This is a question that people ask famous authors a lot, and some of them, like Stephen King, get a bit tired of the question. After all, the *where* seems to an author a lot less important than the *what*, the material you can pull from these “ideas” to mold into an actual freaking story. Ideas can come from anywhere, right? Even the most banal gesture or advertisement or association could lead to an interesting tale.
But right now, the source of ideas is something I’m actively investigating — not because I’m short on them, but because I need a bit more organization in the material I turn to when it’s time to write and I’m wanting in some crucial detail of character and/or plot. I have these spiral-bound Idea Books I through IX or X that I kept from the late nineties up to a year or so ago, and they were great fun to write in with a fancy ink pen. But obviously, if I want to dig some particular thing out of them, it will take a while, given the abysmal lack of an index or search function. This is 2013 or something, the Age of I (or E) — technology’s gotta work for a writer, man. I need a digital compilation of reference material.
Thus my idea (where did I get it, I wonder?) to put the whole damn thing in Evernote, to give myself a few folders — or notebooks, in the app’s parlance — specific to the needs that I have when I’m putting a new person into a new place and having them do a new thing for the purposes of entertainment. I’m aiming at pretty mundane-seeming stuff for the most part, just databases of types of appearances, names, possible personality quirks, sample character histories or plot twists.
It might sound grab-baggy, but I have a plan to (in addition to finishing up the editing of my book in progress, Player Choice) write a bunch of short stories in the very near future. I will need new people and new places and new things very fast. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve let a story go stale because I’ve suddenly gotten bored at a character’s job, or appearance, or even their name, and then the poor bastard or bastardess gets exiled to the Island of Abandoned Stories. If they’d only had the last name of Jagtap instead of Hendrickson, they could have been so much more interesting.
I know these interesting jobs and names and traits and locales are out there, beyond the immediate grasp of my memory. I read about them all the time in magazines and online articles, I see them whing across the bow of my daily experience. But I seem to have a pretty poor memory for these details, so if I can create and keep some long lists of details that I find interesting, then maybe I can keep the population at the Island fairly low.
And as far as the real ideas, the ones that readers of famous authors really want to know about, the engines of plot and theme? Sure, I’ll probably create a database for those too — but more often than not, they will themselves spring naturally from the clash of all those seemingly more mundane details that, rubbed together, can create something like fire.
I’d love to hear about your own strategies for organizing creative projects. How have you taken advantage of electronic filing or similar systems?
(2015 postscript: I’m still using Evernote to organize my ideas / story data. And still writing out new ideas and inspirations in what I think is Idea Book X. Let the power of technology and old-school notebooks combine!)