Kage Baker never kept much of a story idea file.
That’s the file where you keep the ideas that might become stories. It’s full of articles of interest, isolated signs or photos of provocatively dubious provenance, and disjointed phrases that somehow made your hair stand on end. Sometimes there are whole written but orphaned scenes – detailed in their brief existence, but with no support or progeny. Sometimes there’s a character description, or a note that you need to write a story about a character with a specific tattoo; or maybe a wooden leg with a whistle carved into it that sounds The Ride of The Valkyries when they run real fast ..
It’s your own private slash pile. Most of the entries will never see the light of day. Kage kept some notes in her file, but it was really only because I nagged her to do it. She rarely went back and resurrected an idea from those halls of preserving amber. I’ve used a couple of them, when writing “Pareidolia” and finishing the second Ladies of Nell Gwynne’s novel: which is where I discovered that Kage had only kept enough records to placate me ..
I might have a few sharp words about that, if I ever got the chance. Probably not, though. I’d be too happy to turn the whole thing back over to her. Once I got done hugging her and crying, anyway.
Myself, I do keep notes; advancing age is poking holes in my memory process, and I have to take larger steps in order to keep up with it all. Of greatest help have been two of the tricks Kage did use, on the winding road between brilliant idea and tortuously-hacked out story.
- She just didn’t wait – when an idea struck Kage, she followed up on it immediately. This sometimes required her to set aside a project already in progress (usually, actually) and write on the new one until the inspiration slowed down enough to let her trade back and forth. But it meant that she was rarely idle, almost always had an idea in the works and 2 more in the wings, and had the smug confidence of the thrifty housewife who has laid in enough flour, salt and butter for the winter.
- While she didn’t keep the damned idea file on her computer (my life would be sooo much easier if she had!) she kept her notes. Her physical notes. Her physical notes on everything – both in topic, and in range of materials. This is why I find old plots, characters, reveals, landscapes and in-jokes all over in the boxed remains of our shared life, preserved on everything from scraps torn from printer jams, to flattened candy boxes, to unwanted pockets ripped off hoodies. (Really. You cannot imagine Kage’s determination to write on something when the fit took her.) As long as you can get used to it, it’s not a bad system. Luckily, as a confirmed bibliophile, I love the perfume of gently aging paper, so wandering through the old manuscripts, piles, envelopes and Baggies of scraps – with Kage’s spike handwriting poking out everywhere – is always a bit of a treat.
Do I keep actual bits of paper? Yep, I do – not as many, but I do. Most of the disjointed bits of writing end up on the envelopes from old medical bills and notices, simply because I have a lot of those stacked up on my desk. It saddens me, though, to have to report that after a few months, my notes make about as much sense to me as Kage’s decades-old ones … but it does add an element of surprise and adventure to trolling through the stacks.
I also try to write as soon as an idea occurs to me. This means a lot of getting up in the middle of the night, but half the time I am awake anyway. Depending on how comfortable I am, I can fire up the desk top, or write long-hand in a moleskin notebook in lavender ink: and, Dear Readers, never underestimate the effectiveness of handwriting by candlelight in some romantic, senseless colour – these romantic urges can lend an urgency that quite carries the story forward.
Lately, I have been writing on my Kindle. I use a little Amazon Fire notebook for my Kindle stash, and it has the room and capacity to let me compose online. So I do. Half of this entry was composed while I jeered at Congress at 1 AM this morning. Especially recently, I cannot rest without without catching Rachel Maddow, whose reporting still possesses the rare trick of informing me without enraging me: so as I listen to Mordor’s armies assembling in the East, I write. In the recliner, with my legs up and a pillow in my lap to hold the Kindle, and usually with the ginger Maine Coon cat sticking her huge feathery paws in my ears from where she reclines on the chair-back. Just now, this is a perfect combination of comfort, utility and annoyance, and keeps the creative flow going.
In the end, though, I do what Kage recommended most of all: just wing it. Sit down and write – anything, everything; to be a writer, you must just write. You’ll find a place for it all somewhere. Eventually. As long as you don’t stop.
Never stop. Unless, as some joke says, you can be Batman – but if you’re Batman, you’re an obsessive loonie and can’t stop anyway, right?
It all works out. No one knows how. It’s a miracle …