Nancy Hendrickson is the author of more than twenty non-fiction books. She lives in Herb Cottage, a San Diego hideaway where she cooks up more ideas than she’ll ever have time to write.
Her (free) online magazine Writer’s Life
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Now from Nancy:
How to Use Simple Notes to Build an Article
Whether you write fiction or non-fiction (like I do), you know that details can pull a reader deep into your story. That’s why – before I write a word – I make a list of all the sights, sounds and smells that will eventually become my article’s building blocks.
Although I’m not a travel writer by profession, I’ve written a fair amount of travel pieces; what I’ve discovered is that it’s when I’m on the road that I become fanatical about making lists of my observations.
When I travel – and now more recently every day at home – I keep a small notebook and pen jammed down into my pocket. Once filled, the notebook goes into a big box along with dozens of others. And those notebooks – even ones I dig out from 10 years ago – are so detail-rich they instantly pull me back to a specific place and time.
Your techniques might different from mine – but when I’m taking notes I don’t even try to write in a narrative fashion. I generally scribble one or two words – just enough to capture what I’ve seen. Here’s an example:
- bug that drew blood
- cottonwood trees
- afternoon wind
- creepy road
- dogs barking
- lumpy bed
- milky way
- pine bluffs
- black butterflies
Got Notes, Now What?
Once I decide to write an article, I pull out my notebook of lists and begin mind mapping. I don’t use my iPad or PC – I just get out a piece of paper and start free-associating.
Now here’s the amazing thing:
As I mind-map (clustering is what we used to call it) I start making interesting associations. In this example, the two things that immediately got my attention were the black butterfly and the bug that bit so hard it drew blood. At this point in the process I wasn’t sure why those two things felt so important but I trusted my gut and from there the story was born.
List + free association + mindmap = creation.
You Don’t Have to Travel to Take Notes
You know, it’s funny how memories become corrupt and fade over time; a switch here, a switch there and what we remember can take a 180 degree switchback. That’s why taking notes in the moment saves at least what was real at the time.
I’ve been a note-keeper for years and more recently expanded my list-taking to local places – not just travel destinations. Here’s one I made just yesterday. I don’t know how I’m going to use it . . .
- purple door
- walnut woodwork
- green carpet
- Mexican workers
- two ladders
- empty kitchen
- stacked boxes
- deco glass
. . . but I know these words will form the foundation for an article or essay. And, I know that once I re-read the list – even months from now – I’ll be back in the place where the list was made. Then, the feelings will come tumbling back until they form the words.