Keeping Track of Story Ideas

Hey, SE Readers. Joan with you today. One of my first posts at Story Empire was titled “The Stories Around Us.”

Ideas come to me in all kinds of places and all sorts of situations—on an Alaskan cruise ship, observations in restaurants, things I see while driving, listening to a song, or watching a movie. Story ideas are certainly all around us.

I once told someone that I had more ideas than I have time for writing. That’s probably true for a lot of writers. What’s an author to do when he or she gets a great idea for a future project?

Not having time to write doesn’t mean you need to abandon your ideas. Many writers have a backlist of potential stories. Some keep them in file folders on the computer. Others jot them down in a notebook. I’ve even heard of a few that use index cards.

Don’t count on being able to remember days, weeks, even a few hours later. I probably shouldn’t admit this, but there are times when I’ve been in the middle of writing a sentence, stop to correct the previous one, and forget what I planned to stay.

Before I began writing my Legends of Madeira series, I purchased an inexpensive journal. I used it to jot down ideas, character names, brainstorm possible scenes, and more. It’s small enough to carry in my purse, and I often use my lunchtime for brainstorming sessions.

A recent study showed distinctively different brainwave patterns between typing and writing by hand. When writing, our brain receives feedback from our motor actions, together with the sensation of touching a pen and paper. Writing by hand boosts the learning process.

Notes for Cold Dark Night

In addition, being away from your computer or smartphone is less distracting. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had an idea, start to type it, then open a web browser to research a particular aspect. Two hours later, I’ve gone down more rabbit holes than there are in Watership Down because I find research to be addicting.

Another advantage to using a notebook is being able to look back at your notes after you’ve finished a story. You’ll find things that didn’t work, others that made the story stronger, and some you ended up not using. Who knows when and where those unused items might find their way into another story?

A morning brainstorming session. (Ignore the typos)

For those ideas that come in the middle of the night, and they often do, keep a pen and paper next to your bed. Once again, don’t count on being able to remember them the next morning.

What about those times when you are driving, and inspiration strikes? Most of us have smartphones with the ability to dictate into a notes app. Take advantage of that. (Please don’t text or type while you drive. You want to live long enough to write the story.)

Before smartphones, I kept a small tape recorder in the car. Today, digital recorders are relatively inexpensive and are small enough to fit into a purse or pocket. If you don’t want to use your phone, consider purchasing one of these. You can then plug them into a USB port on your computer and play the dictation.

I’ve also used my phone to record my thoughts to get the “feeling” of a scene. While writing Cold Dark Night, I wanted to get a feel of what my main character, Tami, would experience while sitting on her front porch after moving to Madeira. I sat on my porch and observed the things around me. Granted what I see in East Texas would be much different than in Northern New Mexico, but it gave me a general sense of space.

Lastly, keep a list of all your ideas, including potential character names. Eventually, all my notes go into files on my computer. That way I have them in one central location for easy references.

Have you used any of these methods? What other ways do you keep track of potential stories?

77 thoughts on “Keeping Track of Story Ideas

  1. Good advice! I jot ideas down on any piece of paper and then file them in a folder, going back over them whenever. I buy a notebook and then forget to take it with me. Also, I find hand written sentences are more ‘alive’ than typed ones.

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  2. At times, I’ve used WordPress to hold a thought for me in an unpublished post. I’ve got a notebook and an audio recording device but not always with me. Opening a fresh WP post (not posting it) is handy because it’s never far from what I do, or about to do. -M

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  4. HI Joan, these are all good tips. I have been known to get up in the night and right down a story idea, but that doesn’t happen to me very often. Ideas usually come as I am waking up and then I can quickly write them down when I get up. You are quite right that uncaptured ideas often vanish. I also use my Dictaphone in the car sometimes, that is how I came to lose a poem recently. Who knows where it ended up in the cyber world. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and ideas.

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  5. A notebook is a great idea, Joan. I have one by my bed and I use my phone to jot notes in the car. And I totally can relate to the difference between hand-writing and typing. I handwrite my initial story ideas and outlines and now I know why it’s so different from typing them out. Great post.

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  6. Me and the notes app are best friends. I spend a lot of time there. My phone is always with me and if I have a thought for a piece that I want to write I have to write it down or I will forget it. Or a certain line will come to me and I write it down because I know eventually it’s going to be something. Occasionally I’ll voice dictate while I’m working because the whole thing comes to me at once. Super inconvenient. But I’ve learned the hard way if I don’t get it down it’s going to be gone. Having that notes app has been a lifesaver!

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  7. I use my Notes app to record my thoughts and character names I like. I always have my phone with me, so it’s a convenient place to dump ideas. When I’m ready to expand on them is when I move to software.

    Someone famous (whose name escapes me) said you shouldn’t have to record ideas. If they’re good, you’ll remember them. If they’re not, you shouldn’t pursue it. They clearly don’t understand my memory issues!

    Great post, Joan.

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  8. Firstly, your handwriting is beautiful! I don’t have a smart phone but I do have notebooks and pieces of paper. Some of my best ideas come, as you’ve mentioned, at night. I’ve always got a biro there and some paper and I write in the dark. I try to remember how far down the paper I’ve gone so that I don’t overwrite but it happens quite often – the most difficult to decipher are those ‘briliiant’ ideas that I’ve written upside down on top of another one. It’s great to know that I’m not alone in this and that my unreliable memory is in familiar company. I collate my notes and sometimes they go in a notebook, sometimes they go into Word for arranging in an appropriate order. Brilliant topic, Joan!

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  9. Like everyone, I use most of your ideas. I love to write in a notebook, and I have several around my house. I keep paper and pen on my nightstand because, I have some of my best ideas after I call it a night. LOL.

    I also send myself text messages. I have the ability to talk to text in my car. This way, no tape recorder is necessary. This way, i can copy and paste my notes from my text message to my writing program (I use Scrivener) but it would work if I used MS Word. At times, I have called my home phone and left messages with plot ideas, names, scenes, etc.

    Great post.

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  10. This is a fantastic post, Joan! Yes!!! Way too many ideas, not even close to enough time! And the infamous rabbit hole. I’m guilty of visiting often thanks to my own love of research. I’d agree with you that it’s addicting. The one advantage of having a smartphone is being able to jot down notes in a moment’s notice. Such a convenient tool! Like you said, I like all my ideas to be in one place. I use Notion (online website) to record all my ideas, both for stories and character names.

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  11. Great post, Joan 🙂 Like you, I get ideas all the time and in different places. I keep a pen and paper by my bed and have to write down any ideas I have immediately or will forget them. If I can’t find a pen I will email myself the ideas for later. I keep a small notepad in my purse and feel more connected to the idea if I handwrite it at first. On my computer I have an idea file that I can reference when I’m ready for these ideas. I like your idea of recording them when driving.

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    • I probably should carry a smaller notepad in my purse as I don’t always have my journal. Never know when an idea will strike and like you if I don’t write it down, I’ll forget.

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  12. Excellent post, Joan. I have a notebook full of ideas. I also have Post-It notes stuck to the inside cover of that notebook, with even more ideas. I use my smartphone to jot inspirations if I’m not at home. I have a serious backlog in story ideas, for which I am grateful. Thanks for sharing your ideas here.

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  13. I won’t be around much this week to do more than Like/Tweet my favorite blog posts, but I had to take a moment to thank you for this one, Joan. I’ve always been absent-minded, with a head full of ideas that often got lost, but since my fall 2 years ago, my memory is totally shot, especially short term. I appreciate every one of these tips, though I’m afraid hand-written notes are not the way for me to go, if I have any other choice. (My handwriting has deteriorated to chicken scratches that even I can barely read most of the time. 🙄) Instead, I rely on my computer and a wonderful program called Scapple, which offers unlimited bulletin boards. It’s all offline, too, so I don’t have to keep my notes “out there” on the Internet. I’ve set up boards for non-writing ToDo Lists, Inspirational Photos, and more, including one for each book and each series I’m working on. I tack my notes for character names, plot ideas, maps, descriptions, etc, to the appropriate one of those. Works just like an actual bulletin board or whiteboard, but easier, at least for me.

    I don’t usually think about more than one story at a time these days–being older than dirt an’ all–but I do a lot of “What-If-ing” about whichever one I’m working on. Scapple notes have saved my life over and over. Since I’m seldom out of the house these days, this works for me 99% of the time. I highly recommend Scapple for those who’d like the bulk of their notes accessible on the computer.

    Thanks so much for this super post, Joan, and for sharing your tips and suggestions. 😀 ❤

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  14. I remember the days of hand held recorders. I used one for a while but could never quite get the hang of dictating my thoughts. These days I jot them in a notebook. I have one specially set aside for potential story ideas. I also keep three separate lists of names on my phone (female first, male first, last names). You never know where you might be when a story idea strikes or a name grabs you.

    I still remember the time I had fleshed out a short story in my head one night while lying in bed. I was so sure I would remember it in the morning, I didn’t bother to write it down. Needless to say, I’ll never make that mistake again! 😀

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    • Oh, wow. An entire story? And I anguished over forgetting a simple idea. I have name lists on my phone as well. Like you, I have male, female, and last names. Recently, I began a list of city names. You never know when you’ll need one.

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  15. Wonderful post, Joan. Situations and stories seem to haunt me day and night. However, I’m not as organized as you. At best, I write notes on pieces of paper or if I’m at my desk, I’ll make a notation under my WIP file. Mostly I rely on memory which, of course, is terribly rebellious. 😊

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  16. “I had more ideas than I have time for writing”, Well that’s literally me. Sometimes I override my two ideas and make it something less obvious.
    I don’t usually keep a notepad all the time, but whenever an idea strikes, I keep murmuring it until I write or type it, that may sound to weird to many, but that’s what I do.

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      • Well, thanks.
        You’re right. It doesn’t always work though, but ideas are something that may skip from mind for a while, but it’ll return just because it’s our way of thinking. It can’ be dismissed completely.

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  17. This is such a great post, Joan. You are right when you say story ideas are all around us. Often, for me, it’s a line in a song. Of course, I am driving when I hear it. Sometimes I can take a minute to pull over and jot it down. Otherwise, I keep repeating it in my head until I can. However, I hadn’t thought of using the notes option on my phone and dictating it. Thanks for that tip! I also have a whiteboard in my office where I have titles, brief story ideas, and character names. It gets full, though. Thank you for sharing the various ways to not let a story get away!

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    • I have a friend who dictates on her iPhone while walking on the treadmill. Great way to double-task. It seems that ideas come to us an the most inopportune times, but if I don’t write them down, they’re lost.

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  18. I use pen and paper sometimes, if I have something to write on, but given the career I had, technology was always more handy. For the past several years, every idea has ended up in Trello. I can access it from anywhere. Things don’t always start there, but that’s where they land at some point. I like the thoughts on writing vs. typing. I get that.

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  19. I have a shelf full of notebooks going back to 1995. Only a few are actually filled with most being pieces of stories. So, I outline and create characters in these things. Keep trying to organize my ideas and consolidate too. It never works out because I get busy and then come up with a new system by the time life settled down again.

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    • I have a lot of “garbage” and brainstorming in my notebooks. I haven’t been keeping them as long as you have, but it’s nice to refer back to them. Never know when an old entry can generate a new idea. Thanks for weighing in, Charles.

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  20. My iPad, phone, and emails are full of notes, ideas, and poems. Ido sometimes use pen and paper still but then I struggle to read my writing! 😂. I’ve found emailing ideas to myself not only records it for later but also makes for a free and easy back up copy.
    Your handwriting is so neat, Joan. I’m not jealous. Not at all. Honest 😉 Great post! Thanks for sharing 💕🙂

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    • My handwriting has gone from bad to worse over the years, so I know what you mean about being able to read what I wrote. LOL Believe me, I chose the “best” part of the notebook to share. If I get in a hurry… Well, let’s say a doctor wouldn’t have anything on me! Thanks, Harmony.

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    • I’m easily distracted when I’m on the computer, so a journal/notebook works well in those time. Funny thing, I have several word documents that contain opening lines or paragraphs. Some I look back on now and can’t figure out where I was going! 🙂

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  22. The trusty notebook is my preferred idea bank. But the best ideas are the ones that get away. Great ideas often arrive in the shower, where it’s impossible to record them. Unless I can think of some mnemonic device to preserve them on the spot, they go down the drain. Keeping a pen and paper other than t.p. in the bathroom would be helpful.

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