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Prep Cook Your Book

Someone asked me the other day: How do writers keep track of their ideas? Their question pertained specifically to starting a new project -- how do writers physically keep track of random brainstorms and thought bubbles. You're out grocery shopping, for example. You're struck by a thought that is so clearly a stroke of genius that it must be recorded immediately. Recording is especially necessary if you're over forty, and you will forget your mensa idea before you hit the unregulated supplements aisle.


The short answer, of course, is that every writer is different. Some people keep a tiny notebook in their back pocket. The writers who do that, in my experience, are mostly men, because the patriarchy doesn't let women wear comfortable clothes with pockets. Some writers dictate their ideas into their smart phone. I've done this while driving, but otherwise find it rather too dramatic. The protagonist in Lily King's Writers and Lovers -- a book I recently quoted on instagram, and is really a book for writers --- jots notes on napkins while she waits tables, stuffs them in her apron pocket, and later transfers them to her desk drawer. Just reading about this messy bitch and her mushed up napkins made me insanely anxious. It obviously works for Lily King, though!


Every so often, out in the wild, I do have an idea I want to keep. When that happens, I send myself an email or a text message, for one simple reason. I am not disciplined or organized enough to transfer notes from one book to another, or even one screen to another, unless I'm later prompted -- by text or email -- to open the note. If I even so much as open the text before I'm sitting at my desk, it may be overlooked. I am not proud of this.


But the vast majority of my groundwork and planning happens in one place. This guy over here. I tend to keep this notebook in my purse. And yes, I always use the same pen -- this Pilot Precise V7 -- so get off Madam Vice President's back.



The drill was different when I wrote strictly academic work. Not only because we didn't have smart enough phones then. I basically did all of my brainstorming and outlining on the computer because of the sheer quantity of secondary source material (i.e. quotations and context taken from other historians) and primary source material (documents from the past). Essentially and with some exceptions, I would open a new computer file for every piece of research, and save all of them in the same (dissertation) folder. No like, the folder was literally called Dissertation. I'm sure there's a better way, but that's water under the burned bridge now. Byeeeeee!


No matter what nonsense you get into, however, writing a long article or book requires some method of tracking and organizing insights and research. When I decided to do the historical novel, I tried switching to index cards on an idea board, thinking the visual platform might help me organize my astounding creativity. This old dog didn't like that new trick, though. Within days, I reverted back to my notebook. Here are some early scribbles that demonstrate my process. Much like my dissertation pages and folder, each note or correction or addition gets its own discrete page. Most get a title, as well, so I know what I'm looking at when I go back for reference.

Character genealogy, so I knew everyone's age through time. I found this incredibly important writing about the transitions from the Civil War to Emancipation to Jim Crow.

One scene was critical to the unfolding of the legal case, and I had to spell it out, for myself, so I didn't miss or reveal anything. Arthur being disgusting sounds funny but his appearance and behavior actually changes another character's mind.

I created this little schematic page based on early Charlotte research, so I had a mental map of my characters.

Any process that works for you is a good process! I'm not remotely wedded to this one. And I'd love to hear what other writers do (comments). For me -- and perhaps this closing analogy might help someone -- writing a book is a lot like cooking a meal. A complex meal, for guests. Not like, Monday enchiladas for the kids. You start by finding or retrieving a recipe which, we might say, is the basic structure of the story. To make any single dish, then, you go through various steps -- chop herbs, reduce caramelize onions, make a Béchamel, crush pecans, whatever. But you have to do each one, with the larger recipe always in mind, especially if you tinker or fiddle with it. For me, the pages of a notebook are the work of the prep cook. By the time I start writing, a lot of these tasks are finished - or at least, started. Do I sometimes mess up and use oil instead of butter, or taste a dish and decide to change the flavor profile of the menu? Yes, all the time. In which case, guess what happens? BYEEEEEE.

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