The Notebook That Built My Novel

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When I first got the notion to write a novel, the most daunting part was getting started.  I had the inspiration, a basic story idea, and a main character, but I realized very quickly none of my ideas mattered unless there was a system in place to give them room to grow.  A journal wasn’t big enough for the job and a laptop didn’t offer the tactile experience I needed to connect to my ideas.  What I ended up creating was The Big Notebook.

I went out and bought the largest spiral notebook I could find along with a set of highlighters, my favorite blue pens, a pair of scissors, and a glue stick.  Then I collected catalogs, magazines, and newspapers from around the house.  With these tools, I could start the mad process of brainstorming or what I like to call “extreme outlining.”  The only rule was anything goes if it has even a remote chance of fitting in with the basic inspiration for the story.

Now, I am an extremely organized person who is well known for color-coding and alphabetizing everything.  Initially, I was going to divide the notebook into specific sections for different categories of information, but that plan fell apart almost instantly. Ideas don’t present themselves in any particular order in my head, so it made more sense to let the notebook come together with a more holistic approach.  In effect, I made a giant mess that defied all organizational logic, but at least the ideas were no longer just floating in my head.

Elements of the mess were then classified into a set of categories I’ve listed below. Underneath each category is a brief summary of what I collected and/or scribbled on random pages.  To keep it all straight, I used a system of highlighter color-coding and symbols.

Characters

  • Character cards. Every character got a card that included ideas for names, mini-bios, age, physical traits, quirks, goals, fatal flaws, and saving graces.  As the plot evolved, I continued to add information about their roles in the story.
  • Wardrobe pages.  I went through magazines, catalogs, and clothing store ads to look for clothes my characters might wear.  I cut out an entire wardrobe for all the main characters and pasted it into the notebook.  Each character got a spread and it really helped shape their personalities in a visual sense.

Above: Part of the main character’s wardrobe spread.

  • Personal belongings pages.  Every character has special objects that belong to them – things that define them as individuals.  Through brainstorming I knew what these items were, but I still wanted a strong visual that gave specifics. In the case of the main character, I needed an old camera.  Image searches online, plus a little reading allowed me to track down the perfect camera and a picture to paste in my notebook.

Story

  • I did a lot of free writing to loosen up my imagination, which lead to endless streams of brainstorm bulleting.  If an idea popped into my head, I wrote it down.  The handwriting is atrocious and some thoughts wind all the way around the margins.  Less than half of my rambling was actually used, but the process itself got me to the core of the story.  The brainstorming aspect of writing is probably my favorite step of the process.  Out of all the categories, this one takes up the most space!
  • Sometimes I’d wake up at night with full paragraphs streaming out of my head, so there are multiple pages of complete passages, (many of which have made it to final draft!).

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Three Weeks Is Close Enough

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The original plan was to stay in London for a month, but a small twist of fate has caused me to alter the length of my trip.  It turns out the original day of my departure, June 30th, is going to be something Londoners are calling “Black Thursday.”  Close to 600,000 public sector workers are going on strike.  Among the strikers are the train drivers of the London Underground, which upon I rely completely to get around the city and most importantly to the airport.  The strikes are set to last most of next week at varying intervals and it looks like more unions are gearing up to join the movement.  The chaos that will most certainly ensue from all of this was not on my list of fun things to do, so I’m getting out before it gets too crazy.

While my stay is shorter than expected, the experience has been nothing short of extraordinary. Travel is often about willingly taking on change, but the time I spent in London has been truly life-altering in ways I could never have anticipated. My senses are on fire and I suspect they will remain that way for a while as I sort through everything I’ve seen, done, and felt.  All I know for certain is that every moment of wandering in this place has changed me for the better.

Tomorrow, I’ll be on a plane heading home.  My life as I left it is waiting for me and I am excited to get back to the familiar.  However, there is a little part of London that also feels like home and I shall miss it dearly.

c.b. 2011

The Last Bit of Wandering

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June 19, 2011

I made my way back to Speaker’s Corner and spent the morning listening to some very radical points of view.  Religion, politics, and philosophy dominated the soapbox speeches so naturally debate was quick to follow.  Hecklers were more numerous than usual, but civility still ruled the day.  Probably the most interesting aspect this time around was seeing different speakers visit each other and interact.  Virtually the same people come and speak every week, which means they know each other pretty well.  Some are friends, while others have nothing more than civilized respect for one another.  This familiarity made for some interesting debate as each knows exactly what buttons to push to set off the other.  It’s always a show and I do enjoy the free entertainment as much as the curiosity it inspires.

After I had my fill of point/counterpoint I wandered down Knightsbridge and looked for a place to dodge the rain.  Harrods was in sight so I decided to see what all the fuss is about concerning this store.  The place was so packed it was impossible to enjoy anything about it.  From what I could see, there were a lot of people sifting through a lot of over priced stuff.  After fifteen minutes, the rain seemed like a better situation.  A determined shopper, I am not!

I backtracked to Hyde Park and went for a stroll down Constitution Hill and The Mall.  Even with the rain, it was a nice walk.

June 20, 2011

I needed a break from the city, so I stayed in the neighborhood that surrounds the flat where I’m staying.  There’s a lot to explore around here and I’m glad I took the time to see it.  I walked up The Avenue to get to Alexandra Park, a lovely little surprise I wish I had found a long time ago.  Alexandra Palace sits near the entrance, although I didn’t get to see much of it as it’s under renovation.  No matter, the park had plenty of other sites, namely a hillside that offered a stunning vista of the city of London.  After spending so many days in the thick of the urban center, it was refreshing to see it from a quiet patch of grass.

A lake in the middle of the park gave me a peaceful place to sit and write for most of the morning and into the afternoon.  Tall rose bushes and large old trees surround the lake and benches, while ducks and geese swim and play. The picture below was a lucky shot . . .

From the park, I followed Dukes Avenue, which leads directly to the roundabout of Muswell Hill Broadway.  This is essentially the center of the neighborhood and I thought it would be fun to wander down each street attached to the center.  It took all afternoon, but I got to each spoke on the wheel.  In the process, I found a great little local bookshop where I spent a while looking through their shelves.  I walked out with Esther’s Inheritance by Sandor Marai.  The author is one of my favorites and often very difficult to find at home, which made this a pretty exciting find.

I spent the rest of the day at a local bakery café where I indulged in hot chocolate and a homemade doughnut filled with strawberry jam.  As I ate and drank, I started reading my new book.  I took my time and the world seemed to slow down.  For at least a little while, life was as simple as a good story and a hot drink.

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