Catching Ideas on the Run

As writers of fiction, there are many things that we are in control of. We’re like God playing with the lives of our characters, deciding when they should suffer and when they should be happy. We create settings, devise plots and subplots, we place obstacles in their way. In short, our job is to make their lives as miserable as possible, so that their reward and the reward of the reader is that much greater when our hero or heroine overcomes the terrible things we have put them through.

But there is one thing that a writer cannot control and that is the birth of an idea.

Ideas are spontaneous. But are they random? Some ideas can be as soft as a mouse’s sigh, others scream out to be written down and make you go running for pen and paper. It’s that soft as a mouse’s sigh idea or thought or observation – the one that is so fleeting it can pass you by without you giving it a second thought – that I’m interested in. I think that every idea and thought and observation comes to writers for a reason. Our conscious minds might not be awake, but our unconscious is on the job 24/7, and is constantly tapping into the realm where ideas are born.

I keep a small notepad in my handbag and of course lots of pens. The only problem is, I don’t always have my bag with me. I might be taking the dog for a walk or driving the car where my bag will be out of reach.

I have just finished reading Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. It is a beautiful book – full of inspiration, honesty and humour. She mentions using an index card together with a pen which she slips into one of her pockets. I have started using this method and because I have an index card and pen on me most of the time now, I am far more aware of those soft as a mouse’s sigh thoughts and write them down as they come to me.

The other day I was having lunch with an historian who mentioned the brothels that used to be in Lonsdale Street, just down from the Houses of Parliament, during the second world war. She said you always knew which door belonged to a prostitute because the knob was always so brightly polished.

As I’m writing a novel on that period in Melbourne’s history, I slowly took out my index card and pen and wrote down ‘shiny door knobs’ without the historian noticing anything at all. If I had to turn around and reach into my handbag to get my notepad, the conversation probably would have stopped.

Catching those ideas on the run is now made easy with the simple use of index cards.

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