Saturday, February 04, 2006

Writer's notebook

Even if you never write contemporary fiction, details from real life can bring writing alive. Unless it's integral to the story, in fantasy or future worlds, a raindrop with reflect the sun, people will get wrinkly as they age, cuffs will tatter and fresh poop with steam in the wintery air.

Every writer should have writer's notebooks (or voice recorder or a Palm Pilot) handy to jot down ideas, descriptions of striking people, snatches of conversation, clever shop names, words that grab you, book titles and so on. Small spiral books are good to keep in a purse or the glove compartment. A bound journal can be better for home for longer ideas, quotes from books, dreams and so on.

There aren't any rules but a couple of principles can be helpful: 1) Keep is simple to begin with! Trying to do it thoroughly can lead to doing it not at all. Build up slowly. 2) The more often you do it the easier it gets.

Some find it helpful to have different pages for different things they're collecting. (But don't try to keep multiple pages available. When you fill up one page of quotes, just start a new one wherever you are in your notebook.)

Some find it helpful to keep an idea notebook separate from their other notebooks. (It's helpful to capture details of why you thought something intriguing and what prompted it when you jot down story ideas. A year later when you read "A white cat and a black dog" you aren't going to know what you meant! But if you note you got the idea while watching Star Wars you're more likely to remember the connections you were making at the time.)

Some find a binder with tabs useful but others prefer the freeform flow of entries kept chronologically to be more inspiring.

One idea is to keep a weather journal. (A 5 year diary might be handy for this to capture multiple years. Even better might be a file on your computer desktop where it's only a double-click away.) Write snatches about the day's weather. That way when it's the middle of summer and you need to write about the weather on the ice planet of Korvath you can flip to December and get some images you captured.

Get into the habit of watching people. It's actually surprising once you make it a habit how notable features will start jumping out at you begging to be written down .

The obvious places for people watching are grocery stores, coffee shops, buses, check out lines, traffic jams, baseball games but the very best, hands down, place I've found are airport waiting areas. People there seem the least conscious of being watched. Though airports aren't quite as handy as coffee shops!

The one problem I seem to have when jotting down descriptions of people is there seems to be either too little to say -- the people seem just too average -- or there's too much to notice. One trick for beginning notebook keepers is to concentrate on just one body part each time you record. Just look at hands, shoes, eyes, or face shape for instance. I'll send out a weekly notebook idea.
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