books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Where Do You Get Your Ideas? There's an App for That! How to Create Your Personal Idea Goldmine.



Today we have our first regular monthly post from Ruth Harris. Ruth is in NYC, so she very well may be without power today, so if we don’t hear from her, we can blame Irene. All of you East-Coasters, hang in there: you’re in our thoughts.

I think the most common question a writer gets is "where do you get your ideas?" Some of us find it hard to think of a simple answer, but now, it's easy: just tell them there's an app for that!  Ruth suggests you use an app like Evernote to preserve random ideas and articles as you browse. I checked it out and it looks pretty awesome. It’s free to download for Windows, so I’m going to try it. I don’t know if anything can really organize my hoard of yellowed clippings, grimy notebooks and random bookmarks, but it’s worth a try.

This is the kind of article I love to read—one that tells you NOT to feel guilty. Go ahead and read those trashy magazines and tabloids. It’s research, people: research! 

The Passive Guy seems to agree with Ruth. He had a post this week telling us to read bad books

And, Ta-Dah! Ruth also has a stupendous announcement that represents a major pinnacle for this blog: Our November guest (November 13th) will be the legendary crime fiction writer and writing guru LAWRENCE BLOCK!!!

I’m so jazzed.

In other blog news, Two posts from this blog made the top 25 in the Write it Sideways compilation of 101 top fiction writing tips:  #11 12 Signs Your Novel Isn’t Ready to Publish and #25 Can You Write a Publishable First Novel?

Wealth Creation for Writers
by Ruth Harris

Writers are always being told to read, but since just about every writer I know—Including me—is an almost-obsessive reader, that advice is more or less like offering style advice to Coco Chanel.

Instead, I want to explain how your ordinary, everyday reading—whether on the Web, via Kindle, iPad or Nook, in dead tree versions of magazines or newspapers—can be your own personal gold mine of ideas.

Once you delve into that mine, you will be able to find ways to connect unrelated ideas—one of a writer’s most potent weapons. You’ll also discover new vocabularies, find important clues to the creation of characters and plots and feel confident that you will never run out of ideas.

1. Read anything and everything.
Never feel guilty about picking up a magazine or Web surfing as long as you make note of stories that pique your interest and ideas that flash through your mind.

2. Consider an app like Evernote. Or at least keep a notebook to scribble down a few words. (Honestly, any writer who doesn’t have a note book—paper or electronic—should have his or her writing devices impounded.) 

3. Connect the dots. Connecting apparently unrelated ideas is the writer’s version of magic. An example is Michael Lewis’s Vanity Fair article about Germany’s national character and German finances. In his article, ML points out how the Germanic dual obsessions with cleanliness and filth (shit/scheisse) resulted in German banks holding a boatload of worthless bonds. The bonds, rated AAA, looked clean from the outside but were dirty (crap) on the inside.

This connection of ideas is basic to a writer’s tool box: an aspect of the German character/the bond market, seemed, on the surface, unrelated. But together, they provide spine and energy to what might otherwise be a dull article about European finance.

4. Look backward.  In his famous 2006 commencement speech at Stanford, Steve Jobs commented that you can only “connect the dots when you look backward.” It’s what writers do: it’s why characters are unforgettable, stories are compelling and plots offer twists and surprises. It’s only when you look backward that you can see connections you miss when you were going forward. That’s why it’s essential to make note of your everyday reading and what jumps out at you.  

OK, how does this work?

Here are a few stories that got my attention recently:

  • One involved an importer who took a chance on selling a prized variety of Pakistani mangoes costing $80-$100 a box even though he would probably lose money on the deal.

  • Another was about a Chinese beauty queen being trained to enter (and win) the Miss Universe contest.

  • Yet another was about how Hewlett Packard’s purchase of Palm, which looked like a bad deal at first, is now looking good.

I doubt I will ever write about Chaunsa mangoes but it’s entirely possible I will write about pride. Perhaps, one day, my note about the Pakistani-American importer who put pride before profit to distribute what are considered the world’s most delicious mangoes will be just what I need to make my point. 

The Miss Universe contest doesn’t interest me but Luo Zilin’s determination and hard work—the dance lessons, the English lessons, the etiquette lessons, the practice in cat-walking and the media interviews—do interest me. They might, one day, help create a character. 

I also don’t give a hoot about Hewlett Packard’s corporate machinations but a decision that looked bad at first but turns out well later offers the potential of a great plot twist.  For example: Mr. Wrong who turns out to be Mr. Right.

Here are some other ways non-literary reading can improve your writing.

5. Increase your vocabularies.
(Please note the plural.) Just about every world has its own jargon and, if you want to write with style and verve, you need to find out what people who occupy those worlds say and how they say it.


  • Fashion magazines, style blogs and catalogs are filled with photos and descriptions of clothing. In them you will find a whole vocabulary with which to describe your character’s clothing and wardrobe in a way that brings them alive and makes them real to the reader. Stilettos or clogs? Polos or Tees? Grunge or business casual? Black tie or white shoe? The vocabulary of clothing is complex and rich.

  • Beauty and grooming sites are filled with photos and comment, some of it snarky—some of it sincere—about exactly one subject: how people look. With their help, you can turn your descriptions from insipid to inspired. Good hair day or bad plastic surgery? Muffin top or too rich and too thin?

  • The business pages are a source for jargon as well as fantastic information on occupations & careers: your characters have to make a living, don’t they?

  • Niche magazines or blogs—bass fishing, ice climbing, stamp collecting, arctic biology—will open new dictionaries and provide information for the alert writer.

6) Find unlimited plot ideas. Does you WIP need more struggle and conflict? Success and failure? Triumph and tragedy?

  • Go to the sports pages. Seriously. Almost every story is basically about how an athlete, talented or otherwise, overcomes—or doesn’t—golden-boy good looks, a reputation for dogging it, a lousy attitude in the clubhouse, jail time, injury, scandal, depression, poor parenting, mean and/or incompetent coaching.

    How the tournament winner holding the silver cup is a guy no one ever heard of. How the overlooked utility infielder gets the game-winning home run and the overpaid hot prospect blows the save. How the local hero is a good guy who gives more than just money to the charities he cares about. Why a big, hulking defensive lineman takes growth hormones to get even bigger and more hulking. How Tiger Woods rose to the pinnacle and why he then fell from the heights. What Novak Djokavich did in order to defeat Roger Federer and Raphael Nadal. How the American women’s soccer team won, and whether or not Serena can win again.

    Besides, it’s not just the drama and the schmaltz, it’s also about the language: sports are all about action and sports writers are great with verbs.

  • Business magazines: They’re full of stories of loss and triumph. Read between the numbers and statistics and tap into the emotions they generate.

  • And don’t forget the tabloids: Yes. Those guilty glances at the headlines in the supermarket are an endless wellspring of sex and scandal: a great plot in every crazy headline.

The last thing I want to point out is that when you create a gold mine from your everyday reading, that mine will be yours and yours alone because it will be based on what you care about and therefore you and only you will be able to mine from it.

The mango importer who interests me is another writer’s yawn. The connection I made between a Chinese Miss Universe contestant and her methodical determination might leave another writer rolling his or her eyes. The fascination with which I read Michael Lewis’s article about the connections between the German character and the German economy might cause another reader to flee to the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly.

So don’t feel guilty about your “light” reading. It’s your own personal gold mine. You’re the only one who can create it—and the only one who can profit by it.



What about you, scriveners? Where do you find your ideas? Do you keep notebooks? File newsclippings? Use Evernote? Do you read tabloids and tell yourself it's research? 

40 comments:

  1. My research building blocks include The Bachelor/Bachelorette and Entertainment Tonight. I'm a romance writer and it's easy for me to find romantic twists and turns in Hollywood. Taking a power couple's problems and giving them to everyday Mavine and Dwayne adds another dimension to the writing. Look at Arnold and Maria. Now THAT is definitely a plot twist!

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  2. I agree so much with this. I find ideas everywhere. I've got a notebook full of scrawled one-liners and a a folder on my computer full of internet articles. Read everything!

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  3. Holy Mother of Crap!! Lawrence Block! I did a little hop in my chair when I read that.

    I've admired him since I was a teenager.

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  4. I always seem to be learning new fashion words. Doesn't help me not mentioning the clothes the charcters wear almost every time they have a new outfit. When it comes to the girls anyway.

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  5. Great post!

    Going somewhere without a notebook and pen (and a Kindle) just doesn't happen. You never know when you will see, hear or read something that will be in the next book.

    A bit short on tabloid reading here. West African newspapers report news very factually - the idea of entertaining readers hasn't yet caught on.

    Luckily the net can provide all the pointers Ruth reffed, which makes Evernote all the more valuable, always assuming can work out how to use it.

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  6. Another app that works well for mobile notations of bits and bobs of info (and is also available for most platforms just like Evernote) is Springpad. I'm loving it's ease of use--adding something on my laptop auto-syncs with my Android phone, I-Pod Touch, and my desktop, so no matter where I am, all the notes are available without any clunky manual updating (I just wish I could also save it all to/from my Kindle as well).

    And thanks for giving me "permission" to read the tabloids standing in the grocery checkout line--I can now tell my laughing friends that I'm doing it in the name of research LOL!

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  7. Hurricane Ruth checking in from NYC. After all the hype, hysteria & bullbleep, Irene wasn't as awful/terrible/catastrophic as predicted. Not that it was great, either, because the UES is a soggy ghost town as is the rest of the city.

    Anne--Yep. Arnold & Maria—a couple for the ages & a feast for novelists of all kinds. As his cigars got bigger & fatter, she got thinner & more anorectic looking.

    Sarah--"Everything" is the key word because you never know where your next terrific idea is going to come from.

    Cynthia--LB, the writers' writer. Really looking forward to his post.

    Clare--So what's the problem? lol Women love reading about clothes--and we love writing about them.

    Mark--You're so right! You just never know. Michael, my DH, was leaving the movies some years ago and overheard someone say "You piss on my date and you say you're sorry?" We have absolutely no idea what this was all about but the line is now a catch word in this establishment. Anyone wants to borrow it, be our guest!

    Linda--Thanks for the heads up on Springpad. I'll check it out. As for laughing friends, you mean to say they're not scoping the tabs, too?

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  8. Good reminders for all of us writers. I never go anywhere without a notebook, but sometimes I forget where I put the notebooks! But when I find them, what a gift it is to find all those good idea.8-} Thanks for the post.

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  9. There is an app for everything!
    I get some ideas reading, but I confess, most of mine come when watching movies or TV.

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  10. I enjoyed this post, Ruth. An obsessession I had for years was reading the entire Sunday, New York Times. I live in Fla. now with my cousin and her daughter and she infected me with trashy novels, tabloids and the diet of the week on the cover of Women's World. How on earth do they come up a diet a week, every week for years?

    People watching, ease dropping at luncheon counters, and old letter or a forgotten phone book from 20 years ago. Tons of wonderful fodder for my characters. Old sitcoms, movies, music and gees, who can forget the gaggle of old broads who walk the front of our community pool?

    It's all there for the taking and as I've told my friends, writers are the best liars and thieves on the planet and the way we do it everyday is legal.Some actually get paid for it :)

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  11. Rosi--Oh, so true! lol Reminds me of a friend who makes grocery lists & forgets to bring them with her when she hits the supermarket. Of course, when she gets home, she looks at the list & remembers all the things she was supposed to buy and didn't.

    Alex--I confined this post to reading because writers are always being nagged to read without being given the nitty gritty of what to read and how to profit from it but you're right. A successful novelist of my acquaintance trolls IMDB for plots--she's just that literal about it.

    fIOS in The City--Wasn't it Picasso who said something along the lines that mediocre artists borrow but great artists steal? Re the old broads around your pool: I've found that talking to old people can yield treasures. Also people who've recently retired have plenty to offer--they're usually bored, have time on their hands & are flattered by your interest.

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  12. Hm... reading tabloids in the grocery line? Gee now I feel I should give up my scan as you go method of shopping just so I can do that. I haven't read a tabloid cover in years!

    Actually I've been pretty bad about the reading thing, too. I'm trying to improve though. *grin*

    :} Cathryn Leigh

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  13. Good post! Reading is so vital.

    I'm one of those people who can't help but read every single scrap of anything that passes through my field of vision.

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  14. How do other folks manage their notebooks? I carry one, but it soon becomes a mishmash of 'to-do' lists, story ideas, snippets of text from multiple WIPs, people's addresses, sketches, notes from meetings, etc.

    I suppose if I actually acted on everything in a notebook before retiring it ... hah!

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  15. Great (and relieving) post. I spend way too much time roving the internet which always made me feel guilty when I looked over at my book. No more.

    I need to be more organized about notes as well. I'll probably end up downloading Evernotes.

    As for places to get ideas, my WIP actually partially stemmed from a story I heard on a podcast called Planet Money about the North Korean economy. My book doesn't have anything to do with economics but it sparked the idea.

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  16. I have a huge file of newspaper clippings, little notebooks, index cards (my personal fav for tracking my ideas/thoughts/characters/conversations. I also frequently use my phones notes app to jot down paragraphs, dialogue, intriguing ideas. Anything and everything, I tend to record it in one way or another (and now I can add Evernote to the list too! Thanks!)

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  17. Cathryn--Haven't read a tabloid cover in years? That's just downright unprofessional...lol

    Ranae--Yes, me too. I'll read the label on an aspirin bottle if that's all I have. I've been like that for as long as I can remember & glad to know I'm not alone.

    Pat--I buy Moleskine notebooks & when one is filled up, I just start another. I number them &, yes, they are a mishmash but very interesting to flip through years later. Half the stuff I have no idea about; the other half can be quite interesting & illuminating.

    Himbokal--It's amazing, isn't it, how something can trigger a completely unrelated idea? I love the way you got from the NK economy to your WiP. A good example of why anything and everything can turn out to be the "missing link."

    Andrea--I have notebooks everywhere--in the kitchen, on my night table, dining room, etc. etc. Plus I never leave home without pen & paper. I even wake up at night & write in the dark so as not to disturb DH. Usually, I can read my brainstorms the next day, too. Sometimes they're really great & usable. Other times, straight into the trash. Can't win em all.

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  18. I also try to learn new vocabulary by watching the shows on MTV (don't laugh) & mens' shows like Top Gear BBC.
    I write romance & I'm the only woman in a house full of men, so I'm interested in what makes men tick, how they think, the conversations they have with each other, how they talk.
    Being men, it's mostly cars, women, food, and toys.
    And MTV gives me insight into younger attitudes & perspectives.
    Thanks for this great post! I need to keep notes now!

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  19. Ruth - Well if I state that I'm just a wanna be writer at the moment who sports a full time job with two kids and a hubby to look after, do I get a repreave from being unprofessional? *grin*

    I do read tabloid covers occasionally, but I think the last time I really read one was waaaay back in high school when I worked in the grocery store.

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  20. Oh, how I love Evernote! I use it all the time.

    I also read fashion magazines even though I am the least fashionable person on the planet. And as I tell my husband repeatedly, my viewing of all those Real Housewives shows? Research. Honest.

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  21. I can hardly wait for the Lawrence Block interview. I'm such a fan.

    P.S. See my Aug. 29 Blog on why the Titanic struck the iceberg.

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  22. Very interesting points. Thanks!

    My blog:
    dsl vergleichen und dsl vergleich anbieter

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  23. Pamela--"Cars, women, food, and toys" what a great summing up! Almost sounds like A Woman's Guide to The Male Mind ;-)

    Cathryn--that's a toughie. I'll let the Supreme Court decide whether or nor you get a free pass. lol Seriously, I'm suggesting everyone follow his or her own interests. Tabloid-reading is hardly required. I don't read them myself.

    Mary Ann--Yes. Research, indeed. All grist for the mill. & glad there's another Evernote fan. By the way, Scrivener has a wonderful research function. You can put all your research--video, blogs, articles, images etc--into your book project so your research is always immediately at hand & easy to refer to.

    Phyllis--We're all waiting for LB to chime in! A real pro.

    Anonymous--Thank you! Danke! (please excuse my limited German)

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  24. I have a white board that has a list of things I either saw, read, or heard about that might work well at some point in my writing.

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  25. I scribble random bits of plot or idea awesomeness on everything and anything. Notebook, napkin, post-it note, forearm - you name it, I'll scribble on it! xD

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  26. SBJones -- white board a good idea but what happens when you run out of space?

    Spook -- lol...at least you don't tattoo those ideas on your skin. Or do you?

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  27. Ruth and Anne - Thanks for this post. I love the point about improving vocabularies. It's so true that reading a fashion magazine can help us to describe clothes better, etc. That said, I just don't have the time. I hardly have enough time to read my friends' books let alone some really good fiction, and that's my priority right now. It's what I think will improve my writing the most. I don't think reading fashion magazines is going to help my writing, although I'm sure if I were scouting for plot ideas, gobbling up news stories would be invaluable.

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  28. Really great post/advice! TY much:)

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  29. Meghan--My point is that your everyday reading — in your case fiction — can be a significant source of ideas.

    Kelley -- thank you, hope it helps.

    Ann -- thanks, I hoped the post would open people's minds to the creative riches that are so easily accessible.

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  30. Hi all! Just dropping in. I so much appreciate Ruth taking over one week a month.

    I wish I could say I've been off reading my heart out and filling notebooks with fashion tips and bass fishing terms. But mostly I'm slogging through a mountainous to-do list. And getting ready for the CC Writers' Conference, of course.

    Plus--it looks as if I'll have the galleys for Food of Love soon! Stay tuned...

    Thanks everybody, for your great comments!

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  31. Enjoyed this post immensely! You caught me with the "where do you get your ideas?" question because I'm so tired of answering it. Where does any idea come from? I'm always tempted to say, "It's not like I go looking for them. They just accumulate on the edge of my bathroom counter along with the dusting of talcum powder, and wait for me to scoop them off and plaster them onto a page."

    An aside... NotePad for Mac is an excellent equivalent to Evernote for the PC. I use it, plus I have a battery-lit pen and a notepad on my bedside table, another notepad on the kitchen counter, a notebook in my purse and one in my laptop's case. I'm a notebook hoarder and thought every writer was. :)

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  32. I absolutely love this! I always have a notepad nearby because ideas pop out at me from the strangest places. But this post opened up all sorts of other avenues. Thanks so much.

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  33. Carol--thanks for the kind words and thank you, too, for the NotePad for Mac rec. I'm tempted by the battery lit pen but I write in the dark at night so as not to disturb my DH--he's a light sleeper & I fear that even a pen light might disturb him.

    Julie--you and me, too! notepads everywhere! Glad the post opened new avenues for you--that was my intention in writing it. Sometimes the best ideas hide in plain sight. It's up to us to "see" them.

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  34. I usually have more ideas than I have time for writing them. I do take notes on odd things, names, food and crazy news.

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  35. Hi! I popped over from Karen's bbq party! :)

    Great advice. I recently started using the note feature on my iPod touch for tracking ideas I get while I'm working - it's awesome :)

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  36. followed u over from karen's bbq... brought whiskey and steak! enjoy! and great blog--following!

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  37. Hello there,
    Wandered over from KarenG's BBQ party. Just had to say losing followers is disconcerting. I have pondered it a lot and can't figure it out. Anyhow, very nice to "meet" you.
    karen

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  38. An app? Now that would be helpful. I like that.

    I also call my reality TV watching "research" too. Seriously. ;-)

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  39. Susan--I'm like you. I always have at least five ideas for novels fermenting. It's always hard to choose which way to go. But when I get bogged down in a scene or I'm trying to make some character work--that's when the notebooks are a godsend.

    Jemi--Welcome. Loved Karen's "party" I didn't know the iPod touch has a note feature. Good to know.

    Jeremy--Whiskey and steak. Add chocolate and you'll have all the food groups. Thanks for coming over.

    Karen--ditto on the followers. But all of you great folks from Karen's party have more than made up for the loss.

    Liz--I've got some secret TV watching that I call research, too. But those odd facts do come in handy.

    Ruth--Many Thanks! I see today you're blogging over at Mark Williams International--one of my favorite blogs. Everybody, do check out her great post on genre-jumping.

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