The best place to write a book is on a blank page – but the best place to put that blank page remains a mystery. Roald Dahl wrote while smoking cigarettes in his garden shed; it’s been said that Agatha Christie liked to come up with her plots in the bath.
In the midst of a cost of living crisis, both of those once prosaic places sound somewhat luxurious (in the age of renting, who has shed, or a housemate that doesn’t itemise the time they spend in the tub?). Sadly, we live in an era and country where professional authors earn just £7,000 a year, and many women writers don’t get to retreat anywhere to put pen to paper, instead fitting their writing around their caring responsibilities.
But still: let’s pretend, in the way that lotteries and late night phone calls invite us to pretend, that you could go anywhere in the country to work on a book for a couple of interrupted nights. Where would you go? More importantly, where should you go? Which writer had the right idea – is it more productive to work in a hotel like Maya Angelou, or should your eventual blue plaque be adorned to a shepherd’s hut, as Henry David Thoreau preferred?
To find out, I decided to visit a number of these hallowed locales of literary influence and inspiration – a shepherd's hut; a residential library; a shed; a bath – to see which was most conducive to writing, turning not to literature but to maths. By meticulously counting the amount of words I managed to write in authors’ favourite writing spots, then averaging this into an amount written per hour, I was able to compare the pros and cons of different destinations.
A shepherd's hut – Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau, I can safely say, was not scared of spiders. Two hideous long-legged ones visited me while writing in the Victorian House Hotel’s shepherd’s hut in Grasmere, a stay which was inspired by the dwelling Thoreau built for himself in Massachusetts in 1854. While you don’t have to live off the land like the naturalist did (it’s a short walk to the hotel’s bar), there is something indescribably pleasant about the feeling of isolation, combined with the tap dancing raindrops on the tin roof – until, of course, you meet a spider.
I murdered both with the hut’s velvet throw cushions and then found it a remarkably productive place to write. With no one else around, I could speak and sing to myself, and with no telly there was no opportunity for distraction. Grasmere was once home to William Wordsworth and there’s also a Beatrix Potter shop featuring embroidered Peter Rabbit socks nearby, so the spirit of literature is definitely in the air. No wonder, then, that I managed to hit a prodigious word rate, despite being at a difficult point in my plotting.
Words per hour: 477
A residential library – William Gladstone
Sarah Perry, Naomi Alderman and Jessie Burton are among the authors who’ve been writers in residence at Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden, but absolutely anyone can rent one of the residential library’s 26 bedrooms. Founded by statesman William Gladstone in 1894, the library’s reading rooms contain over 150,000 books and – arguably more importantly –wooden beams strung with fairy lights. Sitting silently at a sturdy desk makes you feel as though you’ve living inside a fantasy novel and/or an Instagram pic with over 200 likes.
And yet… there’s something about being surrounded by greatness that I found entirely demoralising and disheartening. In a plush communal room complete with a roaring fire and boardgames, I overheard people talking about their drafts and their editors and consequently lost faith in my silly little book. Fenced in by so many genres in majestic leather tomes, I wondered if I shouldn’t be writing something entirely different. Also, at night, the person in the bedroom next to mine snored so loudly that it rumbled through the Grade I-listed walls.
Some writers like to be surrounded by writers; others might ultimately find they prefer spiders. In the end, I managed to write a fair few words per hour – which would have been wonderful had I managed to write for more than a single hour. Instead, I spent the rest of my time freaking out.
Words per hour: 453*
A shed – Roald Dahl
Shedlessness has never bothered me, seeing as how I possess the power to murder plants with my eyeballs and also can’t be trusted with power tools. Still, after staying in a cabin on Anita and Glyn’s property in Cornwall (right by their horses!), I believe every woman is entitled to a shed of her own.
There’s something about unpainted wooden walls that’s intrinsically inspiring – it’s the kind of space that lets you get in touch with your ancestors, or at least pretend to be a goatherd. Surrounded by an atmosphere of cosy seclusion (and little else other than horses), I managed to write a whopping word count.
NB: Roald Dahl obviously also wasn’t afraid of spiders, as I was visited by another. I let it live for fear it was working on its own book.
Words per hour: 1,040
A hotel – Maya Angelou
Agatha Christie ostensibly wrote Murder on the Orient Express at the Pera Palace Hotel in Istanbul, while Maya Angelou used to write on hotel beds for months at a time. Ashdown Park Hotel is set right on the edge of the forest where Winnie the Pooh himself was born, and there are some cute nods to the Bear of Very Little Brain outside the hotel’s restaurant. Pooh and Angelou: I was in good company.
The hotel also has its own hot tub and pool, which I assumed would easily make it my favourite place to write. Alas, this was my downfall: ultimately, I had far better things to do than put words on paper. I spent far too long in the jacuzzi bubbles, my energy drained like a carrot gone soft in a soup, and consequently became too tired to type.
In the end I managed a hazy, inexact number of words per hour because keeping an accurate count became burdensome. I ended the stay pampered but Pulitzer-less.
Words per hour: 400-ish
Among the Trees – D. H. Lawrence
D. H. Lawrence was properly into trees – the author spent his time writing on his New Mexico ranch underneath a big pine tree that he called his “guardian angel”. Sadly, there are about three days in the year where you could feasibly write under a tree in England, and even then only if you didn’t have hay fever.
Instead, I wrote in a treehouse at The Tawny hotel in Staffordshire, a place one employee accurately described as “Narnia land”. The grounds are filled with whimsical walks – there’s a camera obscura through which you can view (yes) trees and multiple garden follies. During my stay in the treehouse, the wind and rain carried leaves through the door and onto the floor, which felt gorgeous and somehow glamorous, and perhaps – at a stretch – a teeny tiny bit guardian angel-y. No wonder, then, that I managed an impressive word count.
Words per hour: 879
The bath – Agatha Christie
I’m not rich enough to perch my laptop precariously on the edge of a full bathtub like I once saw a Love Island contestant do on Instagram, so I took pen and paper in my tub to see if the world’s best mystery writer had the right idea. The results were predictably poor: a few dozen words scribbled on some soggy narrow ruled lines that I then couldn’t be bothered to sit down and type up with my prune-y fingertips. I’ll try again after I become the ambassador for a fast fashion brand.
Words per hour: >100
At home – Jane Austen, J. D Salinger, E.B White
E. B White – who is also definitely not scared of spiders, but this time that fact is actually reflected in his output – once said, “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.” As I think the children say: drag me, king.
Many eye-wateringly famous authors wrote from their homes – equally, many eye-wateringly famous authors had really lovely homes, and I think anyone could write the Great American Novel if (like F. Scott Fitzgerald) they had six bathrooms. Making do with just one, I found that when forced to sit still for an hour, I could crank out a reasonable number of words at home. The problem with home is that it’s where the laundry is, as well as the people who refuse to do their laundry.
Words per hour: 482
According to my calculations, the best place to write a book is: in a shed. It's like a mini-home outside your home, but without the home-based distractions. No wonder Dahl was so prolific. The second best place is among Lawrence's "angels", the trees.
The truth, of course, is that the ideal location will differ for everyone, depending on how prone they are to existential crises or bouts of laundry, and/or how much they fear spiders. What my experiment really proved is that you can write anywhere provided you put your mind to it – except perhaps the bath.
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