Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Office Evolution

Coming up with ideas for blog posts is harder for me than writing novels. I find short stories troublesome, and the two are similar. I considered writing a post on Esrahaddon (the new novel) only to realize partway through that nearly everything I wrote would be a spoiler. And so that idea was eaten by the delete key leaving me staring at this blank screen trying to perfect my powers of divination. 

What would readers want to read?

Should I compose essays concerning my current life? My history? My work? What I’m reading? My process of writing? Current events? Shows I like and games I play? Everything beyond the news of a new book release strikes me as self-absorbed, and yet I suspect most will look at the list I just wrote and think…Yes. Perhaps, if I were not me, I too would be eager to read about life in a log cabin, what fountain pen I use or my personal writing methodology. I most certainly would love to know the name of the trilogy of books I am presently thrilled to have discovered and read each night before the fire with a cup of tea. You might even wish to know what sort of  tea, though that seems a little too celebrity-obsessed to make sense. Being a writer and lover of stories I’d probably like to know the origin behind how a modern-day fantasy author took a ridiculously stupid path out of utter ignorance, but which turned out to be the only route that could have worked. But then you've probably already heard that one.

Truth is, I just don’t know what you want. And given I’ve turned off all comments, to avoid the carpet bombing of spam that always follows, I can’t ask—or rather, I can’t expect replies. 

I keep trying to think of a topic that would appeal to all twelve of you. That’s how many I emotionally suspect truly read this blog. Twelve who might all live in Mintonville, Kentucky, and attend the same bookclub, or who could be scattered across the globe but through the magic of Google Translate can read these words. It’s foolish to try and please twelve different people I personally know much less an unknown number of unfamiliar people located who knows where. I suppose the trick isn’t to try. It worked before, and since you can’t comment, I won’t even know if you hate it. (Note* this is not entirely true. I have noticed how some on Goodreads, Reddit, and Discord have raised their hands to let me know that indeed the signal is getting through. So, thanks.)

All that said, without further adieu, let’s get to the totally arbitrary topic I settled on for this week’s installment: Office Evolution.

Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve always wondered where authors write, especially when I wasn’t one yet. My wife is the sort who can work in a the noisy hallway of an unruly middle school. She also falls asleep to television, but has trouble closing her eyes in utter silence. Oddly, I’m more about ambience. I enjoy a nice environment. I say oddly because I spend so little time where I write. The moment I start typing, I’m gone. This is why I will take a book to a laundromat or a hospital waiting room, but never to a beach or ski lodge. With the former, all I want to do is escape, but I paid good money for the latter. It just makes no sense to go to a tropical resort and bring a tiny portal to 19th century London—but I know many that do. I suspect it has more to do with the company readers are forced to keep on trips. There has to be a reason Thanksgiving Eve is the busiest bar night in the United States, and bartenders I’ve discussed this with all report: the desire to escape family. 

So if I don’t linger in my writing environment, why does it matter? For the same reason that if the food was the same, you’d chose the restaurant with the nicer dining room. I don’t need much incentive to write—I never did—but a comfy chair is way more inviting than a metal bench. Also, that portal that can take you to 19th century London, or in my case a little tavern near the end of Wayward Street, has a tragic flaw. The portal doesn’t close tight. There’s this umbilical cord that connects the two realities and which is highly sensitive to sound. This magical conduit also only works in one direction. They can fire off a gun in Dickensian London, and you’ll never hear a thing while doing the dishes at home. But if I’m in the middle of a sword fight, and my wife happens to answer the phone downstairs and in a perfectly normal voice asks “Hello?” that damn umbilical cord with rip me right back. So, I need isolation. 

I’m not the only one who suffers this affliction. I’ve been to Hemingway’s House in Key West.  The man built a separate writing studio in the adjacent carriage house. Gaiman has a gazebo, and others I know have sheds. Still more cheat and use sound canceling headphones. I’ve tried this, but it makes my ears sweat, and there I am thinking about my ears and not about the next sword stroke. The point is, where I write is important to me, and it always has been, and that place has changed over the decades due to my age and economic status.


Now stepping way back into the 1970s, my first desk was a metal and vinyl Samsonite folding card table identical to the one pictured here. I was thirteen and set the thing up in my mother’s bedroom. I covered it with a table cloth, then put a lamp, a clock, and a phone on it. After all, these were the things that made a table into a desk. I knew this because I watched television, and all private detectives agreed on these three items. While I began with a Bic pen and lined looseleaf paper, I quickly leveled up when I discovered my sister’s old typewriter. This was good because Mary Tyler Moore, Ellery Queen, and all the cops on Barney Miller used typewriters. 

I have no actual photographs of this card table desk anymore than Harry Potter has images of his cupboard under the stairs. After all, neither of us owned a camera. Even if I did, I had neither the money nor the means to purchase and pay for the development of film. (Don’t worry, the invention of the iPhone will be coming along soon. Seriously, I am utterly shocked at the terrible quality and quantity of photos of my early workspaces prior to the iPhone.)

It was at this wobbly card table that I wrote my first three short stories and my first trilogy of novels which became the genesis for Royce and Hadrian and the world of Elan. The two thieves went by different names back then, but some similarities are so close I can’t write them here for fear of spoiling those who might not have read Riyria. I had no aspirations of being an author, and if you read my early work, I am certain you would have advised me to consider a career in lawn maintenance. Never even crossed my mind to write for a living. My dream was to be a commercial illustrator at a major advertising agency. This too was a fantasy. Odds were real good I would end up in either a Detroit car manufacturing plant or as a dishwasher at a local restaurant. 

Despite this, at the age of twenty-one, after getting married and buying a three bedroom house, I created my first real office. In one of the bedrooms, I put up dark wood paneling, and bookshelves. I also lucked out and found an old wooden teacher’s desk that had been used as a workbench at a tool & die shop. They were going to throw it out so I took it home, sanded it down, stained and polyurethaned it. Thing was built like a tank. I got it upstairs put a lamp, a clock and a phone on it and, ta-dah! Office! 

This photograph is the only one I found that shows any part of my second office. As you can see I finally got myself a computer. It was 1986 and I was the proud father of a happy healthy daughter and a Compaq DeskPro.

I wrote about five novels on this monster, including Wizards, a novel that I later tried to re-write as Antithesis because I thought I could. Turns out I couldn’t. Then at the start of the 1990s, Robin, my daughter, and I moved to northern Vermont. I had a makeshift office in my bedroom in our trailer, but we finally managed to build a house and once again I created a real office. 

Once more you can see how the lack of photos documenting my literary career will be a serious handicap for the Ken Burns documentary.  What’s fascinating in this image, is the Jenga workspace just past Robin, built mostly out of table extenders. Four books support what must have been a precarious shelving unit. At least, this computer had a mouse! Also notice the dial-up modem on the shelf. It was here that I wrote the last of the thirteen unpublished novels. None of which were in the fantasy genre. I mostly focused on horror, science fiction, and literary fiction. 

I quit writing after that. The year was 1995 and I didn’t return to writing until 2004. I had other offices, but they weren’t for writing. As it turned out I managed to fulfill that first dream of being an illustrator for an advertising agency, although given I founded the agency and was also the Art Director and Creative Director, it felt like I cheated my way in—until I began making good money at it. Then I wondered why I waited so long. This is a theme I would return to later. 

When I began writing again it was without much forethought or preparation. I was super bored and so I dragged that massive tank of a teacher’s desk up to my bedroom in Raleigh, NC, set it up next to Robin’s and my bed and put a lamp, a clock, and a phone on it. Then I wrote the following, which I suspect is the oldest surviving, pre-edited opening:

The brandy was excellent. It was a house label from the monastery at Windermere where the old monks in their remote stone cloister had spent centuries perfecting their distilling and aging method. As a result the liquor was rich in body, warm in feel, and smooth as silk. It also had a wonderful smoky taste that he particularly enjoyed. Archibald Ballentyne never had much use for monasteries, the church, or any god, but recently he had grown to like Windermere. So many good things seem to come from there lately. He took another sip of the brandy and let the hot liquid drift down his neck, savoring the warm feeling and sweet taste. It was his first drink of the night, but already he felt intoxicated.

 I wrote The Crown Conspiracy, Avempartha, and Nyphron Rising in that hot and stifling upstairs bedroom in Raleigh because our air conditioning was on the fritz. I had just started writing Emerald Storm when we closed the agency and moved to the Washington, DC suburb of Fairfax and bought a little townhouse. Still unpublished, still stealing time to pursue an insane hobby that only I cared about, I created yet another office. 


The desk came from my advertising agency, as did the computer, leather chair and wall clock. This was the first desk without a phone, because we abandoned our landline for cell phones. The year was 2006. I wrote the second half of Emerald StormWintertide, and Percepliquis at this desk. On the left you’ll see the works of C.S. Forester who I was reading as reference for the sailing scenes in Emerald Storm. The writing software is MS Word, and that is the first Moleskine notebook I ever used. It was entitled: The Riyria Revelations

Some of you know that it was in 2007 that the first iPhone was revealed. I was an early adopter and you can see the difference it made in my next office photo.

Still in the same house in Fairfax, I moved to the bedroom to make room for my eldest daughter who returned from college. As you can tell from the posters, this was just after publication of the first Riyria Chronicle, The Crown Tower. And yes, that is as cluttered as that desk usually got. It also shows my shift from thirty years of using PCs and Word to Apple and Scrivener, as well as my need for a decent microphone to conduct interviews. I still had the clock, and the lamp. 

It was here I edited the Orbit versions of the Riyria Revelations, and wrote Hollow World, The Crown Tower, The Rose and Thorn, Rhune (later titled Age of Myth) Dherg (later titled Age of Swords), Fhrey (later titled Age of War) and The Death of Dulgath. I had nine published novels at this time, and I was still working in a bedroom not much different than when I was thirteen.

Then everything changed. 

(Stay tuned for more offices stories and better quality photos.) 

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