Thursday, March 24, 2022

Cold Storage from James W. Ziskin

Where do you keep your ideas? Whether our minor characters are based on people we meet, or our plots are ripped from the headlines, all writers need a way to store nuts for winter and retrieve them later. How do you organize yours? Could it be better?

I keep my ideas in a locked box, squirreled away behind a secret panel in my attic. No one knows about this box. Or the panel. I’ve been careful and made sure it will never be found… Oh, wait.

Damn it!

Never mind. None of that is true. Actually, I keep my ideas in my head and in random files on my iPad. These files I name, “Story Ideas.” In fact, there aren’t many ideas rolling around in there anyway. I tend to keep two or three story or book ideas in my head at any given time. Since I’m not a good multitasker, I can’t juggle too many thoughts at once. So I concentrate on a precious few.

While I’m waiting for the perfect moment to dive into a project, I try to keep the ideas fresh and fecund, associating them with some external stimulus or other. A pense-bĂȘte or a talisman, if you will. That keeps the ideas coming. Usually it’s a song that communicates the emotion or feeling I want to put into the story. But it can be weather, too. I love listening to blizzards and thunderstorms on my iPad as I doze off for the night. Depending on the theme of my book or story, those noises give me inspiration, even as I drift into slumber’s embrace. 

In my ideas files, I write down the plot in the barest minimum of details. Mostly, I jot down a mood or a setting. Sometimes there’s more. For a short story I recently completed, I wanted to stage a murder at a wife-swapping party on New Year’s Eve 1955. I typed up some details about the characters and the style of writing I wanted to try. For instance, I was determined to write that story without any dialogue whatsoever. Not a single quotation mark. And I accomplished that. With great difficulty, by the way. (Do not attempt this at home.) For this particular story, however, I refrained from searching out accompanying audio to play in my ear as I fell asleep.

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