Guest Blog: Nisi Shawl on Where Writers Live

The amazing Nisi Shawl wraps up my guest blog extravaganza with this entry. Her post here deals with how writers can find the perfect personal setting for living their creative lives.  Nisi’s story “Promised” will be appearing in Steampunk World


Location, Location, Location.

Where’s the best place for a writer like you to live?

An April 2014 list I spotted online says St. Louis.  Because of favorable experiences with the nearby Hedgebrook retreat and the Clarion West Writers Workshop, I picked Seattle, which squeaks into that post’s top ten at number nine.

When I moved to Seattle from Michigan, a local author offered his advice on where to live.  But his list of “fixer-uppers” wasn’t what I wanted.  In this man’s mind affordability trumped every other consideration, but I told him I’d rather spend my valuable time writing than sanding floors and painting drywall.

Different authors write different stories, and we want and need different living situations, too.  But we do have common points to consider when deciding where we want to be when hearing our Muses’ calls.  Below are some very specific questions to ask yourself; they’ll help you figure out if a particular place is what and where you’re looking for.

*How close will your family be to your new home?*  Too close?  Too far?  A day’s drive away?  A direct flight?  The ideal answers will likely change during your span of days; when I moved to the Northwest one of its pluses, in my view, was the way it put a couple thousand miles between me and all my relatives.  Now I’m in my tenth year of campaigning hard for my mother to come here and share my household.  And I was overjoyed when, before she died last year, my sister told me she planned to move here because of Washington’s liberal pot laws.  Which brings me to the political and other social aspects of the setting you’re pondering.

*What sort of community will you be joining?*  Do you have any idea who else lives where you’re considering going?  Other artists?  What sort of artists–performers?  Professionals?  Will you be setting up housekeeping in the midst of potential audience members and supporters?  And are you opting for a monoculture or for heterogeneity?  Will you share your new neighbors’ racial backgrounds, their sexual preferences?  Will those around you have similar physical, mental, and emotional abilities?  Will they be members of the same age group?  Or will you be the lone 50-something white cis man–and is that how you like things?

*How much is living there going to cost you?*  Though low rent was not my biggest concern when choosing where I’d wind up, I did have a budget.  You should, too.  Also, when adding up the price of living somewhere, factor in not just whatever rent’s being advertised or however much of a mortgage payment the bank demands, but other expenditures as well: taxes, maintenance fees, charges for utilities and parking spaces, and other ponderables.

*What’s great about the place?*  Typically called “amenities,” the features of a given neighborhood deemed nonessential-yet-nice will need to be weighed with your personal preferences in mind.  Is it possible to walk to a bakery or bookstore or coffee shop?  How far will you need to go to get groceries?  Is public transit available, and is it convenient and affordable?  Are there clinics nearby that will provide the medical services you’ll need?  A hospital?  Schools for you and/or your children?  What’s the area’s internet connection like?

Most of the so-called amenities mentioned above would count as essentials in my opinion.  There are other elements such as scenery and nightlife which seem much less crucial to me.  _Those_ are what I would call amenities.  YMMV, of course, as it will for most of these questions.  The same goes for the answer to my penultimate one.

*What’s the climate like?*  Seattle’s famously rainy.  I don’t mind.  Maybe you would, though.  I _do_ mind the Northwest’s shortened winter days, with sunsets around 3:30 in the afternoon, so I have technological fixes I apply.  And I also mind the way the region’s damp weather has made it impossible for some of my writing friends to stay here.  Cynthia Ward, co-author of _Writing the Other: A Practical Approach_, has seen a huge improvement in her arthritis since moving to the sunny Southwest.  The great and brave Joanna Russ, who began teaching writing at the University of Washington in 1977, lived out her final years in Tucson, Arizona, to the dismay of her former neighbors but the relief of her chronic health conditions.  Find out what you can ahead of time about what sort of weather patterns to expect in a given place, but know that direct experience will tell you more than the wisest informant about which conditions you can and can’t assimilate to.

Finally, ask yourself about a variable that “10 Best Cities” post saw as the most important: *How are you going to earn a living there?*  The list I’m referring to gave higher rankings to places where there were jobs to be had writing stuff.  Writers don’t always want or need a day job doing the same thing they do when pursuing their true careers, though.  Octavia E. Butler, for instance, went for manual labor that left her mind free for plotting and planning and thinking through the situations into which she would thrust her characters when she got home.  On the other hand, Ted Chiang is a tech writer for Microsoft.

When I moved to Seattle I did so as a transfer from one branch of a now-extinct retail chain to another.  Being employed certainly made it easier for me to find an apartment.  If you have a marketable skill, take time before you pull up stakes to learn the market for it in your potential new location.

There are many, many online rankings of possible homes for writers.  They collate figures and compare categories that their compilers sincerely believe matter.  In the end, though, it’s up to you what to ask, and what to do with the answers you find.


Nisi Shawl, a 2009 James Tiptree, Jr. Award-winner, contributed “Promised,” an excerpt from her forthcoming Belgian Congo steampunk novel, to Steampunk World. It’s the first time we’ve seen a steampunk story in that setting. She’s also active on Facebook, and tweets as @NisiShawl.

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