Write it down!

The value of keeping an ideas notebook

I am often asked where I get my ideas from by people in the audience when I give talks about my books.

It is a simple enough question, but the simple answer isn’t very helpful to others, so I usually try to expand on it.

I get my ideas from everywhere. I get them from stories and anecdotes people tell me, things I read in the newspapers, court cases that make the news, people I see when I am out and about, conversations I overhear, the list is endless.

Agatha Christie's ideas notebooks
But to make these ideas work and become the basis for a short story or an entire novel, you have to do three things.

First, you have to be open to ideas. You have to train yourself to be curious, to observe people and to make a conscious effort to think about what you hear and see. Afterwards you have to mull it over and consider how it could form the basis of a plot.

Second, you have to be creative. You can’t just take an idea and make it the plot for your book or meet an interesting person and put them straight in as a character. You have to play around with the ideas and think about how you can adapt them to fit your story, perhaps turning them inside out or adding a new twist. And with every idea you constantly have to ask yourself, what if?

Most of my characters are based on lots of different people. For example, my heroine, Sallie Parker, in The Body Parts in the Library has personality traits from many of my friends.

Third, you have to make a conscious effort to remember the ideas until you get the opportunity to write them down. You should write your ideas in a notebook you keep specifically for that purpose rather than on odd scraps of paper you could lose.

I often have a good idea and don’t get round to writing it down straight away and as a result forget what the idea was.

Also, I am not the most organised of people and have even been known to lose my notebook for a few days, so I like to have several on the go.

I don’t have very neat handwriting, so I have to make a conscious effort to write the idea down clearly so I can read it back later.

When I start plotting my novel I read through my notebooks and think about how I can use the ideas, providing I can read what I have written! Then I start another notebook specifically for my new novel, and put all the ideas in that seem to suit the story and hopefully the beginnings of a plot emerges from them.

I have always found it useful to read about the working methods of other writers in my particular genre to see if I can pick up any tips. There are lots of excellent books about the writing techniques of famous writers, which can’t fail to inspire other budding writers.

John Curran's book
 about Agatha's notebooks
I was fascinated recently to come across a book about Agatha Christie’s method of noting down her ideas and I was heartened to find she was nearly as disorganised as me!

Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks: Fifty years of Mysteries in the Making, offers readers the chance to see the rough, initial notes Agatha made for her novels in a large and varied stack of note books. You can read the first ideas she scribbled down that were to form the basis for some of her most famous and acclaimed stories.

It is inspiring to be able to see how even half formed ideas expressed in just a few cryptic words could lead to a best selling novel being produced that would be printed and reprinted time and time again and made into several different film and TV adaptations.

The author of Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, John Curran, was lucky enough to be the first Christie fan to be granted access to her work notebooks.

When he was invited to visit her former home, he stumbled across a cardboard box full of notebooks kept on a shelf in a long, narrow room where all the letters, contracts and typescripts relevant to Agatha’s work were kept.

Agatha wrote her ideas for novels
 in a series of notebooks
John recalls the moment he discovered the notebooks: ‘I lifted the box on to the floor, knelt down and removed the top exercise book. It had a red cover and a tiny white label with the number 31. I opened it and the first words that I read were “The Body in the Library – people – Mavis Carr- Laurette King.” I turned over pages at random. “Death on the Nile- points to be brought in… The Hollow – Inspector comes to Sir Henry…”

‘All these tantalising headings were in just one notebook and there were over 70 more still stacked demurely in their unprepossessing box.’

John knew then how he would spend the rest of the weekend and, as it transpired, the next four year of his life.

Perhaps his most dramatic discovery was a notebook containing two previously unpublished short stories featuring Hercule Poirot, which he later included at the end of his book about the secret notebooks.

Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks by John Curran is well worth reading to see how the Queen of Crime worked and how she noted down her ideas.

There are new and used copies available on Amazon.


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