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.


  • 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.


  • 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!).

Click for more . . .


  • Once I had some ideas going for the basic story, I started piecing together a rough outline, which developed into a timeline.  With each draft, the timeline changed with events moving to a different place or the addition and removal of events. Nothing was ever set in stone!  Oddly enough, this linear thought process forced me to be more flexible and let the story grow organically.  The timeline was crucial in helping me see where things could naturally flow.


  • A trip to Chicago actually triggered the idea for the setting, so I included a few snapshots I took from various parts of the city.  One picture in particular, became the inspiration for major turning point! (Sorry, I won’t be sharing that one . . . you’ll just have to wait for the book!)
  • Home and Office Locations.  Seeing as all of my characters got wardrobes, I used a similar process to give them homes.  I visited several real estate websites to get a rough idea of residential properties within Chicago.  After doing some demographic research on the different neighborhoods in Chicago, I figured out where each person would live and found homes that fit them.  I printed out the pictures and pasted them into several pages.  The same process helped me find office space for work settings.


  • My novel required an enormous amount of research with regard to the Chicago area, photography, architecture, real estate, and basic writing principles.  In between all the creative stuff I pasted notes, e-mails, internet printouts, and maps.  I needed to know everything from popular Chicago grocery stores, street names, neighborhood demographics, and stupid things like how to craft believable dialogue!  The scary thing is, the above research is just the tip of the ice berg . . . there is so much more, but divulging anything further might compromise the plot!
  • Perhaps the largest component of research dealt with photography, (mainly because it was a realm in which I had no clue). My notebook is full of information about famous photographers with examples of their work, the process of developing film, and blueprints for closet darkrooms.

Above: Research I printed out from the internet (good ol’ wikipedia!) regarding film processing.

The result of collecting all this information was a giant notebook with page after page filled with stuff that makes no sense to anyone but me.  While I was writing the rough draft of my novel, the notebook was always by my side as a reference source, just like my favorite dictionary.  When I wasn’t writing, the notebook was still always within reach to record ideas on the fly.

While an excellent storage unit of all my ideas, I added a few other elements to make the notebook my true writing companion.  Writing is a difficult undertaking no matter the scope or size of the project.  There are days of utter defeat where a little motivation can go a long way.  On the inside cover, I wrote line after line of encouraging quotations so I would never, ever quit.  My notebook also has a couple dividers with pockets, so I stuffed them with articles about my favorite authors and letters from friends who have supported me from the very beginning.  Last, but certainly not least, I used a couple pages to brainstorm a playlist of songs for my main character and his story.  I’ve mentioned this rather critical aspect of my writing process in a previous post How Music Helped Me Write A Novel.  Music not only helps to set a mood, but it does wonders for the creative mind.

Above: The initial brainstorm list for Noah’s Playlist.  I have a to chuckle at a few of the entries as they are so wrong for the character, but that’s part of the process.  The final playlist took more than a month to perfect.

Above: The inside cover of my notebook.

Everyone has a unique way of approaching the task of writing a novel.  Some keep a computer file while others have no plan at all, but ultimately a novel comes together when a writer finds his or her groove.  Whether it be a Big Notebook or something else, every aspiring writer owes it to themselves to find a method that sets the imagination free.

c.b. 2011

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