Writers’ Desert Island Tools

Reading & Writing

Let’s imagine you’re cast away on a tropic isle and are still consumed with a burning desire to write. What do you take with you when you leave that burning ship and strike out for the beach? OK, the island has broadband – yes, and shops, let’s not push the analogy too far. My real question is, what are your writing essentials?

Whenever I go to a new place, I get a notebook. They fill up quickly with undisciplined scrawl, bullet points, sketches, floor plans, one-liners, jokes, new words, offbeat ideas and character outlines. The most usable of these get transferred to an online file that eventually becomes the outline for the next book. I think visually so I often draw characters and buildings to get the feel of the spaces they occupy. They’re not as nice as Guillermo del Toro’s notebooks, which are works of art, but they’re just as useful.

The black Pentel pen is the most adaptable pen I’ve ever used. I’ve been nervously twisting the clips off these since I was a teen, and still always have one either behind my ear or in my jeans pocket. They make good drawing or writing pens. I used an Apple pencil for a while but their use didn’t become instinctive to me. Then I cracked the screen of my iPad and couldn’t use it at all after that, so I went back to the trusty Pentel.

And despite advances in tech I’ve always returned to notebooks, which survive everything while technologies change. Here’s one I filled up in 1968.

It sounds idiotic to point out that the other key writer’s tool is a camera because you need to remind yourself how streets or people look, but I’m amazed how few writers do this. Here’s a photo I took of the Peculiar Crime Unit’s real-life office building. This way I can picture then shops and people surrounding it. My version has another couple of floors and is more run-down.

And here’s the artwork produced by Keith Page, loosely based on a viewing of the above site before it was renovated. This sketch appeared in ‘Bryant & May: London’s Glory’. I don’t know if anyone noticed what I did with the two titles of the missing cases books, ‘London’s Glory’ and ‘England’s Finest’?

I’m a Mac man, so my other necessity is my MacBook Air, which I prefer for speed and lightness, although I manage to kill them in record time. I record certain street sounds, buskers, or bizarre conversations on my phone. The best recording I made is 45 minutes long and is my extremely erudite and highly strung taxi driver ranting in a traffic jam about the hunting and capture of British serial killers.

What other items should amateur or professional writers deem essential, apart from this?


22 comments on “Writers’ Desert Island Tools”

  1. Brooke says:

    What other items…apart from this? A cup, tea or otherwise, might be useful, and something fine to brew in the pot; one cannot survive, certainly not create, without it.
    Keith Page’s drawing is a delight; I especially like his rendering of Madame Blavatsky and the late unlamented (except by Raymondo) Crippen.

  2. SteveB says:

    Wifi and a laptop.
    Tantalising glimpses of your 1968 diary there!

  3. SteveB says:

    That picture reminds me of that old comic strip with the little guys in someone’s head! Which reminds me of that old TV series the Man from Room 17. The two guys Oldenshaw (EGO) and Dimmock (ID) sat in their room solving crime by remote control. And as I remember the scenes in Room 17 were alwayswritten by the same guy, whereas the ‘outside’ scenarios had a different writer every week. You have to be pretty old to remember this stuff!

  4. Brian Evans says:

    I know the PCU building well. It has had various uses over the years, mainly as a string of unsuccessful bars. I think it was a proper old fashioned pub to begin with.

    Other writing essentials? A memory to remember where you have put the notebook.

  5. Martin Tolley says:

    Ear plugs. Not those musical bud things, but proper noise killers.

  6. Jan says:

    Oh my god I thought that was “The Flying Scotsman” at first glance.

  7. SteveB says:

    Ps no I didn’t notice what admin did with the two titles London’s Glory and England’s Finest. Are they quotes from old matchboxes? I really have no idea. Maybe someone else smarter than me can help?!!

  8. admin says:

    SteveB, you’re half-right. Anyone else?

    The PCU building was once a very attractive olde-worlde pub called The Hoop and Grapes, a reference to the area’s barrel vaults. It was the kind of boozer that laid out the evening papers every night. Its clientele comprised camp theatricals, elderly locals and ‘sploshers’ (ladies of the night). It was rather fun. It became a series of terrible hipster cocktail bars, and is now part of the Physics Institute.

  9. Brooke says:

    Uneducated guesst: Are the titles (LG and EF) variations of B&M brands? I think I’ve seen an image somewhere of “England’s Glory” and it turned out to be a brand of “firestarters.”

  10. Peter Tromans says:

    Don’t they still sell them, “England’s Glory”?

  11. Peter Tromans says:

    OMG, Googled England’s Glory to find they are still made in Sweden. In Sweden written in bold red, if I remembered how. Excuse me while I go and shoot myself.

  12. SteveB says:

    Ha ha England’s Glory!! Very good. Thanks Peter! Ok is there a London’s Finest… or am I overthinking this?

  13. Jan says:

    Thinking about it very similar to the clientele of ‘The Flying Scotsman’ then.Sort of, maybe.

  14. snowy says:

    “I don’t know if anyone noticed what I did with the two titles of the missing cases books, ‘London’s Glory’ and ‘England’s Finest’?”

    The question is difficult for those without ‘Deep English’ knowledge…. Ok,,, *deep breath* I’d advise people to sit down in case this explanation triggers instant narcolepsy.

    Match brands were once intensely local, [high volume/low margin and shipping them long distances would eat into the profits, putting aside the problems of moving large loads that could spontaneously ignite].

    So you could place within about 50 miles where somebody had been by the brand of matches they carried, [very handy for unidentified bodies] and analogous to the US hard-boiled detective trope of the ‘significant matchbook’.

    It was also one of the many small signs that you really were somewhere different on holiday in the UK.

    [Just to lower Peter’s BP, the link between B&M and Sweden goes back a very, very long way: they merged with Swedish Match Co. in 1927.

    ‘England’s Glory’ was a real brand they had acquired when they bought out a Gloucestershire firm in 1913.]

    *closes “The Bumper Book of Phillumeny” and slips it back on the shelf*

  15. snowy says:

    All writers should have good shoes.

    There comes a time when nothing works, everything is wrong, it is never going work and that is the point to put the cap back on the pen, don the good shoes and go out into the world and have a walk.

    Things will fall into place, kinks – straighten and that insuperable problem will magically dissolve. [If not there is always Gin.]

  16. Peter Tromans says:

    I am told that Cheaney ‘Arthur’ Oxford brogues are the shoes that match Snowy’s spec. They cost three weeks’ pension, but survive as many decades. They live up to Mark Knopfler’s quality shoe. If I were thirty years younger…

  17. Lauren C says:

    Thanks, snowy! Very helpful.

  18. David Ronaldson says:

    I remember the building as the “Malt and Hops”. Good real ale pub.

  19. admin says:

    That might have been another incarnation. I do remember the call going out on a Friday night, ‘Anyone fancy one up the ‘oop?’ which always sounded a bit wrong.

    Oh – and the answer to the question I posed…

    Bryant & May matches did indeed have both slogans in use at one time on their matchboxes, except they were the other way around. ‘England’s Glory’ and ‘London’s Finest’. I switched them.

  20. Ian Luck says:

    SteveB – the cartoon with the little men in the bloke’s head, was ‘The Numskulls’ from ‘Beezer’ comic. It was very convincing to a child – it took several years of insisting by my parents, to make me realise that there WASN’T a little guy sitting behind my eyes controlling me with a steering wheel and gearstick.

  21. Wayne Mook says:

    Ian the knumbskulls still appear in The Beano, only it’s a kid and they don’t look like the person they are operating. Personally I think this takes some of the surreal vision of the cartoon.

    I can’t wait ’til Xmas so I can read Sweeney Toddler, er my daughter can read Sweeney Toddler, I think you know what I mean. You said kids don’t have there uses.

    They stopped making England’s Glory not so long ago, but you can still get Bryant & May Extra Long matches. It’s on the House of Swan website.


  22. Helen Martin says:

    Interesting website, that. You can learn why aspen trees are used and how the company is trying to be as ecologically aware as possible. I looked up “our” match company, the Eddy Match Company which appears to have been bought by the Americans and now makes all sorts of differently tipped matches and also beer mats in Pantone colours (!). The picture of the Ottawa River with the Houses of Parliament atop the cliff appears to have gone and they don’t mention ecology at all.

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