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Doom Shack, Spaceship, Treehouse, Boat: Hilary T. Smith’s Guide to Living Free or Cheap When You Are Writing a Novel

We are so thrilled to welcome Hilary T. Smith to the blog today to talk about how she epitomized the YA Highway nomadic lifestyle while writing her debut, WILD AWAKE, out tomorrow!

Like many writers, I hate paying rent and avoid that grim state of affairs whenever possible. Paying rent means getting a job, and I’m not a huge fan of those either. Jobs interfere with mushroom hunting, music-making, and getting up at noon; therefore, I prefer to live for free or cheap. Over the course of writing WILD AWAKE, I lived in a spaceship, a doom shack, and two different cabins, all of which were acquired by serendipitous means. While I can’t claim that this lifestyle is easier or less stressful than the job + rent combination, I can promise that the sacrifices you make in terms of comfort and stability, you reap in terms of adventure.

Here, therefore, are some tips for finding and enjoying a doom shack, spaceship, treehouse, or cabin in which to write your book.

Learn how to put yourself in the way of shelter.

Fig. 1: Spaceship
“It’s so unfair,” you might be saying to yourself. “I don’t know anybody with a cabin in the woods.”

If you think you don’t know anybody with free or cheap shelter to offer, consider the following scenarios, all of which have arisen over the course of my own quest for writing space:
  • Former roommate’s boyfriend’s ranch.
  • Boyfriend’s uncle’s neighbor’s guest house.
  • Batty acquaintance’s ex-husband’s sailboat.

You may not know anybody with a cabin, but chances are you know somebody who knows somebody (have you ever really checked?) Even if your network’s network’s network fails to yield an appropriate doom shack, you can still get lucky by engaging with total strangers. Call. E-mail. Ask. That guy you meet at the music festival who tells you about his friend’s cousin’s yurt in the desert? Don’t lose that guy’s e-mail address. The most tenuous connections can result in the most fantastical living situations. Be tenacious and polite. Always follow up.

Be a trustworthy and responsible citizen (or do a good job of faking it.)
Fig. 2: Fairy Cabin

Nobody’s going to want you in their cabin/doom shack/treehouse/boat if they think you’re going to trash it, burn it down, or allow their dog/cat to eat anything other than the finest wild organic salmon at the appropriate time each day. It therefore behooves the shelter-seeking writer to conduct herself in a thoughtful and intelligent manner and acquaint herself with the fine arts of weed-pulling, lightbulb-replacing, leaky tap-fixing, and thank you card-writing,

Play the part.
Fig. 3: Snake
People like helping writers and artists. As delightful as it is for you to have a place to live, your shelter-giver may find it sort of gratifying to have a Real Writer inhabiting their leaky yurt. Providing regular updates on the status of your magnum opus, making writerly statements on the telephone, and including your shelter-giver in the acknowledgements section of your book can all intensify this effect. You may also want to acquire a typewriter, develop a reputation as a nightowl, and learn to furrow your brow in a convincing manner.

Be resourceful.
Fig 4: I didn’t have a photo of the actual doom shack, but this is me standing outside of it. Yes, that is a deer leg draped over the tree branch—the farmer put it there to scare other deer from the garden. Yes, I am wearing a wizard robe. This is a standard requirement of inhabiting a doom shack.
Your doom shack may not come with such luxuries as internet, heating, indoor plumbing, or a suitable desk. If this is the case, you will either have to get used to writing in bed with a hat and gloves, or seek out a warmer, more comfortable location in which to write.

Libraries and coffeeshops are great for this, if you happen to be in range of one. Other good places include an internet-connected neighbor’s house, the county recorder’s office (light! heat! desks! bathrooms!), rural museums (which often have archive rooms) and anywhere with an electrical outlet.

If you do find yourself camping out at your local library or coffeeshop on a daily basis, be sure to tip well (or make a donation, in the case of a library) and send them a copy of your book when it comes out.


The doom shack lifestyle isn’t easy. It can take a lot of energy to rustle up a free or cheap shelter, and the stress of finding a new shelter each time your current situation expires can be wearing. You may also find yourself contending with mice, snakes, extreme heat or cold, and medieval sanitation conditions. In many cases, that “free” living situation takes almost as much work as the old job + rent combination.

WILD AWAKE was born from those snakes and mice and power outages, from those nights when you sleep in the Wal-Mart parking lot, days when you brush your teeth at the library, and weeks when the only other living creature you see is a certain bobcat bounding across the snow outside your cabin door. I’m grateful for the shelter I’ve been given, and for the shelter that continues to present itself in the unlikeliest places.

Wishing you all a doom shack to call your own,

Hilary T. Smith

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  1. Wow. Your living situation sounds both courageous and tough. I'm wondering how many people can actually survive, let alone write in this situation? Congrats on your book, and good luck in all upcoming endeavors.

    1. thanks Christine! doom shack living isn't for the faint of heart, but at least I have lots of weird stories to amuse my friends and horrify my parents :) Good luck to you too!

  2. Congrats on the book, but alas, the advice seems impractical for most of us. I've got a wife and two kids. Not sure they'd be willing to drop their lives and move to a shack, however much writing I got done there.

    1. 'tis true, doom shack living may be better suited to single people or couples without traditional jobs. I guess who "most of us" is depends on your perspective :) good luck with your writing and thanks for reading!

  3. Yay! Congrats for your book's release tomorrow!!! I'm still a teen. And studying. But I'd love to travel around living in doom shacks. As long as I have internet. Or how would I procrastinate efficiently? ;)

    1. Oh, I wish you MANY lovely doom shacks to call your own! By the time you are ready to do it, there will undoubtedly be better internet coverage. A few of my doom shacks have involved hiking to internet, which makes you think twice about Googling something :)

      Send me a picture of your first doom shack, if you remember!

  4. It's true that this may not be applicable to that many readers, but I still like hearing a different perspective from someone who's set up their life to support their writing.

  5. I have tried this and didn't find it very fun, honestly, but good for those who can take it. :)


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