Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Writer's Notebook

A few days ago I finished reading a book of interviews with writers. All of them are successful Australian authors who've written bestsellers, received critical recognition for their work, and in most cases, earn a comfortable living from their writing.

When you immerse yourself in the mind of writers for a solid 280 pages, patterns begin to emerge. In this case, the predominant pattern was not one I'd been expecting. It's a takeaway so simple that if I hadn't heard it repeated at least a dozen times by a dozen different authors, I probably would have just skimmed right past it.

Simple. Elemental. And yet, it's something I don't do.

Do you want to know the one thing that most of these authors have in common?

Well, let's use a process of elimination. It's NOT any of these things you may be thinking:

  • Their path to publication. Some had agents, some didn't. Some self-published first and were discovered through that avenue. Some wrote for years before breaking in; others wrote a couple of chapters and were contracted on that basis by the first publisher they submitted to (one at the age of fourteen!)

  • Their chosen genres, which were varied - from crime thrillers to literary works.

  • Their approach to research, which ranged from the extreme dedication of one author who learned French in order to be able to read primary sources for her novel set in France, to another author who said "the joy" of writing science fiction is that "you don't have to do any research."

  • The amount of words they write per day, or even the requirement of writing a certain amount of words in a day at all. (John Marsden, author of the multi-million bestselling "Tomorrow" series for young adults, surprisingly said of his writing time, "it may only happen twice a week or it may not happen at all some weeks.")

  • Their approach to platform and marketing, which varied from "out there" to "really not my thing - my publisher does it all."

  • Even their love for the craft. (One award-winning and prolific author cynically remarked, "I mean, there are important things that people can do in the world. Writing more novels in a world that doesn't need any more novels is not one of them.")

So what on earth could it be?

The answer surprised me.

The one thing most of these authors had in common is this: 

They use a notebook to record their observations of daily life.

Image by Stoonn,
So simple it's easily overlooked, and yet actually - the more you think about it - so fundamental.

We're not talking about a notebook where you jot ideas for your WIP - plot twists, character descriptions and the like. That probably comes more naturally to all of us, out of necessity. 

By comparison, the observation notebook seems almost... trivial. Non-essential. 

But when a dozen successful authors, interviewed independently of each other, all cite this one common habit as a foundational element of their work, it sure made me sit up and listen.

It also made me think. What's the big deal? Why is it so important? This is what I came up with. You could probably add more to this list.

4 Benefits of using an observation notebook:
  • It will breathe life into your characters. The personality quirks, physical appearance, facial expressions, modes of dress, habits and reactions you observe in the people around you are rich fodder. If you want to create characters who seem real, instead of cardboard cutouts, observe real people everywhere you go - and record those details.
  • It will enrich your settings. How often do you sketch a setting in a line or two, using the same stock-standard phrases - because you really can't visualize the setting with any certainty in your own head? Our memories are unreliable. We forget the pungent, particular details of the places we've been - unless we write them down.
  • It will keep your writing brain in gear. Many of us compartmentalize our writing and non-writing time. I know I do. But this makes it harder to switch gears when you do have time to write. The habit of keeping an observation notebook has the power to change your daily mindset, so that you approach the whole of life with the curiosity and keen observation of a writer. To use another metaphor, keep your writing brain simmering away with ideas instead of turning off the heat once your writing session is over - it'll be that much quicker to bring it back to a rolling boil when you next sit at your computer.
  • It's an endless source of ideas and inspiration. In an interview with novelist Louise Zaetta, she was asked whether she ever experiences writer's block. Her answer? "No, and I'll tell you why not. There's a beautiful way to avoid writer's block, and that is to have a notebook with you at all times where you endlessly record the things that happen in life. Out and about. Anywhere. At someone's place for dinner. I once interviewed Claire Astley, who said she does that. She has her little basket of bits of paper on the floor. Whenever she gets stuck she just pulls one out, and it may have something on it that she observed a year ago and she'll write about that. Somehow or other you can fit everything you have observed into your work. There's hardly anything you'll ever have observed that you can't use. So if you have a good notebook you should not have to suffer from writer's block, because you can just use something from there. Write that and it will lead you on to something else. It's a marvellous resource." (Literati: Australian Contemporary Literary Figures Discuss Fear, Frustrations and Fame, 2005)

Image by greenphile,

I don't know about you... but I'm inspired.

I've used an observation notebook in the past, but only very sporadically, and never for long. It was a habit that didn't stick, because I never fully internalized the value of what I was doing, and therefore didn't prioritize it.

From now on I'm making a commitment to carry a notebook with me everywhere I go, and take a minute here and there throughout the day to jot down the rich and colorful details of daily life, which will otherwise be forgotten.

Who'll join me?


One surprisingly simple secret of many successful authors - it's probably not what you think! Tweet 

Many successful authors keep an observation notebook. Here's why you should, too: Tweet

Why a pocket-size notebook and pen could be the most powerful writing tool you use this year: Tweet

Karen Schravemade lives in Australia, where she juggles writing with being a SAHM to three small kids. She's had short stories published in two literary journals and is represented by Rachel Kent of Books & Such. Find her on her website, Twitter, and getting creative on her home-making blog, A house full of sunshine.


chris said...

Very interesting Karen! So true, I keep a notebook close by throughout my day. I recognized that if I wanted to continue to write enticing content one of the streams that I would have to share from is everyday life. Be Great!!

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

I love that!! - "one of the streams that I would have to share from is everyday life." That's such a wonderful statement, and so true. I need to follow your example and keep a notebook close by!

Susie Finkbeiner said...

I have to agree with this! My notebook is always with me. It's invaluable even though I only spent $4 on it. I have notes from trips to the grocery store, great sermons I've heard, little turns of a phrase I liked...just a little of everything. I have another (smaller) notebook by my bed for as-I'm-falling-asleep thoughts and ideas.

Great post!

Susan R said...

Absolutely. It is unbelievably helpful to be able to relive unique moments in time via an observation notebook.

I have tried in the past to keep a paper notebook with me, but it always seems to be where I'm not. And many of my amazing insights into human behavior happen 1) in the shower 2) while driving 3) at 2am (recording dreams is also a great resource).

Hallelujah for smartphones. I am NEVER without my phone, and can use the voice recorder and speech-to-text functions when physically taking notes would be inconvenient. Of course, I can also use it to take notes when talking out loud would be gauche.

The point is- it is something that for me is always within arm's reach. And that is what is important about an observation notebook.

Katherine Vaughan said...

Definitely inspiring! I've used notebooks like this in the past but, like you, it never really stuck. I was never fully convinced it was worthwhile.. But this has persuaded me otherwise! I can absolutely see how characterization could improve drastically simply by observing and writing about others that pass through our lives. Thank you for the great post!

Pepper said...

oh WOW!! I love this!! Karen, you said it - so simple that we don't even think about it, but my mind is steeping with possibilities!
What a great idea.
I have a notebook on my phone where I record WIP notes along the way, but I've not had one for simple, everyday inspiration.

Totally getting a notebook!

Julia M. Reffner said...

Love it! I used to do this back in college. Need to start again. Such a simple idea. I'm getting a notebook for sure!

Susan Anne Mason said...

So simple yet so powerful! What a wonderful post, Karen!

Will definitely try this!


Jeanne Takenaka said...

Like others have said, Karen, I LOVE this! What a great idea. I've got a note pad in my purse, but I don't often use it for recording life. I'm definitely trying this.

I am one who, in public, I try NOT to look around too much, but to stay focused on the task at hand or the person I'm talking with (when I go out for coffee). Maybe I need to take myself out for coffee or a trip to the mall with the FOCUS of looking around me more. :)

Loved this!

Joanne Sher said...

So so SO need to do this! Love this post, and the reminder. GOnna grab a notebook and put it in my purse right now!

Amy Leigh Simpson said...

This is awesome!!! Funny thing is, I almost always have a small notepad in my purse... yet I NEVER record observations for writing. I just assume I will remember. Ha! Righhhht! Definitely gonna try this! Great post, Karen!

Unknown said...

Hi my name is Ron and I suck at keeping a notebook. And I work around some of the quirkiest people imaginable (it's Detroit...'nuff said). But I shall try to do better. Especially since I just sat on jury, so I've got all manner of weirdness running around in my head (other than the usual).

A. M. Wilson said...

Great idea! And people watching would become more interesting this way, too. :-)

Kathleen T. Jaeger said...

I love this idea! I love that it is so simple and it rings true. What the writer brings to the work is her observations, isn't that what any of us are writing about at all? The observations that we make. I definitely want to do this.

Marji Laine said...

I love this idea! I often write up thoughts and story ideas, but it never occurred to me to jot down things that I notice. I'm so going to do this!

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

SUSIE, so cool that you're already rocking the notebook! You go girl!

SUSAN R, using speech-to-text on your smartphone is such a great tip! Thanks so much for adding that.

KATHERINE, yes, having the reasons for doing it makes such a difference. Here's hoping it "sticks" for both of us this time!

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

PEPPER, I'm glad you're just as excited about this as I am! There's something so invigorating about trying something new, isn't there? (And I LOVE your new notebook!)

JULIA, yes, so simple I almost wondered whether to write a post about it. Glad I did! Sometimes the simple ideas are the best. Here's to both of us sticking with our new notebook plan!

Ashley Clark said...

Love, love, love this idea, Karen! Thanks! I'm planning to start carrying around a journal now! Plus, I need to get better about regular journaling anyway. Such a simple but helpful tool to use!

Ashley Clark said...

Love, love, love this idea, Karen! Thanks! I'm planning to start carrying around a journal now! Plus, I need to get better about regular journaling anyway. Such a simple but helpful tool to use!

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

SUSAN, welcome to the notebook club! I started writing in mine last night. So far, it's been a lot of fun!

JEANNE, I agree, I feel weird looking too closely at other people, especially if there's a chance I might be caught - ha! A lifetime of "it's rude to stare" ringing in my brain. And I don't want to turn into some weird stalker-staring person either. Having said that, I enjoy "people watching" when I'm sitting somewhere like a sidewalk cafe and just watching people go past. That seems more ok somehow. I like your idea of making an expedition of it! :)

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

JOANNE, yay! Now I just have to remember to take my notebook with me - that'll be the next challenge! Having one always in your purse is a great step.

AMY, don't we all assume that! I've learned my brain is pretty much a leaky seive when it comes to actually retaining those everyday details. I think I'll remember, but I don't. (Incidentally, that's also why I have a different notebook to write down the funny things the kids say. I'm always so SURE I'll remember, but a week later it's gone. My Mum taught me that habit - she always had a notebook for our funny little sayings, and we used to love reading through it when we were a bit older.)

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Haha - everybody together, "HI, RON!" :) I suck at keeping a notebook too. But I'm going to do better! Weirdness is fantastic notebook fodder. Write that jury stuff down before you forget it!!

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

A.M. - yes, it does put a new spin on people watching, doesn't it? Even doctor's waiting rooms could transform from boring to fascinating.

KATHLEEN, yes, observations are at the heart of all our writing - love how you expressed that!

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

MARJI and ASHLEY, so glad you're inspired! It's fun to see so many people say they want to try this. Here's hoping we can all make it a habit that sticks!

Mary Vee Writer said...

I especially like the idea of everywhere. I am amazed what gets jotted down even at church!

Super post, Karen. Thank you so much for stimulating this conversation.

Casey said...

What an observation, Karen! I've honestly never thought about doing something like this. I think I've toyed with the concept in other "markets" so to speak. Like writing down emotions, etc in an emotional journal, but not a notebook of just life. Good stuff! Thanks so much for sharing those observations!

Gabrielle Meyer said...

Love the idea, Karen! Thank you for sharing this great tool. I'm inspired to put a notebook in my purse and start jotting down the things I see.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

MARY, thanks! I think that's the trick, isn't it - remembering to take it everywhere. Maybe I should tie a piece of string to my finger. ;)

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

CASEY and GABRIELLE, thanks, girls - so glad this inspired you!

Jeanne Takenaka said...

PS—I bought a notepad this morning! Looking forward to filling it with observations. :) Thanks again for this idea, Karen!

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Yay, Jeanne! :) Way to go!

Unknown said...

I have always kept a notebook for my WIPs, but I had never considered keeping one for observations of daily life. A very intriguing idea. I have stacks of notebooks just waiting to be filled.

MandyB said...

Interesting article - thank you. I have notebooks for most of my writing ideas but not this valuable resource. Thanks for sharing. I would like to feature this article on my Reblog-Wednesday feature (tomorrow) if you are OK with that?

Unknown said...

I used to carry a notebook around too, though I've changed to using a tablet as my notebook. I found that I had trouble reading my own handwriting sometimes :P

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

MandyB, sorry I didn't see this in time to get back to you. Thanks for linking back to this post from your blog. Glad you enjoyed the article!