There’s this false notion among non-writer folk that in order to sit down and write a novel, conditions must be perfect. As if writers have to perform a series of rituals designed for channeling an elusive, just-out-of-touch muse. Writing only by candlelight after sipping Colombian espresso on Thursday mornings while wearing a smoking jacket and facing true north, for example.
This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Writers write when they can, where they can. It doesn’t matter if that’s at work, on the bus, or in bed before going to sleep. Writing happens everywhere. How else are writers supposed to make their word count?
The best example of this comes from one of America’s most-read authors: Ray Bradbury, who wrote his hallmark novel Fahrenheit 451 in just nine days in the basement of the UCLA Library, paying $9.80 worth of dimes to use their typewriters.
The Birth of ‘Fahrenheit 451’
The start of every great work of fiction is a small idea. For Bradbury, it was the idea to write about books, specifically ones that were on fire.
You see, Bradbury loved libraries. He even referred to himself as a ‘library person,’ which is why it’s a bit strange that he took an interest in book burning back in the late-1940s, starting with the ancient Alexandrian libraries that were set ablaze “twice by accident and once on purpose,” according to Bradbury himself.
This interest then led to Hitler’s book burning in Berlin. Then, to the book burning of Lenin and Stalin.
“Since I’m a library person, having educated myself in the libraries of Los Angeles, all of this concerned me, and the older I got the more I wanted to write stories about libraries and books,” he recounts back in 2002.
It makes sense that the thought of destroying books alarmed Bradbury, but the funny thing is that the actual idea for Fahrenheit 451 started with a completely different story called The Pedestrian, which was set in a world where it was illegal to walk outside.
However, after running with the idea for a little bit, he ended up writing about a fireman who burns books and bam, the core idea for Fahrenheit 451 was born.
As you can see, even the conception of the novel occurred in a way that many non-writers don’t understand. Sometimes, you can sit down with a seed of an idea and have the story become something else, which makes you change the whole thing. Writing, just like walking the streets, can show you things that you didn’t expect — for better or worse.
And, as any author can tell you, ideas are cheap. After the idea is conceived, you still have the laborious task of writing the actual story, which is what led Bradbury to the place he loved: the library.
Finding a Quiet Place to Write a Book
With his idea in mind, it was time for Bradbury to sit down and write this thing, a task that proved harder than you might think.
“I had a newborn child at home, and the house was loud with her cries of exaltation at being alive. I had no money for an office, and while wandering around UCLA I heard typing from the basement of Powell Library,” he said.
That typing was coming from a small room full of dime-operated typewriters where writers, students, or anyone with a dime could sit down, insert a coin, and have the ability to type for 30 minutes straight.
Armed with a sack full of change and a good idea, Bradbury began The Fireman — the novel’s original title. He managed to have a completed draft in just nine days.
“So, exhilarated, I got a bag of dimes and settled into the room, and in nine days I spent $9.80 and wrote my story; in other words, it was a dime novel,” he recalled.
Unsurprisingly, what Bradbury loved the most about writing in the library basement was the fact that he was surrounded by books. It was the perfect setting to pen his story, which — at that point — was a novella.
“It was a passionate and exciting time for me. Imagine what it was like to be writing a book about book burning and doing it in a library where the passions of all those authors, living and dead, surrounded me,” he said.
A Second Trip to the Library Basement
The Fireman was published in 1951 by Galaxy Magazine. This early version of the story was then picked up by Ballantine Books, who requested that Bradbury reopen the story and add a whopping 25,000 more words to bring it up to a full novel.
He heartily agreed, knowing that he had more to say and more characters to explore. He likened adding length to the story to holding a conversation with his characters.
“So I listened to them again and in the summer of 1953 went back to the library basement and finished the work on the longer version of The Fireman. But I still had no new title,” he said.
That new title has a story of its own. He was tossing around the idea to name it after the temperature of paper burning but was hard pressed to find a good answer.
He reportedly called several UCLA departments, but none of them were able to provide him with the information he was seeking.
Then it hit him. It was there all along; call the fire department.
Here’s how he recalls the conversation:
“I called the L.A. Fire Department and spoke to the chief and said, ‘I know that this is silly, but could you tell me the temperature at which book paper catches fire?’
He said, ‘Just a moment,’ and went away. When he came back, he said, ‘451 Fahrenheit.’
‘Oh my God,’ I said, “that’s wonderful. Just reverse it and it has a nicer sound. Fahrenheit 451.” So I rushed to my typewriter and placed the new title on my book.”
And the Rest Is History
After he published the paperback version of the book, Bradbury also sold the story to ‘a young editor’ who offered $450 to purchase one of his works. Bradbury was excited to offer up Fahrenheit 451.
It turns out that ‘young editor’ was Hugh Hefner, meaning that Fahrenheit 451 was — at one point — published in Playboy. While that may seem strange, many famous authors have graced the pages of Playboy, including Roald Dahl, Margret Atwood, Ursula Le Guin, and more. Bradbury was in good company.
From here, the story has been adapted to film, the stage, and continues to pop up in new mediums to this day (and has earned a permanent place on high school reading lists).
One of the most interesting takeaways from Bradbury’s writing story is how Fahrenheit 451 evolved over time, eventually becoming the story we all know and love, but it took years to get it there even if the draft was written in a mere 9 days.
He also shows how writing happens all over the place. For Bradbury, he needed to get out of the house and decided to take refuge in the one place he loved the most: the library.
It wasn’t an ideal situation — paying for 30 minutes of writing time seems a bit stressful — but he found a spot and thrived there. And to that end, all writers can take note: when it comes down to it, you just have to write and get those words onto the page.
Josh is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Arcanist. He has previously worked as a staff writer for ScienceAlert and Modern Notion. You can read his other works on sites such as Cracked, Popular Science, Geek & Sundry, and more.