By John Hewitt
Some writers know exactly what they want to say. They merely have to start typing and passion flows from them. This doesn’t necessarily mean they write well, but they don’t sit around wondering what to write about. Most writers, however, need a little prodding. Sometimes they have great ideas, and sometimes they stare at their computer screen waiting for something to come to them. If you fall into the second category, you can reduce your time spent staring at the screen by creating a log of your good ideas when they come to you. You can also spend those slow times looking at a few tried and true idea resources and seeing what ideas you can grow for the future.
What is an idea log?
Your idea log can be as simple or as fancy as you wish. Some people create file folders for their ideas. They fill them with notes, clippings, pictures and whatever else will assist them. When they pull out the folder, they have all they need to start work. This can be a great system, but it is a lot of work, especially if you never pursue that idea later.
Many people take advantage of their computers. They write quick notes, or even put them in the form of a query to an editor, and keep them in individual documents or add them to a database. This is an excellent system and one that can also get you going quickly once you decide to write because part of the document is already written. You just have to expand on it.
The third way that I propose is simpler and not as thorough. I use it myself, however, because of its ease and portability. I keep a stack of 3×5 cards in which I jot down my ideas. I put a title and description at the top then jot down the note below. I rarely fill up more than one side of one card. It isn’t as thorough as a file or as ready to roll as a computer note, but it keeps me from prattling on about what is just a single idea that I may or may not follow. Plus, when I have a stack of these cards, I can pull them out and thumb through them quickly, more quickly than going through a file folder or a computer database. I can also take these cards with me anywhere and jot down the ideas as they come. I am a big fan of computers, but for this task I really do prefer the simplicity of a 3×5 card.
What do you like? What do you hate?
A great place to start looking for ideas is to look at your likes and dislikes. What makes you happy and what makes you sad or angry. These are the things in your life that will provoke your most passionate writing. This can range from politics, entertainment, to a lump in your carpet that you’d like to get rid of. It all depends on what interests you enough to upset or please you.
Who do you know?
The people in your life can be one of your greatest sources of ideas. They have jobs, hobbies, interests and problems that make them experts hundreds of things. Your architect friend can now be interviewed about what makes for a good or bad home design. Your divorced friend with three kids probably has much to say about child support issues. With a little fictionalization, the annoying woman at work might make for a great short story. Look at the people around you. Evaluate them as article sources, interview topics and as story ideas.
Who would you like to know?
People often portray writing as a solitary task, but one of the great benefits of being a writer is that you can use it to meet people. Think about the respected or famous people you would like to talk to: writers you respect, experts in fields you are interested in, actors and politicians. Some of them will be difficult to meet, but many are easier than you think. While the ten most famous writers in the world may be hard to contact, most writers do not spend the majority of their time fending off interview requests. The same is true of experts in most areas. Politicians and actors are probably the hardest to get an interview with, but even then you might be surprised. Just remember that the top few in those fields are nearly impossible to interview without some clout behind you, but there are plenty of others in the field who would be happy to answer your questions.
Where have you been?
Travel is a great way to generate ideas. Look at the places you’ve gone and the things you’ve done there. Think also of the trips you would like to take. From travel guides to the settings for stories, your journeys can be a great source of ideas. Whenever you travel, it is a good idea to keep a journal and write down your thoughts and impressions. You never know where you might find your next idea.
What have you been doing?
Take a look at your areas of expertise. What jobs have you held? What hobbies have you had? What have you studied? These are your areas of knowledge. You may not be an expert, but in writing it is generally enough to be an intelligent amateur as long as you are willing to do the research for your story. Just as your friends are great sources of information, you are your greatest source. Not only do you know something about these things, but also you can rely on yourself, more than anyone else, to do the work required to find out more. Every job, from working in a warehouse to being a phone solicitor to managing a small office, has requirements and areas of interest. Think about how these things can become articles or stories.
What have you been reading?
If you are a writer, then chances are you are an avid reader, and it pays to keep a few notes while you read. The daily paper, magazines, the Internet and the books you read are great sources for ideas. My favorite example of this process is the movie The Player, in which a studio executive challenges anyone to read him a newspaper article and he’ll come up with a movie based on it. Over and over he turns the most mundane articles into feature film ideas. Ideas are everywhere.
What happened to you?
Beyond the jobs and hobbies you’ve had, there is plenty more to your life. There are hundreds of high points and low points in every person’s life: people found and lost, love shared and unrequited, accidents, plots, plans, choices and mistakes. Most of your memories are worthy of a story or article, because chances are you haven’t managed to remember the ordinary and mundane parts of your life, just the highs and the lows and the elements that contribute to who you are. Your life is an endless source of material if you have the talent to make it interesting to others.
Ideas are all around you. If you go through the items above, you will have plenty of ideas to work with, but beyond that, you just need to keep your eyes open and your other senses ready to back them up. Ideas will come to you if you are paying attention. Just remember to have some system to keep track of them, even if it is just a notebook for you to jot things down in. Your ideas are fuel for your writing. Keep plenty of fuel handy.