I’m fascinated by the process authors use to find details they put in their stories. Because I myself am a middle-aged writer whose memory isn’t what it was twenty years ago, I carry around small notebooks and a pen no matter where I’m going, because you never know what you’ll see or overhear that could be fodder for your next book or short story, and I know better than to think I’ll remember it when I get back to my writing space.
The other week, as I was cleaning my desk, I came across a stack of these old notebooks. I opened one, just to see what I’d scribbled in it. Here’s a sample of what I found:
- “God Bless America”—sign on elderly tricyclist’s bike. At Xmas read “Happy Birthday Jesus.”
- Bodhi tree just is Ficus religiosa
- Butterflies as yellow as the autumn leaves flutter in the trees while leaves as yellow as the butterflies flutter to the ground.
- I HATE LEAF BLOWERS!!!!
- Sitting on the deck, watching the tomato plants grow
- 2 juvenile bald eagles on N side of Big Bear Lake. One took a sh*t—looked like a plane spraying out fire retardant!
Those are just a few of the entries in this particular notebook—the ones that sort of made sense. Can I imagine now ever using these snippets in my writing? Perhaps the thing about the butterflies, and also the bit about the bald eagles. I do enough nature writing I might be able to use those snippets somewhere. And the elderly tricyclist could make his way into a short story. Maybe he’ll be the one who hates leaf blowers.
Perhaps the bit about the Bodhi tree could be turned into a haiku. This particular Bodhi tree was at the Cal State Fullerton Arboretum, and was blessed by the Dali Lama himself. Yeah, I can see a haiku forming there.
I got into the habit of carrying notebooks when I was just a kid, after reading Harriet the Spy. I loved that book, and since Harriet carried a notebook and wrote everything down, I decided I should, too. I’ve gotten a bit more particular about the notes I make—I no longer comment on mysterious men wearing black suits and carrying briefcases, for example—I’ve never lost my enthusiasm for writing down trivial oddities that seem out of place. I don’t know what notebook it’s in, but I do recall writing down, “Who writes the bubblegum cartoons?” in a notebook once, maybe twenty years ago.
After going through several notebooks, I got curious—okay, let’s call a spade a spade; I got nosy—about what other writers had in their notebooks—if they even carried notebooks, or if I was alone in this. I thought the best place to snoop into other writers’ private notes was in my own publisher’s author group, so I asked, “Do you carry a notebook? Can you share some odd or interesting snippets?”
I was met by an uncomfortable cyber-silence. Seems writers are very protective of their notebooks and the strange scribblings within. But finally, two brave souls spoke up.
Marilyn Morris, author of The Unexplored Heart, The Cards We’re Dealt, Life with Lupus Erythematosus, and other books too numerous to name, wrote me and said: “I have index cards in my purse. One snippet I found recently said “Contrary Creek.” Don’t know why or when I’d use that in one of my novels, but I was taken by the name.”
Then my good friend Malcolm R. Campbell, author of Sarabande, The Sun Singer, Garden of Heaven, and Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire spoke up. “I don’t think I have ever carried around a notebook for writing ideas,” he said. “I do use scraps of paper at my desk for jotting things down that pertain to the work in progress. Here are a few from the current mess on my desk top:
- “greenish-yellow flowers and scarlet bracts
- “a trembling of finches
- “dorsal ridge on Bill
- “like a hamster’s ever-turning wheel.”
Dorsal ridge on Bill? Bill who? I guess that’s why that particular note was on Malcolm’s desk, not mine. Love his “trembling of finches.” Wish I’d thought of that.
I guess in the end the reason writers keep their notes private is because they wouldn’t mean anything to anyone else. So don’t look for me to be writing a short story about an elderly tricyclist riding around Contrary Creek like a hamster’s ever-turning wheel with a noisy leaf blower buzzing in the distance.
Although, come to think of it, that does have rather a nice ring to it…