What Building My House Taught Me About Writing

Front porchIt’s been twelve years since my wife and I completed the building of our cottage in the woods, and it wasn’t long after finishing that I began writing. In looking at some of the pictures of the process, I can see our wide-eyed innocence in the early shots, and the knowing weariness of experience in the pictures toward the end of the process. I still love my house. And, although the trilogy won’t really be ‘done’ until it’s published, I still love my story and characters, too. There are lessons from house-building that helped, and will continue to help, with my writing.

Know where your heart longs to dwell: Building your own house is a long-term commitment. You’re going to spend a lot of time there, so it ought to be a place you love. The same goes for writing. You’re going to spend long hours in the setting and with the characters. It helps if they are dear to you. For me, in both cases, I knew my heart would be most at peace in a historical setting. I’ve always loved the craftsmanship, human scale, and form-follows-function aspects of Arts and Crafts architecture, and I’m fortunate that my wife feels the same. We spent years looking at style and plan books and magazines, and studying the aspects of existing houses we loved before drawing the plans for our house. In the case of my trilogy, my heart longed to dwell in an epic tale, set in an ancient world I can only experience though the written word. I spent years reading the genre before selecting the niche that would house my story.Solid framing

Start with a solid foundation and quality materials: In the case of the house, we didn’t cut corners, and went with a full masonry foundation, hearth and chimney. Since we were in the forest products business, top quality lumber went into solid framing techniques and authentic wood finishes and details. I know the house has a firm footing and good bones. The same goes for writing. I did several years worth of research, in my case on the Germanic tribes and the ancient Roman Empire. I had most of my character and place names picked out, and those names have meaning for me. I wrote out a backstory and an outline. Don’t get me wrong, there were surprises along the way, both in building the house and in writing the trilogy. I consider myself a pantser in writing, and now that I think about it, I’m also a bit of a pantser when it comes to carpentry. And many of those serendipitous surprises made both projects better. But you want to have a solid structure in place before you start the process of fleshing it out.

It’s the details that add the richness: There are certain elements I love about the A&C style that evoke the feelings I sought in our house. The glowing warmth of lacquered Douglas fir paneling, the impression of solidity offered by exposed beams and brackets, the reminiscence of subway tiling and bead-board, among many others. But you can go too far as well. We had to pick and chose the elements that complimented one another to create a unique whole. The same rules applied to story elements and research details for my writing. It took me a long time to understand that not every historically accurate detail can be added. A few well-chosen tidbits enhance the flavor. Likewise, too many subplots can detract from the primary thrust of the story. But I still prefer solid wood paneled wainscoting with matching crown, base, and casing to an unadorned drywalled square of a room. All the elements of the architecture, along with a few well-chosen authentic period accessories, all go a long way to evoking feeling for those who visit, making them want to return again and again.

Take it day by day: Undertaking such a large project can be daunting at first. I particularly remember the feeling after the first day of hand-hammering our cedar shingles. My wife and I started the roof with neither of us having ever nailed a single wood shingle. It was July, and we guessed that with the long weekend for Independence Day thrown in, we might be able to complete it in a month of weekends. We laughed about that as we nailed the ridge shingles on in a light swirling snow (yep—November!). After that first day, we only had about three courses on one side of one portion of the house. But we kept at it, every chance we got, dawn till dusk. And now, twelve years later, without a single leak, who cares how long it took? And each stage was more of the same—daunting but, through steady effort, finally done. Writing is the same. Day by day, word by word, sentence by sentence, you get to a draft. Then, step by step, you revise and polish. Some days it feels like it’ll never end. But afterward, when I see my books in print, I’ll look back and it won’t matter how long it took.    

Leap of Faith: Both the house and the trilogy were projects that required not only a willingness to work hard, but a leap of faith just to begin. I had to just dive into both. Both projects make me wonder whether I would’ve undertaken them if I’d known what I was in for along the way. It’s been nine years since the inception of the trilogy, and the revisions continue. Building the house is one lesson among many. Slow and steady has served me well in life. I know I’ve built my trilogy with good bones and a solid foundation. I think I can make it into the kind of world and story certain readers will want to visit again and again.

What about you? Do you ever feel daunted by the process? Have you done something that required a leap of faith? Are you better for having done it?