Kage Baker was very fond of lists. Not only did she depend on them to schedule tasks – she just plain liked them. Lists satisfied her sense of order. One could make a list and then tick things off – done, done, done, all the ducks (as she said) dead in a neat row with little cartoon X’s over their eyes.
I used to read out books of lists to her on camping trips, for amusement: 10 People Who Died During Sex. 14 Films Written By Blacklisted Writers. A Dozen New Recipes for Eel (No kidding, from a 16th century cookbook).
Informationally, a well-done list was a always a good beginning for acquiring knowledge. She used them a lot when working out plots – notes of points she wanted to hit, with sub-lists as needed to bring out the details … fractal lists. Kage loved the idea of fractals, where each detail of an object was the object in miniature: the Viewpoint of God, the vision of the bee.
So, beginning notes for a story would be a stream of consciousness list of questions like this: where did Petrie like to dig? Hands, shovels, dynamite? Flinders Petrie – rest of name? Is the story about the tutu real? Send Kate to the library ASAP!
As the answers came in, the new questions proliferated and branched and put out roots; and they began to form an ecosystem, like one of those aspen woods where the trees all share their roots and are basically one huge tree; and finally, they bloomed. Sometimes a list ran off and started another story. Sometimes it took over the one Kage was writing and became something else.
In childhood, notes were random and scarce: although,as she learned how to write book reports and essays, she slowly applied the research rules to her own stories as well. In the very, very beginning of her actual career – when she was trying to develop professional habits – she kept the notes for Garden of Iden on 8 x 11 sheets of typing paper, and taped them together edge to edge as they began to accumulate. She kept it folded up accordian-wise until it got longer than her desk was wide – then it went into the library (we had the spare bedroom lined with bookshelves) where it began to stretch along one wall like a glacier. Because she was left-handed, she taped it together more or less backwards, so each page had to read right-to-left, like Hebrew … By the time the first draft was done, it covered three walls and was reaching for its own beginning beside the door.
That method was not judged successful, after 6 months of trying to find my books behind a foot tall ribbon of handwritten analyses of Tudor politics had rendered me insane and frothing at the mouth. Kage changed to her beloved wire-bound notebooks, which worked well when she remembered to bring one with her. When she didn’t, she wrote on whatever was to hand – takeout menus, scraps of paper bags, my knitting charts and yarn skein labels. Grocery receipts, covered in her inhumanly tiny precise printing. Her own hands (and sometimes mine), which then had to be hastily transcribed before one of us forgot and washed a chapter resolution off with the dishes.
They say Nabokov kept all his plots points on 3 x 5 index cards. There is a (possibly) apocryphal addendum that when he found himself blocked, he’d throw them all up in the air and play 52 Pickup with the plot … and if he didn’t, he should have. Most writers do, in one way or another.
The notes from which I have been working these past two years were on all sorts of media – I mean, paper, sure (mostly) but in all colours, sizes, shapes. I even found old Ale Tickets from the days of the Green Man Inn, now immortalized not with the cunning design that would let a thirsty actor get a cheap Guinness, but notes on the Ephesian rites. Many of the notes for the Nell Gwynne sequel were in my own handwriting, taken in dictation as Kage lay in bed, holding off the cancer to finish a last plot. And yes, we traded lines from Amadeus over and over, snickering and gesticulating melodramatically: Do you have it? Show me! /You go too fast, you go too fast!
Me, I try to stick to Kage’s proven methods, but I’m not good at lists. I can make them – I can read them out, check them off, cross-reference until the cows come home and are checked off in their turn. But I’m not really that good at relating the lists to what has to be written, translating ( for instance) a list of the cold hard facts of the invention of carbon fibre to a titillating scene with corsetry … and I am certainly no better at sensible media than Kage was.
My lists are mostly on wildly coloured Post-It notes, stuck all over my desk. In places, they are stuck in cascades to one another in long swooping drapes, like stalactites or roosting bats. They’re stuck to my Kindle, my coffee cup; occasionally one sticks to the little black cat and eventually walks away to have a sun bath in the front yard.
Only today I was looking for my lists on manganese catalase. I found, instead, a grocery list from some weekend at Faire (shitloads of lemonade, it reads in Kage’s printing), and a more recent grocery list that reminds me we are low on H&H. Whatever that means to Kimberly … Lastly, I found a note from Kage. Try for better form, clarity it said.
Sounds good to me. I’ll add it to my lists.