2016 has been one of those years that has seemed to offer very little in the way of peace of mind, space for contemplation or periods of calm. The horrors of the world, along with political upheavals, have absorbed our attention and created an environment many of us feel uncomfortable with. I have certainly found it hard to concentrate on my writing, which not only helps us pay the bills but would normally keep me just on the right side of sanity. Even afternoons in a local coffee shop didn’t help me focus, as they did when I wrote Shell Shocked Britain.
However, I have recently been lucky enough to spend a week away, staying with friends in Liechtenstein. It was great to see them, but it wasn’t exactly a holiday. I was going to write, and if I didn’t, not only would it have been a waste of the £100 it cost me to get there (about the same as the travel costs for a weekend in London, from here in the SW…) but I would, in all probability, miss the deadline for my next book – Death, Disease & Dissection (to be published by Pen and Sword books in October 2017).
How often does anyone get the luxury of five free days to concentrate on their writing? Or on anything that means a lot, but which gets put to one side as day to day concerns and worries fill our time, and make the weeks fly past in a blur?
So, having had my week away, and finding it really helpful, I thought I would share those things which gave the 14,000 words I wrote the chance to flow:
- Have nothing beside you that is not helpful, or necessary – I cannot believe I managed with my laptop, just two reference books and two printed articles. I was constrained by my one, cabin, bag but since returning home I have kept the amount spread about my desk and floor to a minimum. I was nervous about this new approach, as I am a messy writer, flicking through books and articles and referencing websites to the point where the information becomes overwhelming and I lose heart or go off at an unhelpful tangent. Minimalism kept me focused, and the prep time required before I set off was well spent.
- Set yourself a target…and stick to it – I wanted to write 12,500 words in the five clear days I had, alone in the house. That was 2,500 a day. I write non-fiction, so I was rarely able to follow that helpful maxim ‘just write’. I had to have some idea of the facts to include in the chapter I was focusing on, and that made the process more difficult, for me anyway. But I realised early on that what I was lacking was confidence – I knew more than I thought, and had absorbed more from my reading than I realised. In the end, I exceeded my target and came home with a little more confidence in my memory…
- Go for a walk! – Even if you don’t know where you are going. I didn’t, and I can’t speak German so if I had got lost, I may have stayed that way until I could get in touch with my friends. The town they live in is quiet, with steep hills and wide grassy stretches to tempt you to get a good lungful of the very fresh air. There was a dusting of snow on the highest peaks, so even if I were fit enough I wasn’t going to risk a climb, but a wonderful network of paths and quiet residential streets offered enough exercise to keep the blood flowing and the fingers tapping at the keys. I couldn’t survive on caffeine alone.
- Don’t worry about the time – I didn’t. It was November, and the days were short enough, but in the mountains where I was staying the cloud came down occasionally, leaving the house shrouded in mist that never seemed to clear. My friends did not have fixed working hours so I could not be sure when they would return, or whether they would want their dining room table back! I quickly realised that I just had to get on with it, and ignored the clock on my computer, especially as it was still suggesting I was back in the UK.
- And on a similar subject – listen to your body – I have known for some time that I am an ‘owl’ rather than a ‘lark’. Getting up an hour earlier every morning to get more writing done simply isn’t a useful option for me, but I can still write on into the wee small hours if left to my own devices. My body might wake to an early alarm but only feels ready to go from about 8.45. Whilst I was away I could let my body work like this, as I wasn’t under pressure to go to bed at the same time as my husband, and risk waking him at 2am by crawling under the duvet and pushing him back to his own side. I let everyone go to bed and wrote on. Bliss.
I know I was lucky to get this time away. I can’t afford an Arvon or other formal writing retreat, and I had to accept that time and funds did not allow me another week away in the Lake District. I was nervous about the journey, but I can’t believe how easy it was, the Swiss bus and rail system being so much more efficient than the British experience. I have also got the lovely Cornelia Marock and her family to thank for having me to stay, and looking after me so well. My only disappointment was how expensive the chocolate now is, owing largely to the way the pound has plummeted against the Euro, and the Swiss Franc in recent months.
Of course, I have tried to bring as many of these habits home with me as possible, although other work and family commitments impose their presence. The walk is happening, but I still find it hard to carry on after Peter, and the house, are asleep. I have reached the word count for the book and now have the editing to do, which is another challenge entirely, but one I now feel better able to face.
So if you can take some time out, do. If you can’t, then I heartily recommend adopting a more managed routine, and a little more time to write might just appear somewhere in our crowded days.