5 Ways to Keep your Idea Kit Full

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Dandelion disapproves of all this nonsense. Dandelion disapproves of everything.

A couple months ago, I noticed my older chicken limping. I didn’t think much of it, primarily because she’s pretty old and I couldn’t find any actual injuries on her. But then the old biddy couldn’t stay on the roost anymore. Then early this month, she couldn’t even stand on the foot. I mean, she’s old, but come on. Being a novice chicken keeper, I watched this all with growing trepidation, but didn’t do anything more than wring my hands. Finally, I had an “oh, duh” moment and ran a Google search, and found my answer pretty quickly.

Bumblefoot. After snickering a moment over that super cool name, I read through exactly what had happened to my girl and what I needed to do to save her- because if I didn’t do anything, she would most likely die. And since I had let it go so long, I had to act fast. I pored over the procedure for drawing out the infection, and preventing it from spreading, all the time hoping my husband would get home before the stores closed for the evening.

Turns out, he didn’t have to.

My stockpile of nonstick gauze and medical tape from like three years ago was ready to roll. And, gee, I even had the same triple antibiotic spray the internet chicken lady calls for. Oh, and that gigantic sack of Epsom salt my cousin left here that I never got around to throwing out was right there in the laundry room. And… hey, there was that huge pack of disposable latex gloves my brother left here. All this stuff I’d been pack-ratting over the years was suddenly and immediately necessary. I could get right to work. (Ironically, the only thing I didn’t have lying around was a hair dryer- the one thing internet lady was sure everyone had. Eh, I didn’t really need it anyway.)

Being prepared to suddenly perform life-saving medical work on a chicken is a little more exciting than my day-to-day life typically goes. But it seems to run parallel to another aspect of my life I do deal with daily: writing.

More than stockpiling medical supplies, I stockpile ideas. I have notebooks and scraps of paper and sticky notes all over my writing desk. Some of the ideas are full length stories just waiting for their turn in the queue. Some are mere snippets- a wisp of dialog, a solitary choice, a sketch, a setting- in need of a framework to support them. But they’re everywhere. And then when a lightning-bolt of inspiration strikes, I’m ready for it with an abundance of details and prompts.

So what can we do to make sure the idea kit is stocked? Here are some things that I find help me to catch those little flickers of ideas before they’re gone, and to keep them coming:

Always have something to write with. You never know when or where you’re going to have an idea. It could be in the shower or the grocery store, waiting at your kid’s ballet class or your spouse’s job, with your reading group or by yourself. So be ready to catch those juicy little tidbits with a note. I keep a pen and small notebook in my purse, another in my van, another in the church bag, and like a zillion at home. You will sooner catch me without pants than without paper.

Try new things. Nothing stimulates the brain like new experiences, and our daily lives are full of opportunities to deviate from the norm. Get Thai instead of Mexican for lunch. Take a different route to school. Jog around the block instead of using your treadmill. Read a book you wouldn’t normally pick up. Learn a fun party trick. The new experiences don’t have to be huge- I doubt anyone reading this blog has the time or means to pop off to Italy for the weekend. (Or if you do, maybe consider making a small donation to the Jill Needs New Socks Fund?) But shake off the routine now and then and your brain will rev up in response.

Look smell taste touch listen. We’re sensory creatures and our writing becomes more potent when we immerse our readers’ senses within our world. Take the time to eat a strawberry slowly. How would you explain that taste and texture to someone who has never had one? Dig to the very bottom of your kids’ laundry bin and take a big whiff. How would you describe that smell? Go to a public place and people watch. Why are people wearing what they are? Saying what they are? Look at their faces. What are they thinking? Why? These experiences make wonderful seeds for later ideas.

Read! Books, blogs, forums, magazines, anything you can get your hands on. What parts interest you? Infuriate you? Elate you? The things that get you excited are likely the things that will get other people excited. If you really like a quote, write it down in your idea notebook. Draw a sketch of a character in a book. As long as you aren’t passing these ideas off as your own work, this isn’t plagiarism- It’s practice. When I was teaching myself how to draw, I traced art I liked. When I’m teaching myself how to get ideas, I mimic good ideas.

Ask questions. What if the mayor was an alien sent to save humanity from itself? What if the last mass extinction didn’t happen? What does Mrs. Vespers do when she’s alone? Asking myself absurd questions is one of my most visited pastimes. (What if I pulled out my intestines? What would I do if a moose chased me down the trail? What if the school was on fire? What if I was on the bus and someone tried to take it over with a scalpel? If someone tried to steal my van when my baby was in it?) Okay, so it’s not always the most cheerful of thoughts, but it does get me thinking. And thinking is really the only absolute prerequisite to generating ideas.

The heart of the matter is that nobody really has a secret formula for getting ideas. Brandon Sanderson doesn’t peer into a crystal ball. Neil Gaiman doesn’t have a hand-crank idea generator in his basement. Stephen King hasn’t sold his immortal soul for an underworld imp that sits invisibly on his shoulder and whispers ideas while he writes. (Probably, anyway.) Ideas come to us much in the same way that plankton comes to a whale. We can drift around and wait for them to just swim into our mouths, the stupid things. Or we can swim and hunt and sift. Which whale do you think gets more plankton?

When we are constantly primed to catch ideas, we catch more ideas. Real writers never really run out of ideas (although this is a recurring nightmare of mine that will wake me in a cold sweat some nights). We hunt and we sift and gather, gather, gather, so that when the pieces fall into place, we have enough and more to fill in the cracks.

The well is never empty. So when we find ourselves in need of a cool side character, or a nifty world mechanic, or a witty response, it’s right there and ready, like a good med kit.

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