It’s a question I’m often asked, so the short answer is longhand, landscape, notebooks, fountain pens and pencils.
The long answer is that it took me years to find my preferred way of writing. I’ve tried straight to keyboard, voice dictation software, laptops, IPads, Blackberrys, etc.
My first attempt involved A3 cartridge paper and a pile of different pens and pencils (or whatever the village stationer happened to have in stock). This worked well, but soon I was back on the road, in airports six times a week, and living in a series of faceless hotels.
Using A3 paper wasn’t practical for a number of reasons, so I began using my old Mont Blanc fountain pen, which I’d bought years before in the Avenue de l’Opera in Paris, and searched around for a smaller sized notebook. I had used Denbigh A4 notebooks, but carrying these around was an issue, as I was attempting to travel with one bag to save a huge amount of time in airports.
So, I moved to A5 (ish) Moleskines. They were always available in airports, so I could stock up, they were good quality and easy to use. They were also much easier to carry, and the thicker sketch paper took fountain pen ink. The hardback version also provided a handy desk so I could rest it on my knee when scribbling in planes, trains and taxis.
Which brings me to writing in landscape. On one occasion, in a rush at an airport, I accidentally bought a Moleskine with blank paper. As soon as I was on the plane, I realised that, given the restrictions of space in front of you, I could turn the notebook sideways, and found that it was so much easier to write. Also, with blank paper, it was akin to the landscape organisation I used when writing on A3 cartridge paper. Maybe my brain works in landscape, but I found it instantly comfortable.
A few years on, I have filled many Moleskines. When we settled back in Edinburgh, I no longer had to travel and didn’t need a hardback, so I switched to the soft cover Moleskines, which are lighter and easier to shove in your pocket. I also switched to using pencils, which saved on gallons of ink, although I recently switched back to fountain pens, just for the sheer pleasure of it.
However, Moleskines are an expensive habit, especially if you scribble in them as much as I do. I searched around for a cheaper alternative, but which fitted my exact requirements.
- plain paper
- A5 (ish)
- must open completely flat on the desk
Things like numbered pages, page ribbons, wallets, are all nice to have, but not essential. Then I found a notebook from Germany, the Leuchttrum 1917. This is a quality bit of kit, with the more expensive binding that allows it to lie flat on the desk. It’s also cheaper than a Moleskine, and has more features, if you like that kind of thing. This is now firmly my notebook of choice. And everything starts in a notebook.
I still use the Alwych for notes, but for writing, either the Leuchttrum or some vintage cahiers I picked up on ebay. More on those later.
A cheap propelling pencil was my first idea, as they are small, neat, easy to use and don’t stab you in the chest when they’re in your pocket. Then a fellow author, Heather Hill (hell4heather.com) introduced me to the Palomino Blackwing. This has now developed into a serious pencil habit. Most of my draft writing is now done with various pencils, but every book starts with a cult pencil, the original Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602 – reputed to be the best pencil in the world (it’s not). As they are now discontinued, and a collectors item, they’re probably the most expensive too. I don’t want to use then in a flash, so I restrict them to the initial plotting, then use a selection from my collection for the rest of the book.
When not using Palominos, I have a selection of vintage pencils from around the globe. There’s something very satisfying about writing a story about 1920s Paris, using 1920s French pencils, on 1920s French paper.
Now, I like a good fountain pen. Writing with them is a source of pleasure. But modern paper just isn’t really designed for wet ink. But vintage paper, ah, that’s a different thing. The construction is totally different, and the way the pen writes is completely different. See below for an example, of a Conway Stewart 15 from around the 1950s.
I picked up these vintage schoolbooks on eBay. The paper is designed for wet ink, and it’s a joy to write in them. If I’m not scribbling in an old pencil in a Leuchtrumm, I’m using a fountain pen in the old cahiers. Or just going for it on A3 cartridge paper.
I think I’ve found my most favoured way of writing, and I’m happy with it. Typing straight to keyboard doesn’t work for me, as I’m such a terrible typist, I spend more time correcting my typing than writing the story. I could learn to type, but life’s too short. I’m currently using Dragon software to dictate the handwriting onto my laptop, which gives an extra layer of editing. Of course, once the dictation is all done, then it’s screen work only, until the final draft where the red pencil makes an appearance. Generally, Dragon gets it right about 90% of the time, which is not bad considering the inability of software to recognise a Scottish accent.