The atmosphere of writing

When we have interviews here on Mysteristas–or when I talk to other writers–I am always amazed at how many of them say they need absolute quiet to write. No music, no TV, no coffee shops.

My first thought is “Absolute quiet, what is that?”

On Tuesday, Kate Lansing talked about ideal writing atmosphere and how words written under less-than-perfect circumstances were often just as good as those written in the perfect environment.

I can relate.

See, my “perfect” writing spot would be a semi-quiet space. Comfortable chair or cushion in front of a crackling wood fire. I’d have a nice beverage at hand – tea or wine. Maybe a little soft jazz or classical in the background.

My usual writing spot is at a table in the cafe space at my day job, or a corner of my desk. There’s a lot of chatter. Phones. Computer keyboard clacking. Conversations about server requirements, or customer needs, or project deadline problems. It is anything but quiet.

I grew up in a family with four kids. I had to learn to study with three siblings (way younger, 4-8 years younger) running around. I practiced piano and violin in that environment. I learned to do anything in a noisy space.

So when I started writing, silence was not a requirement. I figured if I could learn Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata in chaos, I could write. And so it is: I can write anywhere. Starbucks, Panera, my day-job, an airplane, and yes sometimes I get that idyllic quiet space.

In thinking why that is, I realized it’s atmosphere. Not the atmosphere around me as much as the one I sink into as I write.

As I get into it, the story wraps around me. I am no longer in whatever space I’m physically located. I’m in the Laurel Highlands–in nature, or in one of my characters’ houses, or a courthouse. I am in Pittsburgh’s Strip District in another story or Squirrel Hill. I’m transported to a downtown financial firm (in “Three Rivers Voodoo”), rural West Virginia (“The Far End of Nowhere”) or a 1942 airplane assembly factory (“Home Front Homicide”).

In fact, the noise around me tends to fade away. People talk to me, but I don’t hear them.

At that moment, I’ve created my own atmosphere. And it’s always exactly where I need to be.

Mysteristas, what about you? Can you write anywhere? Readers, what books or activities create an atmosphere around you that wipes out your physical location?

Liz Milliron | @mary_sutton73

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Author: Liz Milliron

Liz Milliron has been making up stories, and creating her own endings for other people's stories, for as long as she can remember. She's worked for fifteen years in the corporate world, but finds making things up is far more satisfying than writing software manuals. A lifelong mystery fan, her short fiction has been published in online magazines Uppagus and Mysterical-e. She has also had stories included in Lucky Charms: 12 Crime Tales, Blood on the Bayou (the 2016 Bouchercon anthology), Fish Out of Water, and Mystery Most Historical. She is a past president of the Pittsburgh chapter of Sisters in Crime. Visit her online at http://lizmilliron.com, find her on Facebook at https://facebook.com/LizMilliron, or follow her on Twitter (@LizMilliron).

13 thoughts on “The atmosphere of writing”

  1. Mary, Do you suppose this is something akin to a baby learning to sleep in chaos? Perhaps we are conditioned to be able to focus, shutting out the chaos when we must. It is just that some of us are better at it than others.

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  2. While I prefer to work in a quiet place, I can do it with noise around me as long as no one is talking to me. For years I wrote in our spare bedroom and my kids would come in, fling themselves on the bed, and start talking. We’d joke that it was the “therapy bed” and when I actually got an office to myself in the house the bed became the “therapy chair.” There I’d be, on the streets or beaches of Acapulco with my main character and *presto* someone else’s voice would intrude. I’d look up from the screen and a teenager would be recounting some classroom event. Now that they are in college, I have a big office all to myself, and I am writing like the wind. But there is always Skype . . .

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  3. Susan – perhaps. I had a brother my parents always said would wake up at the slightest sound. My other brother, they could run the vacuum in his room and he wouldn’t budge. So yeah, conditioning starts early.

    Carmen – yes. I can shut out any amount of noise, but I’ve had to work at ignoring conversation directed at me. And of course I can’t ignore my kids (teenagers). My co-workers have learned not to try and talk to me during that writing hour because I don’t answer immediately and if I do answer, I’m a) distracted and b) annoyed. The spell is definitely broken.

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  4. Awesome post, Mary! For me, there’s a difference between drafting and editing–for drafting I’ve trained myself to be able to write under pretty much any circumstance (the words are just as good, after all!), but I’m a tad pickier when revising. I find I need it quieter to mull over how words are flowing together or if the MC’s voice is coming through. But, oh boy, I can get sucked into reading a good book anytime, anywhere! 😉

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  5. Whoopee! Fin claps and wavinjg boas to you, Mary! Also I liked your Mysterista post about creating your own atmosphere. Raising four children, I h ad to do that!

    Judy A.

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  6. Fun post, Mary!

    I agree with Kate.

    Growing up, my mom always had the radio in the kitchen on, tuned to local talk shows. It faded into the background if I was doing something else. Sort of like white noise. So now, I can write with the television on, the radio, whatever. But revisions? I want quiet.

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  7. Sue, yes. Blocking out the noise can make the writing take longer.

    Judy, thank you! I have two kids and I often wonder how people with more manage it. Mine keep me busy enough!

    Peg, yeah. I remember the TV being on a lot, too. Cartoons especially, with young siblings. It was a joy when we semi-finished the basement and the television was moved downstairs. Then I only had to deal with the kid-generated noise! Why do you suppose revisions require a quieter atmosphere? More effort involved because of more concentration?

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  8. As a reader, I chose bookstore have an atmosphere different from mine. I love a good crim3atmosphere, but I don’t want in my front lawn. I read anywhere but I do have preferred atmospheres — beach, pillows, coffee, but I count on books to take me to atmospheres far or near, but exciting, different and intriguing. I appreciate books and their writers who provide that for me.

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  9. I can write as long as no one is yelling MOM! I can even write through that if I know they are strapped down–car seats, not duct tape or anything. 😉

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  10. 3 no 7: No crime on our front lawn! That’s where books come in handy. Yes, I appreciate book that can draw me into a different atmosphere. I read Susan Spann’s latest and I was right there in medieval Japan. Fabulous!

    Sam: yeah, I remember those days. Sometimes I really thought about that duct tape, though. Especially when they were scampering away from me when I swore they were safely strapped in that car seat!

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