Meet Our (National) Members: Jean Mills

Jean Mills is the author of six novels, aimed at middle grade and young adult readers. She spent 15 years as a professor of Communications and was a writer/editor for Curling Canada before leaving to concentrate on her own writing. You can learn more about Jean on her website. (Photo credit: Trina Koster)

Describe your workspace.

My workspace is a moveable feast. I do have a desk in my (now-grown-up) daughter’s old room, where I can work in peace with the door closed. But I also do a lot of writing at our dining room table, looking out the front windows at our garden and the street. When I’m in Nova Scotia for the summer, I have an alcove off my bedroom that looks out across a field to the Northumberland Strait, but more often, I take computer and chair and set up outside on the point of land overlooking the sandbars. One workspace I don’t often use: cafés. There’s just something about all that noise and someone else’s playlist…

Describe a typical workday.

My typical work day starts with breakfast, The Globe (sudoku and cryptic crossword at least attempted), followed by a workout (usually a hard, hilly walk, or a bike ride, or yoga). Then the kettle goes on and I take a cup of tea to my desk, wherever that may be, and it’s all about work – until I run out of steam. After that, another walk to get some fresh air and let my thoughts percolate and settle a little. Sometimes there’s more writing in the late afternoon and sometimes there’s not. I never beat myself up if words don’t get written.

For the last ten years I’ve been on the media bench for Curling Canada, (Deadlines! Interviews! Travelling! Reporting on championship events in bizarre time zones!) so I had to carve out creative writing time wherever I could find it. But as of this season, I decided to step away from sports media and focus on my own writing. It’s only been a few months, but so far it’s working out and a new work-in-progress is taking shape.

Photo credit: Andrew Klaver/Curling Canada

List three of your most favourite things in your workspace and why they are meaningful.

1. In my daughter’s bedroom office: my stuffed owl, Hedwig, given to me by my daughter as an “adoption” from the World Wildlife Fund. Hedwig watches over me and has all the answers to my questions and complaints which, I admit, are sometime vocalized.

2. In the dining room office: an old vase of my mother’s, with slightly tinted glass and painted flowers on the side. It’s originally from my great-grandmother’s collection from the family farm. It sits on an ancient doily and looks beautiful, whether it has flowers in it or not. I look at it and feel everything slow down in the best way.

3. In my Nova Scotia office: a small liqueur glass full of sea glass collected from our shore. This collection always reminds me that small bits and pieces can work together to create beauty. Just like one word after another after another…

Do you have any rituals in your work habits?

There must be tea. I have a red thermal mug my husband got on one of his trips to the Arctic and, when I’m working, I always use that instead of a “real” mug. Other than that, my only ritual is going for a walk when I need to clarify thoughts and work through problems in plot or character.

What do you listen to while you work?

CBC Music playlist, Classical Serenity or Classical Essentials. It’s gotta be classical, and nothing with vocals/words.

What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you’re working?

Tea, tea, and tea. With cream and sugar. Usually loose black tea – Organic Breakfast Blend (David’s) or hard-core Irish Breakfast or Bukhail PF. Or Queen Mary, another fave. Sometimes I go with teabags, usually Yorkshire.

How do you develop your story ideas? Do you use an outline, let the muse lead you, or another technique?

I create three documents when I’m writing. One is the manuscript called “Current” where I carve out the story. One is called “Outtakes”, which is where I cut and paste anything I remove from the work in progress (so it’s not lost, just stored off-site, so to speak). But the most important tool I have is a document I call “Scenes” and it’s where I dash out small snippets of action, description or dialogue as they occur to me, in any order. For instance, the scene of of Imogen and Nathan skating on the pond in Skating Over Thin Ice was one of the first scenes I recorded there, with the scene during the photo shoot, and the scene at the film festival following. The scenes are all out of order, because that’s the way they come to me (often when I’m walking), but they’re there for me to dip into when I need them to shape the story.

I sometimes use a timeline, a changeable calendar, where I keep track of the sequence of events. It was very helpful in writing Larkin on the Shore because I had to match the action to a tide chart, which was tricky! Having a timeline for each chapter helped keep track of when it was high tide after supper for the kayak ride, or low tide in the afternoon for walking on the sandbars.

I also end each writing session by making a note of what comes next, so I can launch myself into the next “chapter” or scene as smoothly as possible.

If you were forced to share your workspace but could share it with anyone of your choosing, who would it be?

EEEEEK! No one!!!

Okay, okay, I think I could share my workspace with my son, Tristan, who’s always been a writer, too. He’s now a grad student in Physics and Astronomy at Western University, but when he was in middle school – and times since then – we would take our laptops or notebooks to the café in The Bookshelf, here in Guelph, and we would work on our own stories. Tristan called it “joywriting” and I can’t think of a better way to describe it. So yes, I think I could share a workspace with Tristan.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve heard or received?

“The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair” – Mary Heaton Vorse

Thanks to Jennifer Chambliss Bertman for the use of her Creative Spaces interview questions.

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