Top Tips from Authors: Keep a Record

Inspired by the Guardian article, in which they asked several authors to share their Top Tips for writing, I have extracted my favourites (there were lots to choose from. Lots). Contributors to the Top Tips article include Hilary Mantel, Annie Prolux, PD James, Sarah Waters, and Michael Morpurgo. Many of their tips focussed on similar themes, themes that I know will be particularly helpful to me, and hopefully they will be to you too. In this blog I will be focussing on them one by one. To see a list of all the themes, please visit my original post. Today’s theme is Keeping a Record. The key tips from the authors can be seen in the images.
Rose Tremain 2I remember once, years ago, meeting a woman who had an obvious obsession with turtles. I was in her office and there were pictures and embroidery patterns, ornaments, pencils with turtles on the end, a mouse mat with turtles on… She wore turtle earrings and had a turtle shell patterned scarf. The only thing missing was a tank containing live specimens. All I could think about for the entire time I was talking to her was what a great basis for a character she would make – not her in particular, but the idea of a person so obsessed with one thing in particular. I did like the turtles though. I imagined her being the headmistress of a school in a children’s book; perhaps a school for pupils that lived under the sea.
Will Se;f 3I haven’t yet used this character idea in my own work, but I made a note of the experience, and I never forgot it. From the mundane to the magical, little experiences and big events, unusual coincidences and overheard conversations, things that happen in your everyday life can provide the inspiration you need to write. Keeping a record of these things can be the most useful thing a writer does. Sometimes, though, it can go a bit too far – in my case, I have ended up with far more ideas that I could possibly ever know what to do with. Because really, ideas can come from anywhere, from things you do, see, or read. Things I have recorded include:

  • Conversations
  • Visiting historical buildings
  • Old documents/maps
  • Striking landscapes
  • Stories in the news
  • Just thinking, what would happen if…

Michael Morpurgo 3I have written about this before – about coming across a ruined manor house while out on a walk, and about the power of the unanswered question when looking at the abandoned suitcases belonging to the unknown patients of a New York asylum. Recently I commented on the images in the news of an ancient forest uncovered on a Welsh beach after heavy storms. Lots of authors take their inspiration from such things. When working as a lawyer, John Grisham witnessed a young girl giving evidence of a rape, and he wondered what would happen if that girl’s father had killed the man who did it. That wondering turned into the novel A Time to Kill.
Michael Morpurgo 2Carrying a notebook is the only way to make sure such moments don’t get lost or forgotten. Keep it by your bed as well as when you’re out and about, as dreams can be just as inspiring. I knew I couldn’t be the only one who had been inspired to write after having a vivid dream, and once I started to look, I discovered several authors who had done the same. Stephen King, for example, apparently had a dream (or perhaps a nightmare) about an obsessive fan that kidnapped and imprisoned her favourite author. On waking up he immediately wrote the first 50 pages of the story that became Misery. It’s clear that no matter who you are or what you do, there is inspiration to be found, and no one has to wait for it to come to them. But the well has to be kept full, as Michael Morpurgo suggests, living a full and varied life and making sure that you’re always on the lookout for that moment of inspiration. And remember, it doesn’t have to always be a prompt for a new piece of work. It could be helpful with an aspect of a story you might be stuck with, or perhaps help you get over a bit of writers block.

Ultimately, I’m not sure if you have to write what you know, but be inspired by what you have experienced.  Keeping a record is a good writing tip, and is something I have always done, even before I really knew I wanted to be a writer. Taking that moment of inspiration to the next level and turning it into a proper piece of writing will be the focus of the next Top Tips post – When and How to Write.


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