.

From the outset of hostilities, the British had squeezed German supply lines with a naval blockade. The Germans responded with their own lethal weapon – the U-Boat, a shortening of ‘unterseeboot‘, literally ‘undersea boat’. This terrifying weapon would have shifted the balance to a greater degree except for one factor: America. The American President, Woodrow Wilson, had condemned the use of the U-boat against neutral nations and civilian vessels. Fearing American entry into the war, the German government complied. Unrestricted submarine warfare was off the table. When German military commanders reviewed the situation, they realized adhering to these demands was the only thing saving the British from disaster.

The German U-boats patrolling the trade routes found targets in civilian ships despite the rules to stay away. The merchant ships of Britain and France often disguised their ships with flags of neutral countries but often didn’t fool the U-boat commanders stalking them. In those days, submarine captains only had the use of the periscope to decide whether a ship could be targeted or not. There was no sonar, no radar; all information was gathered by eyesight. It could be very easy to make a mistake and the captains tended to err on the side of ‘shoot first, ask questions later’. As a result, passenger liners like the Lusitania had been sunk in 1915 to enormous outcry in the United States. The American President threatened but still kept the nation out of the war.

By 1916, the British blockade was beginning to deeply impact Germany’s ability to wage war and to feed and care for its citizens back home. The potentially game-changing U-boats were being held in check and only at the behest of the United States. German leaders were finding this policy more and more incomprehensible. What did the Germans have to fear from America, after all?

At the time of The Spanish-American War, American military strength peaked at 210,000 men. This was in 1898. By 1907, it had dwindled to a mere 64,000 men. The British had that many casualties on the first day of fighting in The Somme. By 1914, the U.S. army had swelled to 98,000 men with another 10,000 added by 1916. The Germans were not intimidated by a 110,000 man army, deficient in experience and in both weapons and material for fighting a modern war. Militarily, the Germans ranked the United States with Denmark, Chile and Holland.

So it was on January 31, 1917 that Germany decided they would be hamstrung no longer. The Imperial German Government notified the American President that they would begin unrestricted submarine warfare the following day.

Images courtesy Wikipedia and Wired.