The Idea Box


“Where do you get your ideas?”

It has to be the most frequently asked question in fiction. I can’t remember a single event that I’ve done that it hasn’t come up. And the answer, of course, if everywhere. We’re writers. There is little that escapes our notice. Our job is to observe, synthesize and report back our findings in new and different ways. The magic of that process can’t be quantified – give fourteen mystery writers the same newspaper article and instruct them to write a story about the topic, and you’ll get fourteen different stories.

The question that readers should be asking us is: "How in the world do you keep all the billions of ideas you have on any given day in any semblance of order?"

I’m no different from any other writer. I never know what will trigger my imagination. It could be something as simple and natural as an exceptionally fluffy white cloud passing overhead in a crisp blue fall sky, or as complex as the murder of a young pregnant mother. There are times that I seek out new inspirations, and other times that something odd catches my eye and I think, hmmm, that might be an interesting story.

I also subscribe to the belief that if a story idea is solid, it will stay with you, growing and fermenting over time, without too many influences or excess research. Which can be difficult to deal with when you’re first starting out, because you’re juggling about 1,000 different ideas about how to make your story better, and the thought of one of them slipping away is tantamount to inspiration genocide.

But it’s not. I’m here to assure you – those scattered idea that you don’t write down can sometimes be the genesis of something exceptional.

Anyway, I’ve gotten myself off track. What I wanted to talk about today was my idea box.

It started as a few cuttings from the local newspaper, or printouts from websites, that I stashed in a file folder and shoved in my drawer. When something would leap out at me, I’d throw it in the file and leave it alone. As time went on and my repertoire for idea building grew, I started throwing jotted down scraps of ideas into the folder too: lines of dialogue that amused me, amorphous scenes, pictures of kitchens. Imprints, really. Imprints of ideas, of possibility. These aren’t the IDEAS themselves, they are the germs, the bacteria of my mind’s eye. The microscopic beings that find their way under my skin and eventually force me to scratch.

When I get stuck—and yes, that does happen, even though I’m resistant to call it writer’s block because block, I think, is your story’s way of telling you you’re going in the wrong direction and being stuck is something wholly different, more a necessarily evil to the thought process—I clean. I organize. I shuffle, realign, file and trash. I rearrange the furniture, delete long overdue dead files, read, catch up on scheduling issues, sort out my archives, anything that’s not inherently creative in nature. I’ve come to welcome these spurts of agony, because something wonderful always comes out of it in the end.

The last time I was really and truly stuck, I organized my ideas file.

It had grown to an idea drawer while I wasn’t looking. Folded up newspapers lazily shoved into the space where the folder should go, post-it notes stuck to printouts – it was a mess. No rhyme or reason. Just a collection of whimsies, stowed out of sight until I might need them.

But isn’t that what a creative box should be? Isn’t there something magical about knowing it’s there, that you’ve dropped your little bits of inspiration into one secure place to ferment? I liken it to Dumbledore’s penseive – an aggregator of memories swirling around in some sort of transparent fluid. The idea box is just that – the repository for lost ideas.

So I took an afternoon and organized my drawer. I went to Staples and bought a smart looking expandable file folder that has a hard top and sides, and offloaded everything from the file that became a drawer into the box. I cut out the newspaper articles, sectioned the stories out into subject and geographical region, and slipped the cleaned sheets into the box. Then I stashed it right behind my chair, so I can look at it anytime I want. Just knowing it’s there is fine with me. I don’t need to open it and lovingly finger the papers inside. That, I’ll save for the next round of proposals, or when I need a random subplot.

If these thoughts and ideas mature and make it out of the idea box, they will be transferred to their attendant book box. I read Twyla Tharp’s THE CREATIVE HABIT last year and was surprised to find I already used the same organizational method for projects as Tharp: the individual book box.

Every book I write has it’s own plastic, sealable box. Everything related to that book goes in the box as it’s written. That way, I always know where everything is. By the time I’m done with the book, the box is full to the brim: each draft of the manuscript, the copyedits, the author alterations all go in, on top of the research material, notes, music, etc. When I finish a book and it’s gone to ARC, I take all my notes from their yellow legal pads and stash them in there, too. And then I put them away.

I have to say, this is a really good system. I got to test it out with the fourth book in the series, THE COLD ROOM. Because the box had been put away. Stored. Done. Complete. Smiley face on top (okay, no smiley face, but you know what I mean.) And when my editor wanted me to make a change, it was easy to see exactly where I’d been. I pulled out the box, pulled out the notes to refresh my memory on its impetus, scanned through the original CEs, and went from there.

And since I use a Brother touch labeling system, it was simple to print out a new label for the box with the new title. And soon, the box will go away again, nestled deep in the closet with its friends, and I’ll reopen the next box. And the next. And the next.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my process lately, looking for ways to make things even more streamlined. I have tried a number of different methods for idea storage. There are a number of online avenues to do this. Most everything I do is online now – calendar, to do list, email, goals, even ideas, which I clip to Evernote.

But I’m resistant to the idea of doing away with my boxes, simply because I just love those moments when you spill everything out onto the floor in front of you and comb through the mess looking for that one little spark that will help you move along. There must be some chaos to the creative process. I think we can stifle ourselves if we try to do everything to perfection.

So, where do you keep your ideas?

Wine of the Week: Gnarlier Head Old Vine Zinfandel