Study Hacks Blog

The Bestselling Magic of the Writing Shed

November 13th, 2021 · 23 comments

A few years ago, my family faced a housing dilemma. We lived at the time in our first house, a small cape cod near the top of an elongated cul-de-sac, situated on a bluff above Sligo Creek, a half mile outside downtown Silver Spring. We had two kids who comfortably shared an upstairs bedroom. But then my wife and I decided they needed a new brother, and we soon realized that we might not actually have anywhere to put him.

So we started thinking through options to gain more space. At one point, I landed on what I deemed to be an ingenious plan. We would give up my home office and instead build, in the corner of our small backyard, a custom writing shed. Inspired by the cabin Michael Pollan built in the woods outside his home in Kent, Connecticut, I began to daydream about making that short walk from our back door to a wood-paneled oasis; heated in the winter by a marine pellet stove, and cooled by tilt-open windows in the pleasant DC spring.

For various reasons, including the potential illegality of cramming an outbuilding of this size into our cramped yard, we ended up instead buying a new house ten minutes down the road. But the daydream of my impractical writing shed lingered.

Which is all a long way of establishing the importance of what happened earlier today. I was watching an old episode of a promotional show called Disney Insider with our youngest son (now three), when we were suddenly confronted with a great example of a writer who actually acted on my impulse. The segment in question focused on Eoin Colfer, the Irish author of the massively successful Artemis Fowl book series.

At the time of the segment’s filming, Colfer lived in a modest row house near the town center of Wexford, Ireland. After the birth of their first child, he converted a shed in the back of their narrow garden into an office, and, by the looks of it, he did it right.  The building is clad in red stained wood, with visible slatting and a modern slanted roof. Inside there’s room only for a desk that faces wall-to-wall windows looking back at the house. Behind him is a simple shelf holding the books crafted in the space.

It’s actually hard to find images of the shed online. The picture at the top of the post, extracted from Colfer’s Twitter account, is one of the better examples I could find,

Here’s another incomplete image that showcases the shelf behind the desk:

And one that reveals some of the front windows:

The television segment we watched did a much better job of showcasing the shed’s pleasing, depth-supporting aesthetics, both inside and outside. But the above images provide a good general sense of the space.

Perhaps non-surprisingly, Colfer no longer writes in this modest shed. A little internet sleuthing reveals that he eventually moved to a stately manner house, situated on 14 acres in the countryside outside Wexford proper. The property included a collection of free-standing stables and garages, one of which was converted into an elegant new office clad in light American oak. Even more recently, Colfer sold this property to move to Dublin.

When you sell 25 million books, you have options.

It was nice to see, however, that the spark that initiated this wildly lucrative and impactful writing career was a small but intentional shed built at the back of a narrow garden. Perhaps my daydream wasn’t so far-fetched after all.

23 thoughts on “The Bestselling Magic of the Writing Shed

  1. What a beautiful little writing cove. Maybe I’ll invest in one of those someday.

    My wife and I recently moved and I used the occasion to reimagine my office. I bought a second desk and now use one for all my computer-based work. The other is used exclusively for writing freehand or reading books. My one rule for the second desk is that I’m not allowed to bring my phone or computer to it. It’s a technology-free writing zone. The new setup is working out great so far.

    Keep sharing these author office setups. They’re great inspiration!

  2. George says:

    Fah! Hipster designer sheds are just an excuse to put off writing. One of the most productive nonfiction writers I’ve known worked for trade magazines – he spewed forth a prodigious output from a real shed – a Home Depot 10′ x 12′ tin garden shed where he worked year-round, teaching in his spare time. I write in a 5′ x 10′ cubby on the path to our bathroom: five nonfiction books published in the last six years plus innumerable web posts and articles. At 79, writing keeps me young and happy.

    1. Sameer says:

      What a respectful remark that denigrates the choice(s) of others. Done in a shed or done in a sewer, done in a skyscraper or done in a slum, a great book is a great book, if and when it is done and published. One can wonder if you feel young and happy by trampling on would-be-writers with your high horse.

  3. Andrea says:

    I love that you embrace your romantic, intuitive, inspired side, sensitive to environments, as well as your logical reasonable disciplined nature. It’s a fallacy to think they cannot coexist in the same person.

  4. If you love that, you’ll be enamoured of Roald Dahl’s writing cabin out back. After he sharpened his pencils, poured tea from his thermos, and settled in his writing chair with a lap desk, he would create some of the most imaginative books ever written. He was all about rituals. Look up Roald Dahl Pebble Mill on YouTube.

  5. Alex Johnson says:

    Nice piece. Thanks for the link back to my site Shedworking.

  6. Steve Carol says:

    Although I am not a writer myself I have always been attracted to the private study/office a short walk from the madding crowds of domestic life. The book-lined offices of mansions and Mark Twain’s study in Elmira, NY come to mind. see:

    https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/mark-twain-s-study

  7. A dream! My first “office” was a 3 x 4 closet (I’m not kidding). I had a outlet put in and wrote my first (published) novel with my laptop balanced on my knees. My printer was on the shelf above, and I had to stand on my chair to use it. That novel was a historical about a girl trapped in a blizzard in a Kansas soddy, which looking back makes the tight quarters about perfect for that writing experience.

  8. Melissa says:

    I need a cove of my own. Until I read this blog post, I didn’t realise it, but know I can’t stop thinking about it. I will not stop until I have achieved my new dream!

  9. Melissa says:

    typo: now
    I am so embarrassed.
    Sorry.

  10. Divyanshu Bora says:

    Hello, Sir. It’s Divyanshu Bora here from Assam, India. Currently, I’m a student of 12th standard, Science stream, who’s been highly inspired from your book titled “Deep Work”. First of all, I’d like to thank you for paving a path to understand the real meaning of “deep work” for a seventeen years old boy like me and letting him to quit one of the toxic stuffs that has been ruining humanity for a long time i.e. social media. To be very frank sir, I’ve come to know your TED Talk which has completely blown my mind by your different way of analyzing the real meaning of “deep work” and letting me to go through your books as well. Sir, right from my childhood I really have been passionate to pursue higher studies in Cosmology. How can I contact you sir? Is there any way to directly contact you? I’d be honored to receive guidance from a person like you sir.

    Yours sincerely
    Divyanshu Bora
    Assam, India

    1. Randy Martens says:

      Divyanshu, I can only wish that I had learned the lesson in my earlier years that you have taken to heart, and at such a young age. Honestly, I see a very productive and meaningful future ahead for you. All the best to you, my friend!

    2. Nitin says:

      Divyanshu, glad to see you having stumbled upon the kind of ideas and mindset that Cal writes about. Stick to these ideas and they’ll be immensely rewarding.

      That said, you don’t need to “contact” Cal or any other mentors personally. Just follow their work, writings, videos, podcasts etc and digest the message. Society will benefit more by Cal putting content out in the public than trying to guide a handful of individuals privately. Since the impact in the former is bigger than in the latter, the mentors you’re seeking won’t have time to entertain that anyway.

      Wish you the best!

  11. The kind of cove we would all like to own, not only for deep work but also for reading, relaxing… Well basically for everything that requires focus without any distraction…
    Thank you Cal for this inspiring article and it’s true, DC is amazing in spring.

  12. James says:

    This seems to me to be re-inventing the wheel to a large extent. In most houses where I grew up there was a study–a place where the adults would go to either get work done or engage in activities that the kids would interfere with (crafts, or writing, or reading, or the like). This concept was corrupted into the “man-cave” of the perpetual teenagers that dominate society–a place where they could allow themselves to behave like children. I suppose the fact that a writing shed is detached allows us to dissociate it from the odious “man-cave” concept, but ultimately it’s a return to the idea of the study.

    It’s not necessarily a bad thing–in fact I would argue it’s a good thing, a sign that we’re maturing as a society–I just don’t get why we’re adding a bunch of cultural baggage to it. Why not call it a study?

  13. Ryan says:

    I also have this dream. John Nelson, a cartographer I follow, has a rather rustic workspace in his backyard in Michigan that I envy: https://adventuresinmapping.com/2020/03/20/working-well-remotely/

  14. Matt Vallance says:

    Good piece, however, I cannot repress my inner sub-editor.

    Mr Colfer does not live in: “a stately manner house,” he lives in “a manor house.” Do get it right please.

  15. If you Google “Tiny House” you will find all manner of small houses and sheds that are prefabricated or you can buy plans. The TinyLife website has all the tips you need for saving cost, adding convenience, avoiding risks. One tip: a shed is defined differently from a residential living space. If you follow the guidelines you can avoid the codes for living spaces. And houses on wheels are considered temporary in some place and require no permits at all.
    https://affordablecohousing.com/glossary/the-tiny-life-practical-tools-for-simple-living/

  16. Randy Martens says:

    In the overall spirit of withdrawing into quiet retreat for deep creative work, the best little item I have found that provides instant peace and serenity is a pair of high-quality ear protectors. Actually, I have THREE pair of them in various locations around my home environment, and they are among my most treasured of physical possessions. And that’s no exaggeration. Here’s the brand I use, $30 out on Amazon, if you cherish calm quietude. They are extremely effective, and far more comfortable than they appear:

    https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00CPCHBCQ?psc=1&ref=ppx_yo2_dt_b_product_details

  17. Brett says:

    One of the greatest and most prolific writers of all time, George Bernard Shaw, enhanced his productivity with his famed writing shed, which could rotate to catch heat and light (what we’d now call passive solar heating, only steps away from the home he shared with his wife, Charlotte. It provided the solitude he needed to generate so many books, plays and articles. https://www.idler.co.uk/article/inside-bernard-shaws-writing-shed/

  18. Brett says:

    An earlier Irish author, George Bernard Shaw, enhanced his productivity with a celebrated writing shed that he could rotate to catch heat and sunlight throughout the day — what we’d now call passive solar heating. Only steps away from the rural home he shared with his wife Charlotte, the hut provided the astonishingly prolific, Nobel Prize winning celebrity writer the solitude he needed to generate thousands of popular and influential books, plays and articles. https://www.idler.co.uk/article/inside-bernard-shaws-writing-shed/
    (Apologies if this double posts; I tried to submit something similar last week but it apparently vanished into the Ethernet.)

  19. Nikola Bošnjak says:

    It’s not just writers, there are also programmers who are working from sheds, like Wes Bos: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HPOq3QJz_7s&t=213s

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