I think it was William Goldman who said he never kept a notebook because he’d remember any idea worth writing. I subscribed to a similar position for many years, with no more than random notes in a Word file and saving online newspaper articles for anecdotes that might be of use in Penns River. Then The Sole Heir™ bought me a wholly unexpected Christmas gift: A Novel Journal.
It’s a nifty idea. A nicely-bound, sturdy journal with a difference. Each “line” is actually miniscule text of an actual author’s work. She bought me Arthur Conan Doyle; the first story I wrote between the lines of was “A Scandal in Bohemia.” I appreciated the gift but wasn’t sure how much use I’d get from it. After all, I was never much of a note taker. I made a point to use it to show my appreciation and found it much more useful than I’d expected.
Among the benefits of plotting in advance is that I rarely get stuck. When I do, my habit is usually to either take a walk, take a nap, or take a shower. Even then, the idea won’t work itself out until I noodle it out with pen and paper. Something about the physical act of writing unlocks a portion of my creativity. Maybe it’s the ability to draw lines and cross things out without permanently deleting them. Maybe because I’ve been writing by hand longer than I’ve been typing and the process doesn’t seem as mechanical. Could be the tactile sensation of pen on paper. I don’t know. All I know, or care about, is that it works.
What I learned with my first few dutiful entries in the new journal was I enjoyed the new process. Not resorting to longhand only because I was stuck made it more fun. My imagination loosed itself to play more easily. The journal became less a warehouse to save fragments of ideas than a place to work them out once I decided they were worth keeping. Some entries are several pages long.
It’s become my go-to source anytime I need to think creatively. Flipping through it now I see notes on what questions to ask at the Bouchercon panel I moderated last year; a temporarily set aside proposal for a detective fiction class I’m thinking of teaching; random ideas for future Penns River books, or even just characters or subplots within a larger story; the noodling out of the core idea for the story I plan to read at an upcoming Noir at the Bar; blog posts; and notes on the work in progress. The most recent entry is for a character in a future Penns River book that grew into a plot as I wrote it. Soon as I’m done here I have a potential ending for that story I’ll get down.
What the journal allows me to do that I hadn’t before is to let ideas ripen. Most of us are aware that teachers use repetition of concepts as frequently as they do because one never knows which other influences have worked on a student so that today becomes the day something you’ve said fifty times before makes sense. I have ideas in here I’m started to noodle and given up on. I have little doubt that at least some of them will find more fertile soil should I stumble across them in six months or a year. Or five. They’re not going anywhere.
This new concept works so well for me I’ve expanded on it. Last summer The Beloved Spouse and I took a road trip west that included a stopover on Dodge City KS. There I bought a small journal at the Boot Hill Museum specifically to take notes on the research I plan to do this summer for a Western I still hope to write. Earlier this year TBS and I went north to visit TSH at medical school and went to the Mark Twain Museum, which sold the Twain counterpart to the Conan Doyle journal I like so much. Arthur is filling up, so I brought Mark home with me.
There’s not a lot of stuff in my journal by many writers’ standards. It’s not like I feel compelled to make a notation every day. (As anyone who has read my books can tell you, I don’t come up with things worth writing down every day.) Still, it’s become a trusted companion that I rarely go away overnight without.