Rangitoto Island, etc.

by Stephen Ross
First Published: Sleuthsayers, Sep 16, 2014 READ


It’s Friday. I’m reclining on an orange sofa in the lunch room (so orange in color, it’s probably radioactive). I’ve got my iPhone open to Google Docs and my wireless keyboard Bluetoothed in. It’s my lunch break and I’m trying to think of something to write about, as two of the ideas I had for this week’s article have lately been written about.

And then I have a conversation with a friend about Machado de Assis’ Dom Casmurro (an excellent read, by the way), and Rangitoto Island, which is on display through the lunch room window. And then I think maybe I should finally visit Rangitoto and research it for a possible short story setting (I’ve spent about 75% of my life living in Auckland City, and I’ve never once set sail across that short stretch of water to the island).

And then I’m commuting home. I’d love to be able to write my book/short stories on the bus on my morning and evening commutes, but (and I’ve tried), there are too many distractions, too many bumps, too many tight corners, and way too many passengers discussing their current critical concerns: “Have you ever been inside a mental institution?” (An actual question put to me from a girl with faraway eyes).

I’m one of those lucky writers who earn their entire living from writing. Words pay my bills. However, the writing of mystery fiction is only a supplemental part of that income. I have a day job in a software company as a technical writer. I write instruction manuals and technical guides (I’m one of those people for whom RTFM holds deep meaning and significance).

Monday to Friday, nine to five, I work at a desk in the middle of an open-plan office. I’m surrounded by software developers — a form of wildlife that is congenitally noisy and borderline insane (the typical desk of a software developer is an anthropologist’s field trip). In fact, I’m quite sure the IT field was invented so that eccentric people would have somewhere warm to gather and work. I just know one day I’m going to arrive at the office in the morning, step out of the elevator, and be passed in the hallway by someone on a unicycle. It’s like holding down a job in P.G. Wodehouse’s Drones Club.

I could not write fiction at that desk, not in the middle of all that commotion and chatter. And to even write tech documentation, I often have to counter the distraction by putting in earbuds, with industrial-strength construction-yard earmuffs over that, and crank up a LOUD ROCK Spotify playlist (I couldn’t write fiction listening to that, either).

And therein hides one of the only real points of this little piece (thankfully, a theme has emerged): that there’s a big difference between the mindset required for technical writing and that of fiction writing. They are two very different beasts.

There aren’t many adjectives and adverbs used in technical documentation; the “voice” of tech writing is the driest voice in literature. It’s the Sahara Desert (without the dunes). It lies somewhere between Walter Cronkite and the voice of HAL the computer (from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey). It is authoritative, wholly objective, direct, and emotionally void, or as a boss once intoned in my early days of tech writing: “You are the voice of God.

To write fiction, I need a completely different environment. Thankfully, at my house, I have a room of one’s own. My office (study, writing room, studio, factory, boudoir, cave — I never know what to call it) is a small room on the second floor, and it has a view of a lake (at least, where the sight of it isn’t obscured by the houses across the street).

My writing desk is relatively small (about half the size of my desk at my day job) and has two computer monitors on it placed side by side. Configured like that, I can see six pages of a Microsoft Word document spread out at one time without scrolling (about 1400-1600 words). There is nothing on the off-white wall above the desk and the only thing that moves in the room (apart from me) is the second hand of my wristwatch. It is a distraction-free zone.

To write fiction, I need calmness. I need peace and quiet and zero interruptions to write about murder and mayhem, and it took me years to distill and quantify that state. I need to concentrate. I need to be totally IN the story.

If technical documentation is the voice of God, does that make crime fiction the voice of the Devil?

The only distraction I can’t escape in my “room where I write”, however, is the sound that pours in from outside in the street. Gentle reader, I live in Noise Zealand.

On weekends, when the sun comes up, New Zealanders go outside. They mow lawns, they whack weeds, they wash cars; they stand in their front yards, drink beer and discuss their current critical concerns. Their kids go abstract expressionistic and decorate the sidewalk with pink chalk, or restage the D-Day landings with lightsabers and soap bubbles, or simply stand in one spot and SCREAM.

To counter this racket on weekends, I’ll wedge in my “Bullets” (my noise-reduction earplugs). My Bullet earplugs are rated at 30 decibels, which is enough to muffle and hide most sound. And yes, the soft foam plugs are shaped exactly like bullets (from a .45). Perfect for the crime writer! And if not earplugs, I’ll put in my earbuds and go back to Spotify.

Rangitoto Island

Spotify, in case you don’t know, is an online music service. You can custom-create playlists, selecting from around 20 million pieces of music, including classical, soundtracks, jazz, funk, and everything in pop from Abba to Zappa. I’ve created several playlists specifically for writing. One of these is labeled “Writing Background” and contains 20 hours of music, ranging in styles from drone and mediation “atmospheres”, to soft lounge music (Disclaimer: I don’t own shares in the Spotify company).

Writing at night is another country. After dark, certainly after about 10, the typical suburban New Zealander has gone indoors — to do what, I don’t really know, but it probably involves the Internet, YouTube, and cats. A Wi-Fi scan after dark (or on rainy afternoons) lights up with around 40 different signals, all within a hundred foot radius of my desk.

Natürlich, I write best at night.

Writing fiction is like meditation. Actually, it is meditation — a creative meditation. If I’m in the zone, I can write. Knocked out of the zone, and I may as well go outside into my front yard and discuss my current critical concerns. With my mailbox. In the moonlight.

And that’s the way it is.