How did you become a writer?
A few years ago, while working as a software engineer, I had cause to redesign a couple of websites. A colleague recommended a book to me called The Elements of Typographic Style, written by a Canadian typographer named Robert Bringhurst; separately, a friend suggested that I read An Essay on Typography by the English sculptor Eric Gill. At the back of Bringhurst’s book was a glossary of typographic characters, containing more or less any mark you might expect to see in a printed text, and I noticed that one particular mark—the “pilcrow,” or paragraph mark (¶)—appeared scattered throughout Gill’s Essay. I started to read more about this mark and others like it, and the idea for Shady Characters came about pretty much fully formed.
With this idea in mind, I wrote up a series of chapter drafts, though without any real notion as to what to do with them. Eventually I created ShadyCharacters.co.uk, and, with proofreading and editing help from a friend of mine, I serialized them over the course of 2011. Laurie Abkemeier, now my agent, got in touch via the website and suggested that I might want to turn the blog into a book, and that’s exactly what we did!
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
I admire Bill Bryson’s way with words and I’d love to emulate his writing, but I’m not sure I have quite the native wit required. For me, to read a book of his is to be reminded to avoid trying to be too clever! With respect to Shady Characters, Bringhurst’s Elements of Typographic Style showed me that it’s possible to write an engaging and informative book on what might have been a rather dry topic (and fired my interest in typography to boot), as did John Man’s biography of Johannes Gutenberg.
Recently I’ve also been reading a lot of long form journalism online, particularly at The New Yorker. In some ways it’s similar to what I do—there are always interesting stories to be told, but it’s still sometimes a challenge to get them across in the right way.
When and where do you write?
I try to work 10 am to 6 pm, Monday to Friday, whether that work is researching or writing. Some days are more or less productive than others and my hours vary accordingly.
I work at the National Library of Scotland (http://www.nls.uk/) here in Edinburgh whenever I can. It’s an amazing resource: as a legal deposit library it contains copies of almost every book published in the UK and Ireland, and as such its collection is incredibly comprehensive. Aside from that, the NLS provides access to lots of electronic resources that would otherwise be very expensive: JSTOR (http://www.jstor.org/), the academic archive; the OED (http://www.oed.com/); Early English Books Online (http://eebo.chadwyck.com/); and many more.
I also occasionally work from home. On the plus side, the coffee is cheaper; on the down side, it’s all too easy to knock off early and do something else instead.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on the follow-up to Shady Characters, entitled The Book: A Cover to Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time (http://www.keithhouston.co.uk/books/the-book/). It’s a history of the book as an object, and it will be published by W. W. Norton toward the end of 2015.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Not as such. I do occasionally find myself drawing a blank, but that’s usually a sign that I don’t know enough about the subject at hand. The solution is pretty much always to do more research: either I reach a critical mass of knowledge that lets me write without having to constantly refer back to my source material, or a particular fact or anecdote leaps out as being worth expanding on. As I said, there are always interesting stories to be told; all you have to do is find them.
What’s your advice to new writers?
This is a tough question! The thing that helped me most at first was to devise a rough schedule for ShadyCharacters.co.uk--I decided that I’d post substantial entries no more than 2-3 weeks apart--and then to stick to it. Once the site was up and running I emailed friends and research contacts to tell them about it, and having done that, I didn’t want to let them down. Without an expectant audience (however small!), it would have been easy to let things slide; with one, I worked harder and in a more regimented way.
Other than that, I’ve developed a habit of reading my words aloud when I’m working from home. It’s a simple enough thing to do, but it really helps me to polish my writing. If it was good enough for the ancient Greeks, it’s good enough for me!
Keith Houston is the author of Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks, published by W. W. Norton (http://books.wwnorton.com/books/Shady-Characters/). He and his wife live in Edinburgh, Scotland.