The Ink-Stained Wretch: “The Writer’s Desk”

April 1, 1999
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A monthly column of wit, insight, irreverance and inspiration by a published author and veteran of the publishing trenches.

The Ink-Stained Wretch

Don Whittington

April/May, 1999

"The Writer's Desk"

One of the things I like to do when I visit another writer's home is look at their working space.  Every writer is different, of course, but it is fun to guess what kind of writer someone might be based on their work space.  My own area is right at the front of my house, the first thing you see when you walk through the door.  This has more to do with available phone jacks and such than it does with preference.  I'd much prefer to have one of those big padded libraries with French doors leading to an English garden, a Saki kind of writer's room.  But I make do with the front room instead, and the wife has learned to tolerate the chaos around my desk. Mostly. About twice a year she ruins my life by straightening up for me because she just can't stand it anymore. I spend the following month bemoaning the loss of a single scrap of paper that had the all time greatest example of something I've since forgotten scrawled upon it.

But whether your working area is a mess like mine or as clean as an angel's drawers chances are there are certain things our areas have in common, just as there are others peculiar to our personalities and superstitions.  In the spirit of full disclosure I'm going to share with you the things I think are indispensable, the books which ought to be immediately at hand for any writer of fiction.  But before that, let me tell you the things I keep just because I like them.

The Eccentric Stuff

1) A train whistle.  There comes a point in every novel when I know I've kicked its ass.  I've gone far enough that I know I'm going to finish it, and that the story will be okay.  It is no longer something I'm working on, but something I'm finishing.  When this moment arrives I blow my whistle.  Don't ask me why. I just do.

2) Little metal Hot Wheels cars (2).  In case I want to go somewhere, apparently.

3) A pipe and tobacco.  In case someone wants to photograph me on the moors in my tweeds.

4) A back-scratcher.

5) One absolutely horrible, published book.  A reminder that this stuff isn't all that hard.

6) A good luck cow.  (What? You mean you don't have one?)


The Indispensable Stuff

These are the things you will use over and over for information, guidance, and inspiration.

1) Dictionaries.  I have seven including the complete OED and something called a Reverse Dictionary.  (You look up a simple word to find the highfalutin' alternative.  Good for sesquipedalian characters.)

2) A bible.  I keep the King James, the American Standard Reference, and a Nave's Topical Bible all at hand.  Very useful.

3) Shakespeare, complete works.  For inspiration mostly.  I'd like to have a good Shakespearean Concordance, but have never seen one reasonably priced.

4) An Atlas.  I have one current Atlas and one from the sixties.

5) Almanacs.  Much more useful for quick checks than encyclopedias and they take up a lot less space.

6) Field Guides.  Indispensable for keeping flora and fauna straight, particularly when writing about places where you do not live.  I have one for birds, one for trees, and one for flowers.

7)  Mythology references.  I keep Zimmerman's Dictionary of Classical Mythology as well as a copy of Bullfinch.

8)  Styles Manuals.  I keep a Strunk and White's Elements of Style, which works for me.  Many writers use the Chicago Manual of Style, which is much more exhaustive.  The AP stylebook doesn't appeal to me.  I also keep a copy of Partridge's Usage and Abusage handy.

9) A copy of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, commonly referred to as the DSM.  The most current version is the DSM IV.  Mine is a DSM III which is plenty good enough for a fiction writer, and you can pick one up for practically nothing.

Other books depend on what you write.  Since I so often write crime fiction I have a Shooter's Bible and an illustrated guide to firearms, the Murderer's Who's Who, a book on police procedures, etc. I also keep an architectural guide handy, and several volumes of poetry to remind me of the potential of language.  And since we who write fiction rarely write in depth about architecture, aviation, and stuff, you will find that books written for children are often the most useful references.

Speaking of children, I think we should all keep a favorite book from our childhood at hand, something that first awakened us to the possibilities of writing.  We writers tend to keep pretty close ties to our childhood; we find it easy to reconnect.  When the writing gets tough, it helps to take down that classic from our youth and remind ourselves that all we need to make it in this business is the ability to play pretend.

And keep it up for four or five hundred pages.


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