Work Spaces and Places

4th grade teacher Jennifer Keller sent out this fun tweet:


As I searched for a pic of my workspace to share, I saw many photos I’ve snapped of places I’ve written (or illustrated), so I pulled together a bunch more to share here! I’ve written and illustrated in so many locations over the past 7 years, usually due to traveling while under pressing deadlines, or at best, due to having a creative burst at some random time and location.

First workspace of note: my desk in the corner of our tiny 400 sq foot apartment in Los Angeles. We downsized from a 1 bedroom in order to allow me to go full time into illustration. Even though we out-grew it, I loved that little place…all my books before WHEN YOU ARE BRAVE and HOME IN THE WOODS happened there! 

Desk in the corner of my Los Angeles 400 sq ft studio apartment

Then there are the classic alternate work-day locations: Coffee shops (must have good Hygge) and historic library spaces (also must have good Hygge). Apologies to the architects in the room, but The Muse has a harder time visiting in new modern spaces…

Coffee shops! [left] Beautiful library rooms [Right: LA Central Library]

Speaking of modern spaces, when absolutely forced (i.e. on deadline) I’ve written and illustrated in airports, on airplanes, while waiting for delayed trains in train stations in England, and even in the car while moving across the country from Los Angeles to Minnesota.*

Planes, trains, automobiles

When I was doing visual research in England for the picture book art for JOHN RONALD’S DRAGONS: STORY OF J.R.R. TOLKIEN, I was also on deadline for another book project, so I spent the days collecting visual research and the nights working in hotel rooms.*

Hotel rooms in England (2015): The Plough and Harrow in Birmingham, and The Randolph Hotel in Oxford

*this business of working while traveling might look romantic, but I should be honest in saying that in reality it’s quite difficult to get real work done, and it’s downright exhausting

Possibly the most incandescent place I’ve ever worked was at Scotch Hill Farm, owned by the late Maurice Sendak, for the month-long Sendak Fellowship Retreat. Once of the desks in my studio space there was the same one on which Maurice illustrated ‘Where The Wild Things Are’!

Scotch Hill Farm 2017: desk in bottom-left pic was Maurice Sendak’s work table

Last summer I spent a week collecting visual reference in the Brule River state forest—close to where I grew up in Northern Wisconsin—for my book coming out on Oct 1, 2019, HOME IN THE WOODS. I camped and hiked the North Country Trail, writing and sketching along the way.

While house-sitting at my brother and sister-in-law’s lake home recently, we had a great thunderstorm so I set up a work spot in front of the windows.

While it’s been helpful to learn to write anywhere, I have to admit I never feel as creative or productive as when I’m in my own designated workspace. These days I have my very own room for a studio space, with an open and closed sign to signal welcome or unwelcome interruptions (very important for co-habitants!):

I get to watch the seasons change from our 3rd floor windows. Things get super messy when deadlines get intense. But I can close the door on the mess and the work and keep it separate from the rest of life, and that’s a luxury I appreciate more for not having had it for so many years.

I live up the street from two beautiful lakes in Minneapolis—Lake of the Isles, and Bde Maka Ska—which are these gems of nature right in the middle of the city. They call me down to work by the water often when I feel breezes coming in or the light of a sunset glowing in the distance.

Research Travel Tips

“Sir Adam’s Amazing Maps”

 

Over on the Picture Book Builders blog, I shared some highlights about illustration research I did for three weeks in England in 2015 for the new picture book biography JOHN RONALD’S DRAGONS: STORY OF J.R.R. TOLKIEN, by Caroline McAlister.

I had a great question come over Twitter recently about traveling for research, but couldn’t seem to limit my answer to few characters, so I’m sharing those here!

The most helpful thing I learned overall is to prepare as much ahead of time as possible, but leave some time and flexibility in the schedule for the unexpected.

Timeline at the Tolkien Museum in Sarehole Mill, Birmingham.

Here are some other key tips:

  1. Print out maps, bus/train schedules, and directions ahead of time. Phone and internet service can be unpredictable and at times unavailable (usually in the moments when you need them most). Luckily, my super amazing husband/travel assistant, Adam had foresight and prepared printouts to guide us, and they were indispensable.
  2. Call ahead. We discovered that dates and times for exhibits or opening hours were frequently inaccurate online.
  3. Balance travel with rest. When paying out-of-pocket to travel for research, you can feel pressure to maximize every minute there. But filling every minute will make for a miserable trip, and you’ll want time off for rest and recovery. We spent the weekdays researching, and chilled with relatives of Adam’s who live in England on the weekends.
  4. Keep your receipts! These trips are tax-deductible, so keep a detailed travel journal and all your receipts for filing at tax time.

We did a pretty great job of maximizing time and enjoyment. If I could have changed one thing, I would have added some extra days for returning to locations just for sketching on-site, which we didn’t end up having time for. But we took hundreds of photos to make up for it!

A few pictures: Mosely Bog, Sarehole Mill, Tolkien’s childhood cottage, Oxford tour, The Eagle and Child pub.

If you’d like more info on the book:
JOHN RONALD’S DRAGONS: THE STORY OF J.R.R. TOLKIEN
March 2017, Roaring Brook Press/MacMillan
AGES: 4-8,  48 pages
ISBN 9781626720923

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