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Odd Type Writers

Most of the writers I know have adopted a few quirks over time. Famous writers have their own unusual habits.
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Portrait of Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), English novelist and essayist. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
Portrait of Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), English novelist and essayist. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Broach the subject of fonts with a group of authors and there's a strong chance the conversation will turn into a shouting match.

For some, creativity best unfurls with an elegant serif. Others prefer a bold san serif on the page. Most of the writers I know have adopted a few quirks over time. These range from simple preferences, like pen over pencil, to more outlandish needs. For example, one might guzzle an entire packet of Swedish Fish every time inspiration runs dry, or set up a series of fans to create an optimum breeze while writing.

It's no surprise then that famous writers have their own unusual habits.

As I discovered while conducting research for my recent book, Odd Type Writers ($16, Perigree), some of the greatest literary minds of all time came up with techniques that were as inventive as their own fiction. There's clearly no formula for composing masterpieces. Rather, it seems that the path to literary fame is paved with one's own eccentricities.

In the following list, you'll discover nine authors who embraced their odd creative needs, whether that meant wearing a white coat to bed, like James Joyce, or eating apples in the bathtub, like Agatha Christie.

•Poet and playwright Friedrich Schiller was very particular about his writing process. He worked mostly at night and hung red curtains in his study so sunlight never illuminated the room. If he grew tired, Schiller would dip his feet in cold water so that he could stay awake and write. His most peculiar habit, however, involved fruit. He kept a drawer full of rotten apples in his study. The spoiled food created a stench that Schiller's friend Johann Wolfgang von Goethe found repugnant. However, according to Schiller's wife, he "could not live or work without" the awful aroma.

Alexandre Dumas, père, was a prolific writer, penning over three hundred works in his lifetime. Dumas once bet that he could finish a novel within three days, and won. Colors were essential to Dumas' writing process. He wrote poetry on yellow paper, articles on pink, and novels on blue. When vacationing in Eastern Europe, Dumas was unable to replenish his stock of blue paper, and had to use cream pages. He was convinced the color change had a negative impact on his writing at the time.

Victor Hugo wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame under duress. In the fall of 1830, he had a matter of months to finish the book. Every week he was late delivering the manuscript, Hugo would be fined 1,000 francs. To insure ultimate productivity, Hugo put himself under house arrest. He locked up his clothes and outfitted himself in a long gray shawl. If he couldn't get dressed, then he couldn't go out. It was an effective solution. In this unusual costume, Hugo raced toward, and ultimately met, his deadline.

Edgar Allan Poe had a beloved pet cat named Catterina. The affectionate feline would climb up and roost on Poe's shoulders while he wrote. She would remain there, observed a visitor, "purring as if in complacent approval of the work proceeding under [her] supervision."

•French novelist Colette was crazy about animals. Her enthusiasm for her pets prompted her second husband to complain, "When I enter a room where you're alone with your animals, I feel I'm being indiscreet." In fact, Colette had a creative ritual of plucking the fleas from Souci, her French bulldog, until she was ready to write.

Gertrude Stein found inspiration in the driver's seat of her Model T Ford. Stein would wait in the car while her partner, Alice B. Toklas, ran errands. She jotted down poetry and prose on scraps of paper while busy Parisian traffic zipped by. Stein owned two Fords in her lifetime: the first she dubbed Auntie after a relative who "behaved fairly well most of the time if she was properly flattered," and the second, which lacked any bells and whistles, was named Godiva, after the naked heroine.

•As a young writer Virginia Woolf preferred to stand while she wrote. Her desk was three and a half feet tall. Quentin Bell, Woolf's nephew, concluded that the habit was spurred by sibling rivalry. Woolf's sister Vanessa was an artist who painted at an easel. Bell noted, "This led Virginia to feel that her own pursuit might appear less arduous than that of her sister unless she set matters on a footing of equality." Eventually Woolf transitioned from standing to sitting.

•In his late twenties, James Joyce wore a white coat while he worked. He'd put it on, climb into bed, and compose his work with a blue pencil. His sister Eileen noted that the coat "gave a kind of white light" that helped him see the page. Joyce battled eye diseases throughout his life. As his sight worsened, the resourceful author magnified his entire creative process, writing intricate sentences with colored crayons on large pieces of cardboard.

Agatha Christie had a specific demand for the bathroom of her mansion. She told her architect, "I want a big bath and I need a ledge because I like to eat apples." This was not simply a luxury for the novelist. The bathtub was her prime work space. There, in the warm water, she devoured apples and devised intricate plots.

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