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The Writer's Toolbox

A Session with Peter Murphy

I have always been skeptical of any attempt to offer writer’s advice, as there are so many types of writers, each with a different perspective, working in such a variety of genres. That, I think, might discount the possibility of a one-size-fits-all set of rules or guidelines.

Instead, I have found some wisdom in the generalities that most writers seem to agree on, and one of those is that writers, like all craftspeople, must learn how to use the tools of their trade. Among these tools are the obvious hammers and chisels, and we will consider those first.

When the creative juices are flowing, getting the words down cannot happen fast enough. At times like these we can only marvel at those who worked with quill and quire. Even typewriters seem so obsolete when remembering that liquid paper and actual cutting and pasting were all part of the writer’s toolbox. Today, assuming we have familiarity with computers, and that we can type at reasonable speed, we can write, edit, cut, paste, and correct with relative ease, and without using reams and reams of paper.

Yes, it is tedious reading on flat screens, but it is a small price to pay for the advantage of being able to track and store previous versions, etc. Today’s writer is well provided for and with a reasonable back-up practice can avoid the fate of Grady Tripp from Wonder Boys as he watched a couple of thousand, single-spaced pages blow off into the river.

Yes, the ability to type with some speed and accuracy are desirable, but for the most part, today’s writer can spend more of his or her time focusing on characters, plot, language, and the basic conventions of writing styles and forms. And those fiddly little metaphors and similes that allow you to make the fancy twirls and touches.

With that in mind, getting your posterior into the chair is vital, and a good working space is considered important. A favorite question from interviewers is, “Can you describe your working space?” I usually avoid that question, as I wrote half of my last book, sprawled in a comfy chair under constant harassment of my attention-addicted adopted terrier. I even managed a few pages with her sitting in my lap, though her efforts to join in and tap along on the keyboard were not helpful. Yes, finding a good working space has importance but if you are waiting to find the perfect spot, you may want to consider a few of the following points.

Develop Commitment

This, for me, is the single most important tool a writer needs. Since publishing my first book, I have smiled at all those people who insist on relating by telling me that are going to write a book – one day. When I was young and feckless, I spent hours in one of Dublin’s literary bars. The place was a regular haunt for some of the giants of Irish writing and others who were literary by osmosis. I was young and unaffiliated then, and spent many evenings listening to plans for great novels that would make Joyce seem like a hack. I was even moved to write about it in my work-in-progress, Stolen Moments from an Ordinary Life:

Brilliant minds lolled in drunken stupor and talked of a day when they would commit it all to paper. But as the realisation grew that few of them would ever do it, they began to talk of defeat – that everything worth seeing had been seen and that everything worth reading had been read and that everything worth saying had been said. And yet they continued to talk and drink until so much of what they were was wasted – discharged into pools of piss. 

The point here, as in the rest of the life, is don’t go around talking about it when you could be doing it. Commitment is a decision to actually do something, and once you learn how to use the power of determination against the demons of procrastination you will begin to have mastery over the body and the mind and that should get you to your favourite working space, hunched over the keyboard, and you will be where you need to be.

Finding Inspiration

Many of those who say that they will write a book one day, tell me they are waiting for inspiration. This, to my mind, is an absurdity. Every day, you and I walk through a world that is overflowing with stories just waiting to be told. Love blossoms and withers everywhere and we can glimpse all of life’s struggles through all kinds of adversity behind every face in the crowd. Hope, despair, triumph, cruelty, and generosity are all around us and call out to the writer’s ear.

That, I suppose, is the point. A writer must learn how to listen, to filter out the clamour and hear the whispers that others ignore. Writers must train themselves to see what others overlook. A writer must develop empathies and sympathies and be curious when others are dismissive.

Let’s consider all of this. defines Empathy as:

  • the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.

  • the imaginative ascribing to an object, as a natural object or work of art, feelings or attitudes present in oneself: By means of empathy, a great painting becomes a mirror of the self. 

Sympathy as:

  • harmony of or agreement in feeling, as between persons or on the part of one person with respect to another.

  • the harmony of feeling naturally existing between persons of like tastes or opinion or of congenial dispositions.

  • the fact or power of sharing the feelings of another, especially in sorrow or trouble; fellow feeling, compassion, or commiseration.

Sympathies as:

  • feelings or impulses of compassion.

  • feelings of favor, support, or loyalty: It’s hard to tell where your sympathies lie. 

And Curiosity as:

  • the desire to learn or know about anything; inquisitiveness.

  • a curious, rare, or novel thing.

  • a strange, curious, or interesting quality.

What has all of this got to do with the Writer’s Toolbox? Well, these are the responses most writers will want to evoke in their readers, so it would seem obvious that a good writer has to learn them and own them first.

A number of years ago, I was sitting in a restaurant in Dublin with my nieces and nephews—a delightful bunch of bright young people. In time, we got to talking about the recent murder of an alleged drug dealer. We all had comments and observations that ranged from sympathy, through empathy, to curiosity as to how a young life could have gone that way.

I remembered all of this when writing about Danny Boyle, the protagonist in my novel, Born & Bred. I was particularly curious about what the young man’s mother must have gone through in the months and weeks before he died.


Danny’s mother listened to the radio as she waited for the kettle to boil. The news was full of the Queen’s visit to the North and Jacinta’s heart grew warm with hope. They were all tired of the fighting, but her heart froze a little when the newscaster went on to report on the finding of a young man’s body up near the Hell Fire Club. He had been shot in the head and left like rubbish among the trees.

Danny had been out late and she couldn’t help but worry. He had become so shifty again, avoiding her eyes and any questions about how he was spending his nights. “It’s just one less feckin’ drug dealer,” Jerry snorted as he sat down at the kitchen table and waited for his tea.

She had seen that look on his face before. He had worn it for years when she was in the hospital, when he tried to show that he wasn’t afraid. “The sooner they all kill each other the better, as far as I’m concerned. Besides, it’s got feck-all to do with us.”

“Maybe you’re right, but did you ever wonder where Danny is getting all his money from? Every time he goes out, he buys things for himself.”

“He’s probably making it busking.”

“Are you sure? He’s got nearly two hundred under his mattress.”

“Good for him. He’s getting great on the guitar and he has a good voice. If only he’d sing something good, like Buddy Holly. I’m sick of all the punk shite he does.”

“But he can’t be making it all from that.”

“He’s probably got a few fiddles going — down at the Dandelion — you know? Buying and selling shit. Fair play, I say. Anybody who can make any money in this country is a feckin’ genius.”

“You don’t think we should be worried?”

“Not at all. Danny is a good lad at heart. He’d never do anything stupid.”

But Jerry wasn’t so sure. If Danny was anything like him, he’d get himself into more trouble than he could handle. He was probably involved, somehow. It was the only way he could be making money like that. The Ireland that Jerry’s father had fought for had become a hard place and he and Jacinta hadn’t made it any easier for Danny. He knew what was going on. There were drug dealers everywhere like they didn’t fear anybody. But there were those that the drug dealers feared and Jerry knew someone who knew someone who knew them all. They might be interested in helping —for Bart and Nora’s sake if not for Jerry’s. He’d have to convince them, though. He had blotted his copybook with them before.


No life is an island, and the interconnectivities that bind us all together are the pathways along which a writer can wander while following their story. No one I have met is as one-dimensional as current cultural trends would suggest, and this presents the writer with an infinite playground. Those who go out into the street and laneways of their lives, observing and committing details to memory, return to their workspace brimming with inspiration. Filtering it all and beating it into shape are skills that come with practice, but at least you will have them.

Dealing with Procrastination

I do not believe in writer’s block, but I am more than familiar with procrastination and, for a long time, considered it among my biggest failings. It is also something I have heard many other writers talk about, so I know that I am not alone in that.

However, as I have also come to realize, sometimes, procrastination is the universe’s way of telling us that we are not ready. (I should preface this by saying that I believe that a true writer is never off-duty. Someone once said that a writer is always working, either writing or thinking about writing.)

If this is true then a writer must learn to use the time when the words are not flowing. Learn to use them to think about what you have already written or what you are about to write. Learn to use every hour because we do not get so many.

When I am not writing something new — nor thinking about writing, I have learned to use that time, too. I edit, usually the last section written, and before long the story takes off again and carries me along with it, filling many more pages as we go.

Not that every moment of a writer’s life should be measured by word count alone. Back when I started writing, I subscribed to the idea that progress could be measured that way. Since then I have begun to think that preoccupation with word count often leads to nothing more than pages of dross that will need to be removed later.

Confused? Don’t worry about it. Sit in your favorite workspace, hunched over your keyboard. Let your mind wander through all that you have harvested from the world around you, apply your empathy, sympathy and curiosity, and you will figure the rest out for yourself.

Cultivate Belief

When I first confided in a few close friends that I was going to write, they assumed that my misspent youth had finally caught up with me. They were right. Living the writing life is a form of madness and if you can learn to do it right, you’ll be very happy in a world full of want and discontentment.

First, though, writers need to learn to believe and trust in themselves. Every hour you spend, using the tools of your craft will get you closer. Never mind that you will spend more than a few days writing something that that might be better allowed to wither and die; you have not wasted your time. You are simply learning what not to do and that, according to everyone who is successful, is part of the evolution.

It is easy to doubt yourself and you probably have a chorus of voices in your head that will encourage that. Blank them out and listen to your heart and soul, instead. Belief is defined as having “confidence in the truth, the existence, or the reliability of something, although without absolute proof that one is right in doing so: Only if one believes in something can one act purposefully.

Now, while not discounting the possibility that you are deluded, having belief will go a long way to help you produce something that might be gloriously mad. Some of the best fiction has come from those who were considered as mad as hatters. But, as Alice reminds us, all the best people are.

Belief will get you through the forest that is writing, all the way through to the little glades where you can glimpse what it is you are really doing. You get to see that all of the imaginary people in your head have come together to form something that could mean something long after you’ve gone.

Trust in yourself and in the fact that when you put yourself in your favourite space, hunched over your keyboard, and let your mind wander through all that you have harvested from the world around you, applying your empathy, sympathy and curiosity, using each moment to its best, you will find your own way forward.

Learn to read as a writer.

Beyond all of the above, the next vital is a varied library – public or personal. Reading is essential to all writers, and, I believe, the wider one reads, the better one writes. Read those books that are similar to yours to understand the genre and its forms. Then read beyond it. Read the classics because they have something that endures. Read to experience that high that keep readers reading and read what others have done with their toolboxes.

Exercise: Practice, practice, practice Do you want to try and put all of this in motion? Well, here’s a suggested exercise routine that I believe will make you a better writer.

  • First, commit to a schedule, weekly, daily – or hourly if you are obsessive like me. Do it for a declared period of time and let nothing get in its way. Do not worry too much about quality until the end. Then, you can go back and evaluate what progress you have made.

  • Spend some time people watching. Coffee shops, malls, and public transit offer good vantage points where you can sit and wait for the characters you will write about. (Be careful not to be too obvious, as someone might misinterpret your motives.) Push yourself to see more than is there. Are the people queuing for coffee really what they seem or are they participants in an alien invasion who have been side-tracked by lattes and have forgotten their mission to subjugate the world? Is the old man in the back seat an eccentric billionaire who has spent his life forsaking human contact and is now trying to reach out but has forgotten how? Look at those around you and give them stories.

  • Write about something that you have seen every day. Even if the initial efforts are not prize-winning, they will be the beginning and that is one of the hardest parts.

  • Believe in what you have written because you have a voice and a perspective, albeit nascent, and with a little effort you can make it unique and of interest to others.

  • Spend a part of every day reading something different, and pay attention to what the author has managed to do.


About the Author… called Peter Murphy “a natural storyteller,” and Savvy Verse and Wit said, “Murphy’s style is as complex as his characters, but readers will be absorbed in the forlorn myths and legends created and expounded upon.” Peter Murphy brings Ireland – both the real land and the land of legend – to life in lyrical, nuanced prose that has a music all its own.

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