The Novelist’s War Chest

March 10, 2011 § 25 Comments

Writing novels is a dangerous business. Most rational people know not to spend too much time visiting with the imagination; it’s easy to get lost, and who knows when you’ll ever find your way out? Novelists, however, are widely agreed to be a little bit less than rational. If we’re going to spend so many hours per week on safari with the wild beasts of our innermost thoughts, it’s important to be well-equipped. And that requires a well-stocked War Chest.

Item of Primary Importance: Tea

You might have thought I was going to say ‘writing materials’ or something absurd like that, but I am thoroughly English (in nationality as well as name – yes, I know it’s hilarious). I can’t do anything without at least one cup of tea to get me started. Fairly strong, with milk and sugar. Better keep the kettle close by, too.

Item of Secondary Importance: Chocolate

Again, consumables are much more important than writing materials. After all, you could, just about conceivably, write the next chapter of your  novel on your own arm, in your own blood, if absolutely necessary. It’s indisputable, however, that nobody’s getting any words down without a dose of chocolate-fuel first.

Item of Tertiary Importance: Suitable Writing Materials

See, I got there in the end. Part of me wishes I could moonlight back a century or two and write here ‘good quality writing-paper and a set of well-mended quill pens’; I have an attractive vision of myself in a flowing gown, seated at a quaintly old-fashioned writing desk, covering my dainty fingers in ink as I pen the masterpiece that people will still be admiring long after my death. Since this is reality, though, I have settled for a notebook with a cute cover and a biro. And when that got boring, I went back to my laptop.

Which brings me to the real point of this post (reaching the point after only 300 words of absurdity is a bad habit, I know, but forgive me: it’s March, and everybody knows that March is Mad March, when people are given to sudden fits of uncharacteristic behaviour). Yes, anyway, the point is:  the accepted superiority of the laptop over the notebook and pen is only phase one. Many people would agree that Microsoft Word isn’t exactly ideal for writing your 100k+ words. In my War Chest, currently, is a programme called Page Four (link).

This programme is set up to behave like a sort of virtual notebook. I can have any number of ‘pages’ open and accessible at once, so I can divide my work into a chapter per page (for example), or I can have umpteen notes pages as open tabs while I’m writing. Given my propensity to forget half of the made-up words I made up for my fantasy world (including character names), this is very handy.

Item of Secret Importance: Favourite Stuffed Toy

I get anxious sometimes, particularly when I am staring at the rubbishness of my own work and I realise: I really am crap, aren’t I? The only thing to do at that point is to regress to the age of six and collect my best-friend-in-fake-fur. This lady has already been featured on this blog recently,  but here she is again, with her current beau:

Frouse (left) and Oryx (right)

She’s almost as old as I am, so do be kind to her if she’s looking a little worn.

Anyway, now that I’ve exposed the depths of my absurdity when I’m writing, I’m going to start asking questions, and all those other shameless bids for conversation that bloggers resort to. What’s in your War Chest? What programme, application or delicious piece of software do you use to write? And what’s your recourse when you’re overcome with despair? (Come on – it happens to all of us. At least, I’m pretty sure it does…).


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§ 25 Responses to The Novelist’s War Chest

  • lyonesse2710 says:

    My morning pages are in my war chest of writinghood – I swiped this idea from the artist’s way, and it basically involves writing three pages of whatever is in my head when I first wake up. It lets me organise my thoughts a little before I throw myself at the day’s work, and allows a few of the flights of fancy out as well. I also favour cups of coffee, biscuits and chocolate as the comestibles of choice, and I LOVE my fountain pen in any number of odd ink colours – the current one is earth brown – with a ring bound notebook for jotting down ideas and thoughts. All good fun! Oh, and I love to make lists, for some reason. Only love isn’t the right word – more that I am compelled to do so… :S

    • Charlotte says:

      Ah, I’ve heard about the practice of morning pages before. Unfortunately I’m not enough of a morning person to do it: I’m far too fond of daydreaming the first two hours of the day away. I can imagine the usefulness of it if you can manage to keep it up, though. Writing in strange colours sounds like fun, I used to enjoy that in school. I ought to do that with my novel notes. Would it be more exciting to open them up if I’m presented with a riot of colour when I do so? Heh.

  • aarongraham says:

    Hey Charlotte,

    My Mom’s name is Charlotte! I never told you that, but when you mentioned that your name was “very English”, I figured I’d toss that tid bit of useless trivia about myself out there. You said your name was uniquely English, which I don’t doubt, but our family can’t quite figure out if my mom’s branch is English or French. (It’s a long family story that involves a hospital fire, British Redcoats and a Pirate Ship) You see, we Americans have this little quirk, we don’t really know where we belong. I know Graham is Scottish, but my other side is Italian. “Mama Mia!”

    My War Chest looks a lot like yours. Of course, substitute “Tea” for “Coffee.” Gotta have my strong cup of black coffee. Chocolate is fine, but I would not call it an essential article to haul with me into the Never-Never Land of my imagination.
    But, I would add one thing that I absolutely could not live without! Never, ever, don’t even think about taking it away from me when I’m writing. GOOGLE. I can’t imagine writing without it.

    When I need a good name for a character: GOOGLE. When I need some inspiration for an obscure religious ritual of the sub-Asian continent: GOOGLE. When I need to come up with the exact value of Pi to 1,000 decimal points: GOOGLE. (I don’t know why I would ever need that in a story, but if I did, Google would have the answer)

    I will have to check out Page Four when I get home tonight and do a quick review. In the mean time, have you ever heard of a program called “Storybook”? I stumbled on it one afternoon while I was writing and loved it.

    One of these days I’ll blog about it. It’s a great resource!

    Keep in touch!

    • Hi Aaron, thank you for mentioning that resource. I have downloaded Storybook (I use Joomla for my website) and am now exploring it. It is way after midnight and I can’t stop 😀

    • Charlotte says:

      Hi Aaron,

      The puzzle of genealogy is a lot of fun. Your ancestors are a bit more exotic than mine (unless that’s a bit more of your ‘creative’ biography? :P). I seem to be descended from farm labourers on both sides, though that didn’t prevent them from being interesting. The fun part is that my name is as English as it can possibly be… I mean, it really is… but still there is a persistent family rumour that the surname actually comes from France. I do have an Italian ancestor also. I have a vague temptation to adopt ‘Vigitello’ for my pen name, just to confuse everybody further.

      Wish I could drink coffee! I’m not a morning person and a wake-up dose of coffee sounds great, but caffeine makes me shaky and anxious. It’s not that I -try- to make life more difficult for myself, but somehow it’s so terribly easy. GOOGLE, however, is something I agree with so entirely I will follow your example of writing it in capitals.

      Let’s do it again. GOOGLE!

      I plunder it shamelessly every time I write a blog post, and for most stories I write. Bless its cotton socks. Just try to avoid wikipedia – it sucks you in. I open it up to research some story point and half an hour later I realise I’ve gone from gem-cutting to the Dutch 80 years war with Spain, and that’s just the beginning.

      Storybook looks suspiciously like it might be an actual lifesaver. Especially when it’s time to do the dreaded EDITING. Please do blog about it sometime!

      Thanks for visiting and commenting!

  • Thanks a lot Charlotte. I’m with you on the tea and chocolate haha. Plus on the laptop. Have downloaded the PageFour program and will give it a try 😀
    PS There’s a HUGE bear in my study 😉

    • PS PS have decided to give Storybook a try in stead!

    • Charlotte says:

      I’m with you on Storybook. Makes me feel disloyal to my faithful Page Four, but there it is – can’t help thinking it looks great.

      On tea, I spoke of English tea in my post but I’m a convert to the Dutch style of tea-drinking also. I like to stock up my stash of Dutch tea whenever I visit. It’s more refreshing than English tea, given the lack of milk and sugar.

      Ah! I’m sure Bear offers all the moral support needed when writing. Anyway it’s good to have attractive scenery for when you get tired of staring at the screen 😉

      • What Dutch tea do you mean Charlotte? The herbal tea? Or Pickwick? Just recently Pickwick composed a ‘real Dutch blend’, you should give it a try. It’s quite nice.
        Or you mean drinking tea without the milk and sugar? With a touch of honey?

        I do hope Storybook will be a great help in editing. I’ve been playing with it yesterday. The downside of it is that you can only use it on one computer, since it will make a database.

        Now I’m at my partner’s house with my laptop, so I’m cut off from Storybook. I use several private WordPress blogs for writing 🙂

        Have a wonderful and happy weekend.

      • Charlotte says:

        I mean herbal/fruit tea without milk or sugar. In England we have some varieties of this type, but I find them disgusting. They taste like fruit juice severely diluted and then heated up. The Dutch ones seem to be an entirely different sort, and I have developed quite a taste for them. Pickwick is my brand of choice when I start craving English tea, though, it’s about the best substitute I’ve found. I’ll be interested to try the Dutch blend next time I am over that way.

        Hmm, it’s a shame if Storybook’s limited to one computer, but not a huge impediment. I’ll be interested to hear how it works out for you.

        I just took a long walk in the burgeoning Spring sunshine we’re having over here, so my weekend’s shaping up well so far. Next: baking. Wishing you a pleasant weekend too!

  • Amala says:

    I think I’m the only English person to not like tea (for shame!). My fuel of choice was always hot chocolate. Mmmm.

    I also need to position my laptop so that I’m facing my bookshelf as I write a novel. So when it comes to the times when I lose hope, I can look at my heroes and think, “They struggled too.”

    • Charlotte says:

      Ah, I have heard about those mythical English people who don’t drink tea! Hot chocolate definitely deserves a mention because it is The Stuff of the Gods. It may even be constructed from pure magic. I reserve it for occasions of total despair, so as to preserve its extraordinary effects for true emergencies.

      I like the idea of facing one’s idols. Unfortunately my desk faces firmly away from most of my books; maybe I’ll frame a couple and hang them on the wall. That said, I do have Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’ on my wall right above my desk. I just need a suitable print to go with it and it’ll be the perfect inspiration.

  • @aarongraham – Alas Storybook doesn’t feel like starting up anymore. Have sent a mail through the site, I do hope they can help me out here.
    Normally I write short stories, columns, poems and blogs. And I’m working on a children’s book 🙂

  • Kathleen Lourde says:

    Hmm..I think I object to the term “War Chest.” I think I’m closer to having a dowry chest, where I store all the things I need when I approach my lover, my muse. I’ve taken a look at some creative writing software and couldn’t stand any of it. I’m going to try the one you recommend, though, Charlotte…it sounds handy.

    My requirement for writing is that everyone in the house be asleep. This means staying up very late or waking up very early, but that is the magic time for me and my muse. I need coffee (yes, I’m a loud [actually, pretty silent] American. I need something terribly sweet and bad for me, like a butterscotch roll (though trying to keep the butterscotch off the computer keys is a challenge). I need silence. Or else very loud music that fits with what I’m writing.

    And I need optimism. That’s the hard one, especially if I have to read over the last few pages to see where I am. That’s when I start thinking, “I really am crap, aren’t I?” And that, of course, is when you have to start writing anyway, and just keep at it. Actually, what I really do is I start scribbling notes about characters and plotlines, and USUALLY I inspire myself and the optimism returns.

    Thanks for your blog, Charlotte. I enjoy it.


    • Charlotte says:

      Hi Kathleen,

      I don’t know about you but I have such a love-hate relationship with my works-in-progress that it’s often one extreme or the other. Perhaps this week it’s more of a frustrating experience, so.. IT IS WAR. However, fortunately, there are times when your term ‘dowry chest’ seems much more apt.

      What I like most about Page Four is that it’s pretty simple and straightforward. I can’t be doing with a lot of clutter when I’m trying to focus. Others that I’ve seen, tried or heard of sound like they’d drive me crazy.

      It seems nearly everyone agrees on the importance of food, and particularly sweet food that feels like it’s bad for you. I wonder if we’re feeding ourselves psychologically – that the feeling of having a ‘treat’ of some kind improves the spirits a little, and it feels just a little bit more like a party than a work session? Also you’re not the first writer I’ve known to prefer writing at night. I like the silence of it myself; maybe it’s the sense of unreality about night-time that’s conducive to wandering in the imagination. It feels like reality shuts down and you can wander wherever you will.

      Optimism is probably the greatest challenge I face in wading through long projects. It’s so easy to get seriously discouraged. You’re perfectly right: the only way to get through it is to grit the teeth and start putting words on the page. Next time I face that feeling I’ll try your method: starting with notes sounds a very practical way to coax oneself past the panic. Thanks for sharing that tip.

      And thanks for visiting! Comments make my day, especially insightful and detailed ones such as yours.


  • I’m totally with you on the tea. I can’t even sit down in front of the computer without my Earl Grey with milk and sugar. Something about a hot cup in my hands really gets me going.

    And another thing I do to get me “in the mood” is to go over to the bookshelf (where I keep books I loved or books friends said I will), pick up any book, and open it to a random page. I read that page then sit down to work. I find that it helps me get into the flow of narrative more quickly. Not that I’m copying that writer, but that I’m sort of drafting on them, the way a bicyclist might draft behind a car.

    Whatever it takes, right?
    Thanks for the fun post! I do enjoy your blog!

    • Charlotte says:

      Earl Grey is special. I’m convinced they put a drop or two of magic in that tea.

      Your ‘drafting’ is an excellent idea. I can imagine it would help to get your mind’s writing-wheels turning faster and more smoothly. May also spark off some flashes of inspiration! I’ll bear that in mind, especially for days when I’m stuck and it isn’t happening for me.

      Thanks so much for visiting and commenting! It makes my day.

  • An interesting post, that I can certainly relate to 🙂 I can’t stand tea or coffee, but I am a fan of hot chocolate (mainly only drink it before bed though). I think my main ‘writing fuel’ is energy drinks, especially V and Red Bull (though chocolate is right up there too).
    I also need a few other things when writing:
    a) The house to myself; when my parents are home they are continually making noise, having the TV blaring, talking to themselves or interrupting me every five minutes to ask pointless questions… Makes it very hard to get anything done.
    b) My messy desk; I forget what the top of my desk looks like because it’s covered in workshopped and annotated chapters of my novella and illustrations I’ve drawn of my characters. These help me get into the flow of writing (and drawing) so I can focus my productivity in the right direction.
    c) Music; I have different playlists for my different works in progress, depending on the atmosphere of the story. Listening to symphonic/orchestral metal, for example, gets me into the right mood and frame of mind to work on my dark medieval fantasy stories.
    Man, that was a long comment… I need sugar 😀

    • Charlotte says:

      Hi Rebecca, thank you for commenting!

      I love the idea of making different playlists. I like to listen to music while I write (usually – as long as I’m not already three-quarters asleep), but it never occurred to me to manipulate the playlist to fit the writing. It’s a rather brilliant idea. I can imagine some light classical music for one of the two narrative strands in my current novel, and something a bit darker for the other.

      Medieval fantasy sounds interesting, what are you currently working on? I’m always intrigued by stories that combine history and fantasy. I think the two of them are a perfect combination. My own favourite periods are eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and I think there are never enough fantasy stories set in worlds of that sort of period (though that’s changing a bit with the rise and rise of Steampunk). The medieval period holds an enduring charm, though, and it’s beautifully suited to weaving with fantasy.

      I’m with you on the peace and quiet. I wish I could focus better even amid distraction, but it’s no use! It’s about the sort of writing trance that’s required – interruptions, however well meant, just dissolve the flow in an instant.

  • Kathleen Lourde says:

    Hey, Rebecca–I do the playlist thing, too! I have a slew of them, one for every main character I’m writing about. I love to know what my characters would listen to, and immerse myself in that when I’m trying to write in that voice.


  • saradeurell says:

    My war chest starts with coffee (I’m American, after all). My weapon of choice is Word for XP, and I refuse to get attached to any one setting for doing my work – I intentionally move my laptop “work station” from one spot to another from day to day so that if my normal area won’t do (if I have a guest or something) I won’t be thrown off by it. This trick also allows for being able to sit on the balcony of my apartment during nice weather while I’m working. When I get burnt out or a problem with the story is particularly in need of unraveling, I resort to jigsaw puzzles and coloring books, because I can sit and ponder while I work on those. Or I take a break and play guitar or draw or paint. Or I take a walk in the nearby park (or the nearby cemetery). And when my own resources fail, I brainstorm with my mother (who is also a writer) about why I’m stuck and how to get unstuck. I also tactically ignore my manuscript if it gets too uppity with me. A few days of pretending I’m not going to look at it again anytime soon, and usually it gets fussy at the lack of attention and starts cooperating again. 😉

    • Charlotte says:

      Hi Sara,

      Word has some advantages – I particularly like its typo-checking functions – though I find it can get unstable and slow, especially with a large document. I’m always afraid it will crash and lose my work. I’m assuming, though, that this hasn’t happened to you in any disastrous way, so perhaps I’m unfairly prejudiced against it.

      I’m a little envious that you have a balcony. I love to sit outside, and it would be amazing to sit somewhere high up and have a good view ahead of you as you write.

      Jigsaw puzzles are great for the difficult patches. It’s something I only rediscovered recently, but I’ve quickly taken to having something like that to click and stare at while my mind teases out a problem. I found a great PC programme for puzzles that you can do on your computer, and make your own puzzles too. It’s ideal.

      It really helps to have a writer parent. My father’s a writer too. He’s usually the first person to read my work and he can be a great help if I get stuck. Do you think your mother’s love for writing influenced or inspired you into becoming a writer yourself?

      • saradeurell says:

        Thanks for the link – this is awesome! I’ve never seen a computerized jigsaw puzzle before. 🙂

        I definitely think that my mom being a writer was an influence, although, like a lot of kids, I innately loved making up stories to begin with (just like most kids like to draw). My mom took my love of storytelling seriously, however, which many adults probably wouldn’t have. I can remember the first time she suggested any changes to a story I was working on (I was too young to type for myself, so I was dictating aloud to her – LOL!) Up till then, I didn’t know that stories didn’t just come out right the first time. Once I got over being mad that anyone would dare suggest a change to one of my stories, I was kind of excited. I didn’t have to get it perfect on my first try anymore! I could make things better AFTER they were written. Mom took me to critique groups and writer’s workshops with her once I was older – nine or ten – and asked for my feedback on her own writing, too.

        How about you and your dad? I think you’re the first serious writer I’ve met aside from myself who has a serious writer for a parent, too, so I’m very curious what that was like for you!

      • Charlotte says:

        You were truly weaned on writing, by the sounds of it, which is fantastic. I love the notion of going to critique groups and workshops from such a young age. You must’ve had a great head start on it by the time you were old enough to take up novel-writing seriously!

        My experience was a little different, because for various reasons I wasn’t able to see much of my father for about a decade. I don’t know where my interest in writing came from during that period, but by the time I was 17 I was finally seeing more of dad, and by that time I’d taken up writing stories and planning novels quite regularly. But I suppose I was playing at it, treating it like a game that I could never do seriously. Dad’s first influence was to encourage me to stop thinking of it like an impossible dream, and view it as a goal I could reach someday. Following that he gave me some very important advice on how to go about it, and since then he’s kept encouraging and advising as I’ve worked my way up at last to writing my first novel.

        I think one of the most important things is merely having someone who understands about writing, and why a person would do it, and what it means for your life. It’s really valuable to be able to compare notes, exchange ideas, swap critique or just laugh about it all. By the way, do you and your mother write in similar genres? I ask because Dad and I are completely opposed in that – he writes science fiction and crime thrillers, and he really hates fantasy fiction. I write fantasy fiction and historical fiction. Fortunately his hatred of one of my two favourite genres doesn’t prevent him from being very willing to read and comment on my work.

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