"My Writing Spot: The Story Shack": Valerie Fraser Luesse, Author of "Almost Home"

Few projects turn out exactly as you had envisioned them. But my writing spot—aka “The Story Shack”—absolutely did.

I’m a longtime magazine writer who had spent over 20 years associated with Southern Living in one way or another when the recession hit. After two years of watching friends walk out the door in droves, I told my husband, Dave, that I had to get out of there, and he heartily agreed.

I left the magazine to freelance. That’s when it dawned on me: I had no place to work at home.

Dave has an office, which I brazenly tried to commandeer, but he wasn’t having it. We set about looking for solutions. I told him I wanted a shed—as in a literal shed I could write in. He worried that I would get tired of the chill in winter and the Southern heat in summer and suggested one of those pre-fab outdoor buildings from Lowe’s or Home Depot, with added climate control. They left me feeling uninspired. Then, on a trip to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, we spotted it—a tiny cottage with gingerbread trim in Bay St. Louis. That’s it!

I took a picture, Dave drew up a plan, and we called a builder friend to make it happen. My requirements were many. I’ve always needed quiet space to write magazine stories, but with fiction, I found that I needed silence. And complete solitude. Why? Because I figured out that I write magazine stories from the outside in—I observe, I interview, I research, I organize and construct, moving closer to the core of the story as I go. But I write fiction from the inside out—I climb inside my characters and take a look around, filtering the world through their experience. In other words, I start in the center—the character’s center. The tiniest distraction can pull me out of there.

Dave recommended major soundproofing, for which I’m grateful. We included a high display shelf near the ceiling. It wraps around the interior of the Shack and is filled with treasures that inspire me: vintage photographs of my family; a birdhouse, some pottery, and a miniature bottle tree, all gifts from friends; antique enamelware that reminds me of Aunt Mack; a wall mirror that belonged to my grandmother . . . It’s all there for me to look at and enjoy, but it’s elevated, so it doesn’t get in the way.

Dave built my desk and storage, so nothing’s cookie cutter. Cheeto the Cat has a comfy chair to nap in; I have a comfy chair to read in. There’s a faint-blue ceiling, a little front porch, and lots of soundproof glass on the front so Cheeto and I can have a view. Christmas lights frame the picture window year-round because, well, I like Christmas lights.

I finished my first novel, Missing Isaac, and wrote my second one, Almost Home, in the Shack, often proofreading drafts on the little front porch. My third novel, set in Georgia and the Florida Keys, is under way. And a few years ago, I returned to Southern Living, where I’m once again gathering inspiration from the people I meet and places I explore for the magazine.

I usually make it to the Shack before daylight so I can squeeze in a little fiction writing before I go to work. Cheeto comes with me. Somebody’s got to be in charge of napping.

Author Portraits by Mark Sandlin.


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Valerie Fraser Luesse is the bestselling author of Missing Isaac and is an award-winning magazine writer best known for her feature stories and essays in Southern Living, where she is currently a senior travel editor. Specializing in stories about unique pockets of Southern culture, Luesse has published major pieces on the Gulf Coast, the Mississippi Delta, Louisiana's Acadian Prairie, and the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Her editorial section on Hurricane Katrina recovery in Mississippi and Louisiana won the 2009 Writer of the Year award from the Southeast Tourism Society. She lives in Birmingham, Alabama.