Writers Ask Writers: Tools of the Trade

This month on Writers Ask Writers we’re joined by Angela Savage, awarded author of three crime novels, Beyond the Night Bazaar, The Half Child and The Dying Beach, to talk about the tools we rely on to get our books written.

Of Margaret Atwood’s 10 Rules of Writing, half refer to the tools of the trade. These include:

  • Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.
  • If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.
  • Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.
  • If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a memory stick.
  • You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality.

To me, the truly essential tools of the writing trade are intangible things like inspiration and time to write. Everything else (except perhaps ‘a grip on reality’!) can be cobbled together and probably won’t really make that much difference to the end product.

When I first started writing I didn’t have a ‘room of one’s own’ or my own computer; my first two novels, A New Map of the Universe and Whisky Charlie Foxtrot, were written in libraries on scrap paper. However, what we ‘need to have’ and what’s ‘nice to have’ are not always one and the same, and over the years, I’ve come to like using certain bits and bobs for different aspects of the writing process.


God forbid that I should ever write a book that relies on primary sources because I have a deep aversion to having to leave the house to do research. The thought of a microfiche fills me with dread. For better or worse, if what I want to know isn’t on the internet, it ain’t going to make it into my book.


When worshipping at the altar of Google (cue: heavenly music) aka researching, I take notes by hand; writing things down helps me sift the information to find the pieces that will bring my story to life. I like to keep all my notes together in one place. I am something of a notebook fiend and have used all kinds over the years but my notebook of choice is the French-style cahier – a small lined book with thin cardboard covers, which folds completely flat. Apparently these are also the books favoured by Hemingway so using them makes me feel part of a great and noble tradition. The best of these I have found so far are the EcoJot ones I bought in Seattle – the paper is lovely and thick and has a smooth matte finish – which is important to me!


I make notes with a pencil and am especially fond of the ones made out of recycled Chinese newspapers – they are beautifully smooth – and sustainable – what more could a gal want?


Henry James says somewhere that if you have to make notes on how a thing has struck you, it probably hasn’t struck you.

Wallace Stegner Crossing to Safety

Well, that might be true for Henry James and for Wallace Stegner but my memory has become increasingly unreliable (due, in part, I am given to understand, to depression and it’s attendant medication). So if I have a little thought when I’m out and about, I need to write it down or it will be gone forever. I used to carry a miniature notebook for these moments but since I fell in love with my iPhone I have been using Evernote for this purpose. The joy of Evernote is that you can install it on your computer as well, so there’s no need to email the note to yourself, or copy it into a text message or any of those other complicated things because when you open the program on your computer the note you made will appear there also AS IF BY MAGIC!                                                               image

Writing and Editing

I wrote my first three novels using Microsoft Word. Last year I started hearing about Scrivener and decided to give it a try for my fourth novel Monkey See. I have to admit I have found it superior in almost every way. For editing, in particular, it is the bees’ knees – just ask Natasha Lester!

Also for editing, I rely on my Oxford Complete Wordfinder ‘a unique and powerful combination of dictionary and thesaurus’ (their blurb, not mine). It always gives me the word I need and beats the online services in this regard. My mum and dad bought it for me for Christmas (it is inscribed from Santa!) when I was still an undergraduate so it lacks many contemporary phrases such as the 2013 word of the year ‘selfie’ but it works for me.

Edible Rewards

I usually munch through a bar of Lindt Extra Creamy Milk Chocolate during my afternoon writing sessions. Sometimes, if the writing is going well, I consume it without really noticing and then I feel robbed, and have to eat another one.

Want more?

Find out which tools my fellow writers rely on, including our guest author Angela:


Angela Savage writes crime fiction set in Thailand. For her, secondary sources only go so far, and to make a setting really come alive requires fieldwork, which makes her passport one of her important tools of the trade.


Amanda Curtin’s late Burmese cat, Daisy, once ate all the post-it notes off the side of a manuscript, which is why her successor is not allowed on the desk!

Natasha Lester couldn’t live without her MacBook Pro and super-sized screen: Now that I’m old and blind it’s the only way my eyes will survive a few hours at the computer!

Emma Chapman likes to have a few things around to remind her of her work-in-progress. Currently, she has a Nikon F camera from the 1960s, the same brand the war photographer protagonist of her new book uses.

When inspiration strikes Sara Foster she’ll make notes on whatever comes to hand – even a clean, spare nappy!

Dawn Barker requires liquid sustenance: If I write in the morning, a strong flat white. If I write in the evening once the children have fallen asleep, a big glass of wine.

Your turn: What writing tools do you rely on? Are there any here that you haven’t tried that take your fancy?

Want Even More?

Writers Ask Writers: Why I Write

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Writers Ask Writers  Tools of the Trade   ANNABEL SMITH

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