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Posted Friday, March 25, 2011, at 9:02 AM

Last week we talked about ideas, and where they come from. This week we'll talk about your "Ideas file." Do you keep one? If not, I strongly urge you to. It can be anything from index cards in a recipe box, to a spiral notebook, to a folder in your computer -- but whatever your method for saving, if you don't write those ideas down I guarantee they'll get lost.

My Ideas File is a combination of all of the above. I carry a small notebook with me at all times, keep another one beside my bed, and have a file folder in my computer. Not to mention napkins, Post-It notes and the backs of grocery store receipts. When the notebooks and various bits of paper accumulate to the bursting point, I transfer it all to my computer. My Ideas File in my computer contains ideas for future books, bits of overheard conversation, colorful people I've met or observed, characters' names... everything but the kitchen sink. (We'll discuss clichés at a later date.) Most of the stuff in there I've forgotten about, until I open the file to take a look. And that's exactly why I add all these bits of information to my Ideas File -- because if I don't, it will vanish into the back compartments of my brain, never to see the light of day again.

Even though I know I'll never be able to use it all, at least it's there. Then, on the rare occasion when I find myself between projects and wondering what to write next, my Ideas File is there to remind me about that plan I had to name all the characters in a novel after towns in Minnesota. (Jackson Pratt? Hugo McKinley? Iona Hibbing?)

And as long as I've said that, I will mention here that broad ideas are not copyrightable. Anyone reading this blog could now write a novel and name all the characters after towns in Minnesota -- or any other state -- and I'd have no legal recourse. Am I concerned? Not a bit. Because any two people writing on the same idea will end up with very different finished products.

The notebook next to my bed has been an important tool. It's been proven that in those few seconds before we fall asleep, our brains have a brief burst of creativity. Maybe this is a precursor to dreaming, but whatever the reason I know there've been many occasions when I've been just about to drop off when the most brilliant writing idea has popped into my head. I lay there thinking, "This is terrific. Why didn't I think of this before? A best-seller for sure..." Lacking the energy to get up out of bed and go to my desk in the other room, I convinced myself I'd remember this wonderful new idea in the morning. But, you guessed it, in the morning it was gone. Thus the notebook next to my bed. Now when I have an idea I just write down a few key words to refresh my memory.

Interestingly, the next morning I've found that about 90% of those previously "brilliant" ideas were garbage, probably the ramblings of an overly tired brain. But at least I had my notes. Without them, I would always believe that most dazzling idea got away from me.

So keep an Ideas File, and use it to store all those details that your brain doesn't have room for.

"Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don't see any." Orson Scott Card

Showing comments in chronological order
[Show most recent comments first]

I love that idea of the towns in Minnesota! I have one - Jordan Becker!

-- Posted by DHarris on Sat, Mar 26, 2011, at 12:25 PM

I too have thought of great things to write about after I've gone to bed. It's true, one rarely remembers those thoughts in the morning. Keeping a notebook is an excellent idea.

-- Posted by rjochims on Sat, Mar 26, 2011, at 8:24 PM

It's not always easy for me to take notes when I'm driving, so I use a tape recorder.I hadn't thought of keeping it by my bed. Good idea.

-- Posted by ggilmore on Mon, Mar 28, 2011, at 1:12 AM

What about names in my Ideas File? Can I use the names of real people for characters in my novel?

-- Posted by farmergirl.sp on Mon, Mar 28, 2011, at 11:05 AM

Like farmergirl, I've wondered about using the real names of people. Is it safe for both parties?

Do I let the reader know the family approves of the use of the family name?

My ideas are placed on sticky notes and put into a book purchased at a thrift shop. Subject tabs are placed at the edge of the group of pages. Such as..Sayings, Famous quotes, Discriptive words, Resources and Blogs.

-- Posted by wordgardener on Tue, Mar 29, 2011, at 6:24 PM

A tape recorder is a good idea, too. I have one, but seem to find it easier to grab my notebook when I need it. Probably just an old habit with me. Use whatever works for you.

-- Posted by JTennant on Tue, Mar 29, 2011, at 9:12 PM

As for the names of real people... it depends on the context. If you're using the name of someone you know, or someone in your community, as a fictional character, I'd advise against having the character be very negative. You could end up offending someone.

If you're using the names of people you know and having them be the actual characters in your book, like what Peter Davidson did in his novel "Okoboji," then it's not a bad idea to get permission. Dave did that. He used the names of real people in the book, playing themselves but in a fictionalized scenario. He took excerpts of his manuscript and let each person read the part that pertained to him/her, and got their approval. Of course all of the these people were portrayed in a positive light.

If you're writing a villain, I'd suggest you not use the name of someone you know. Make up a name. But even then, the name is still likely to be that of a real person somewhere, just not someone you happen to know.

-- Posted by JTennant on Tue, Mar 29, 2011, at 9:31 PM

Wordgardener, I don't think it's necessary to tell your readers that the family approves of the use of the family name. Let your readers enjoy the story without filling them in on unessential details.

-- Posted by JTennant on Tue, Mar 29, 2011, at 9:35 PM

As stated, ideas are all around. I raised 5 sons. They, collectively, raised my 12 grandchildren. In my column I can hide their identity by using "my son" or "granddaughter" and so forth when writing a column about their activities here at my farm.

-- Posted by Firstogo on Wed, Mar 30, 2011, at 11:44 AM

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Jean Tennant has been writing professionally for more than 30 years. Beginning with short stories, newspaper and magazine articles, she eventually branched out to full-length work, with several novels published by Warner Books, Kensington and Silhouette. Now the owner of Shapato Publishing, LLC, in Everly, Iowa, she teaches writers' workshops throughout the Midwest, for which her schedule can be seen at: www.jeantennant.com. Jean lives in Everly with her husband, Grover Reiser, and their dogs, Kirby and Dakota. Favorite quote: "Outside of a dog, man's best friend is a book. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read." Groucho Marx.
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