Tools For Wandering Writers

We writers are particular. We’re careful to find space for our books and our desk, and jealously guard our writing time. We crave quiet so that we can concentrate on our work. We’re happy to type away in the dead of night or at the crack of dawn.

Ah. Quiet, so very quiet … except for the sound of the sound of the cat licking herself. Phew, did the dog just fart again? And what’s that creaking noise? The room seems … smaller somehow. Are the walls closing in on you?

Ack! It’s too quiet! You’ve got cabin fever! You’ve got to get out of here, escape to the beach, a writers’ convention, or even just the neighborhood coffeehouse.

Thing is, you’ll be leaving your desk behind, and you’ve got stories to finish. What do you do?

Pens and paper work just fine for many writers. “That way, it looks like you’re taking notes at the office meeting instead of writing a short story in which a woman escapes an office meeting,” says Haddayr Copley-Woods.

“I carry a Hipster PDA with me at all times,” says writer Wade Rockett. “The index cards fit nicely in most size pockets and are flexible enough that if I have to carry them in my jeans they don’t bulge or make it uncomfortable to sit. I use the Fisher Bullet Space Pen to write with. It’s small and writes well.

“When I have to take extensive notes, like at cons, I bring my Moleskine notebook,” says Rockett.

Moleskines have been around for over 200 years. They come in several varieties, but the classic design is a small notebook with a sewn binding (which in addition to being stronger than glue lets you open the notebook flat), a reinforced pocket, and elastic band to secure the pages. Many authors have used and loved Moleskines, including Neil Gaiman and Ernest Hemingway.

Other writers prefer other styles of notebook, like the Rhodia pad or basic reporters’ spiral pads. As attractive as rich leather-bound notebooks are, few working writers actually use them. Their expense is a hard justification for many, and others find that attempting to write on fancy pages is mainly a recipe for writers’ block.

Danny Adams carries a notebook with him everywhere, but agrees that it isn’t a perfect writing solution. “The disadvantage, as with all hand-writing for me, is that I usually can’t scribble fast enough or long enough to keep up with my thoughts.”

Author Richard Parks carries a laptop with him out of necessity. “On the few occasions I’ve been forced to take notes with pen and paper, half of it is unreadable by the next day,” he says.

The best on-the-go writing device is one that is light, durable, easy to use, and affordable, just in case it gets dropped in the lake while you’re walking in the woods.

Laptop computers are certainly much more affordable than they used to be: new Macintosh and PC portables can both be obtained for less than $1000, and older used models can go for just a few hundred. Plus, laptop computers let you carry those crucial-for-creativity tunes and movies with you wherever you go.

“I tend to write exclusively on my Mac (desktop computer),” says writer Dave Klecha. “Since I don’t have a Mac laptop, and I want to keep all my writing in one place, I have something running on my Mac called VNC Server. Properly configured with my high-speed internet access, it lets me access my Mac (and my writing program) from anywhere I am that has a high-speed Internet.”

Karen Swanberg says, “I usually write on my 12″ Powerbook. I got the smallest one for portability reasons. When I don’t want to carry that, I write on my Zaurus PDA with an infrared keyboard. The problem with that is I have to have a flat surface, so I can’t do it on my lap unless I have a clipboard. And well, if I have a clipboard, I might as well have my Powerbook.”

As nice as it is to have all your notes, music, and movies available in a single device, full-sized laptops can be too delicate, expensive, and bulky if you find yourself running to catch a plane. Like Swanberg, many writers have found that modern PDAs work as fine pocket-sized substitutes for laptop computers. Those who don’t want to juggle a cell phone, PDA, and external keyboard have found devices like the “smartphone” Treo very useful.

But built-in thumb keyboards are difficult for those with large fingers or joint issues, and even a $400 device is too expensive for many working writers. Author Nalo Hopkinson is the happy owner of an AlphaSmart Dana, a light, durable PalmOS device built into a full-sized keyboard. The AlpaSmarts start at $139 new for the 3000 model and are compatible with both Mac and PC desktops.

Hopkinson reports that she gets 30 hours of use out of her Dana before she needs to recharge it; more recent models claim to operate over 700 hours on 3 AA batteries.

Because the device can run on AAs instead of just the built-in rechargeable battery, she can take it to any country and not worry about adapters for the charger.

“(My AlphaSmart) weighs just over a pound,” says Hopkinson. “I can pick up my email on it if I’m at a hotspot. Plus, I don’t have to transcribe my notes afterwards. I love the thing.

“It’s meant to survive a four-foot drop, and I can attest that it does,” she says. She further thinks the device would probably survive a dive off a rooftop with at least its memory card intact. “AlphaSmart products are made to be used in schools, so they can take a beating.”

Hopkinson once read of a horrified mother who discovered that her son had squashed a fresh peach into his AlphaSmart’s keyboard. “She took the keyboard keys off and washed them, carefully wiped down the machine and put the keys back on. It worked fine.”

The AlphaSmart gets my personal vote as the portable computer wandering writers should investigate for themselves. It seems likely to survive coffee spills, backpack bumps, and may perilous trips through airport security.

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