David Dunham is the author of The Silent Land, a novel set in England between 1903 and 1919, and is currently writing The Legend of Caradoc.
The ironing board desk and the fountain pen
I admit, I’ve done it. In the early days, that is: the searching for novelists’ daily word counts. I felt dirty doing it, ashamed even, ashamed that I was comparing myself to others and matching my own average to that of the masters. And then I stopped, not through sudden disinterest, but because it was futile.
My environment for writing The Silent Land was different to others’. At times, it was ideal in that it was quiet, I had an antique desk and there was a kettle close by. At other times, not so, in that my office was the laundry room at the back of the house where the noise from the building site was not as violent as at the front, and my desk was an ironing board, and there was no kettle, just an iron. And then there was the method. The Silent Land is set in the early 20th century and so I was to write as if I was in the early 20th century myself – with paper and pen. A good pen, mind you, not a Biro or one of those in the stationery aisle of the supermarket, a proper pen, one that had a nib with a crest, a sleek barrel and required cartridges (I prefer long, not short) that when changing deposits ink on your fingertip and gives you a little buzz as you push it down and you feel the subtle click. Me and my fountain pen. Best of friends, workmates, allies, and my means to an end: a handwritten first draft of my debut novel, all written on the finest of paper. In my head, I pompously called it parchment for a while. Champagne in colour with a linen finish and summoning images of dripping candles and quills, it was the finest paper in all town and I live in a big town. It is also expensive and would have left me penniless had I not snapped out of my Dickensian romance. To the regular A4 pad I charged and released my fountain pen upon it. There were moments when I watched that nib stroking letters onto the lines (I’m a thin lines kinda guy and the pad has to be punched and 64 pages or more) and wondered who was doing the work: me or the pen. The word count was low. Very low. Ostensibly because of my method. I would write one sentence and then another, and possibly a third, and then stare at them, cross them out, huff and puff, and write them again. And I would do this for page after page until eventually a chapter would be finished and the moment arrived that I had dreaded since breakfast: the removal of the computer from the cupboard. The computer always started with a protest, jilted as it was by my preference for the pen. Slowly, painfully so, it opened a document and begrudgingly allowed me to type my day’s work. And then once done I put it away back where it belonged. And so on and so forth this was the rhythm until one day, one happy, open a bottle of wine day, The Silent Land was completed. The files are on memory sticks and a hard drive and other things that have drives and clouds, but the real copy, even more important than the copy with a spine on the bookshelf, is the one in a box under the stairs, being kept company by other boxes filled with lines of crossed out sentences and scribblings, and ringed numbers; the daily word count numbers. This is the copy I cherish. Perhaps I’ll do it again. Perhaps, I shan’t. But perhaps you should. Just get a good pen and put the computer in the cupboard.