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A Shed Of One’s Own

Every desk tells a story

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

Edinburgh is humid, the Royal Mile bustling. I know I’m in the right place when I see a group of tourists gazing at a boarded-up building. The group is diverse: all ages, many nationalities, all waiting patiently to be photographed beneath a sign. This is The Elephant House, one of the cafés where J. K. Rowling worked on her Harry Potter series. Joanne Rowling (born 1965) was a single mum at the time. She took her baby to the cosy café and wrote the book that came to her during a delayed train journey between Manchester and London.

A café is a bustling, public space and to visit with a baby is not a relaxing prospect. Nappies and feeding, gawking customers, noise. The Elephant House is the antithesis of the romantic notion of an author at work. Now destroyed by fire, the bathroom walls inside were once graffitied, in multi-coloured sharpies, with messages: thank you for making my childhood magical.

Writers are notoriously superstitious. Along with whisperings of ‘the muse’ and the curse of the ‘second book’, writing spaces are shrouded in mystique. Famous writing nooks such as Rowling’s are places of homage, as if something in the structure of the room, or a trinket on the desk, will reveal the secret to the author’s success. Is the space messy or clean, what is on the wall, what is the view? This voyeurism is like opening a diary. An intrusion into a private space, where we can marvel that this desk – bench, billiard table, bath – was where a whole universe was created.

Unlike The Elephant House, there are no tourists at The Oxford Bar, favourite haunt of Ian Rankin (born 1960). The pub dates to 1811, squatting within a row of terraced houses along Young Street in Edinburgh. Discreetly identified by a simple sign above the door, inside is cramped with regulars who chat over their pints with an air of being at home. Window seats are tucked around the small bar, there’s a shelf of books and board games. The atmosphere is bachelor; homely yet unadorned. It is the embodiment of Inspector Rebus, the gruff fictional detective who drinks here, just like his creator, who eavesdrops on conversations, gathering inspiration.

Writing can be lonely, and in these places Rankin and Rowling found remedy. Writers are also collectors of what they see and hear. Public spaces are vibrant, they offer the writer snippets from other lives, but many writers have preferred more intimate and unusual surroundings.

Mark Twain (1835–1910) travelled widely, and was a prolific writer, there are many writing spaces associated with him. My favourite is in Hartford, Connecticut, where he lived from 1874 to 1891. It is a large gothic mansion, with turrets and gables and wrap-around walkways. For seventeen years his writing space was The Billiard Room on the third floor.

Away from the chatter of his four children, and with views across the large garden, The Billiard Room is flooded with light, despite the walls being red, and the wood dark around each window. It’s a masculine space; you can imagine Twain and his friends playing billiards and drinking into the early hours.

On a guided tour of the property, I learned that Twain used the billiard table as a worktop, scattering his notes across the green baize. Against the wall is a wooden rack of cubby holes, to store his works-in-progress. He would slide out a manuscript, work on it for an hour or so, then slide it back in place and retrieve another.

There are two desks — the smaller one faces the wall, monk-like, to avoid distraction. Here, he created Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Editing and planning could be done at the billiard table or at the second, more ornate, desk under the window. The Billiard Room reveals Twain’s personality, his energy, his active brain, his need for order.

From a billiard room to a bath. Agatha Christie is said to have got her ideas in the bathtub. When she renovated Greenway, her home in Devon, Christie apparently stipulated that the bath should have a wide ledge, for pencils and apples. She would recline in the sudsy water, munching on a russet, thinking through her dark plots with forensic detail. Then she would get out, dry herself, and put her ideas on the page. Christie published sixty-six crime novels, as well as plays and short stories, so her technique obviously worked. The writing brain doesn’t stop, even when the body is at play or rest, and there is a creative pay-off to multitasking as the mind continues to chew over ideas.

After his political exile from France, Victor Hugo (1802–1885) finally settled in Guernsey. Hauteville House is lavish, furnished with Hugo’s collection of exotic treasures, with a grand mahogany staircase circling up. At the top of the house is The Crystal Room, where Hugo wrote Les Misérables, one of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century.

As anyone with a conservatory knows, glass rooms are cold in winter and too hot in summer — it became so hot in this room that the silver on the mirror bubbled! Despite this, Hugo found peace here. There’s a bench wide enough for him to sleep on, and a cupboard for him to wash in. With its glass ceiling, and pretty blue and white Delft tiles, the room is bright and interesting. Hugo could also see his lover’s home from here, and I wonder if she secretly visited too, the space feels so private and sensual.

Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) may have said that every writer needs a room of one’s own, but her writing place was actually a shed. She and Leonard moved to Monk’s House, in Sussex, in 1919, and she wrote in a shed in the orchard garden.

Virginia was no neat freak. There would have been balls of crumpled paper, leaky nibs, half-used bottles of ink. ‘The litter in this room is so appalling, it takes me 5 minutes to find my pen,’ she wrote in her diary. But find it she did, writing Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, as the birds twittered and Leonard deadheaded the roses. Sheds are perfect for the solitary occupation of writing. Without heating or electricity, they are elemental, primitive.

Dylan Thomas’s (1914–1953) writing shed in Laugharne is so full of personality it practically speaks. The Boathouse dates to the 1800s and is perched precariously near the edge of a cliff, overlooking the Gower peninsula. The ‘sea-shaken house/ On a breakneck of rocks’ became the Thomas family home in May 1949 and Dylan Thomas adopted an old garage nearby which he turned into his study.

Inside, is creative chaos: a cluttered desk; empty beer bottles, ashtrays. There are pictures of admired poets (Byron and Auden) intended to inspire Thomas into frenzied productivity before his medicinal dose of whisky at Brown’s Hotel. Black and white photos are tacked to the wall, there’s a jam jar of leaky pens, sheafs of notes. As Thomas raged against the dying of the light, he would have heard the noisy seagulls and the sea. Did he also catch the chatter of Polly Garter and Captain Cat as they walked the streets below? The shed is evocative and cheery, full of life, as if Thomas has just stepped out for a fag and will return momentarily.

Like Thomas, I like to listen to the sea while I write. My writing space is the beach hut I bought in 2005, after winning the CWA Debut Dagger. I resigned from the probation service to concentrate on writing and my beach hut was part of that brave (possibly foolhardy) decision.

The beach hut is a simple shed, with no electricity, but it offers a working space away from the house. I wrote my first two novels here, while on maternity leave. My writing has always been juggled with domestic tasks — things I need to escape, to inhabit the far darker world of my crime fiction. At the beach hut I can hear the waves, not the washing machine. My characters can speak without interruption.

As writers, we need to find the place where our words will flow most freely. Visiting writing spaces offers valuable insight: Hogwarts was imagined at a café table; revolutionary France was conjured from a wooden bench. Writing spaces are where magic happens, and every desk tells a story.

Ruth Dugdall is the author of seven novels, and a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Essex University. Her debut novel won the prestigious Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger award. Previously a probation officer, she draws on real cases to inspire her writing, most of which is set in Suffolk.

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