Guest Author: Kate Forsyth on Using Idea Notebooks
Note from Devin Berglund – I would like to give my Australian Author friend Kate Forsyth a warm and exciting welcome to the Blue Monkey Writing Blog. Thank you for joining us!
There are as many different ways for a writer to work as there are styles and genres and voices.
I’m a scrapbooker.
I began with an ‘ideas notebook’. Whenever I get an idea, I’ll scribble it down in this notebook, giving each idea a fresh page. I’ll often get a sequence of ideas, all of which get written down. When I have several pages full, it usually means that this idea is going to be turned into a novel, because I’ve been thinking about it, and playing with the ideas, and imagining it into life.
I will then go and buy a new notebook. I LOVE buying new notebooks. I’m filled with excitement and anticipation, wondering at what story will be discovered inside its blank, white pages. I’ll take it home, and I’ll write down – in longhand – a rough outline of the novel as I then imagine it. I stick in visual images that inspire me – photos of Venice, for example, or paintings that seem to speak to me in some way. I write lists of things to think about, or that I need to know. What were the toilet arrangements in a 16th century Venetian orphanage? Did they have underwear? I began to play with different possibilities and ask myself questions.
Whenever I get an idea, I scribble it in, usually with the date at the top of each page, and perhaps the place and time too, so that I can remember when and where I was when that idea came to me.
My notebook is not pretty to look at. Many pages are scribbled all over with notes. I often write late at night, in the darkness, or on planes, or in the park. The pages are stained with red wine, or splashes from the meal I am cooking. Odd bits of scrap paper are stuck in, or maps, or even leaves and dried flowers.
When I have used an idea, I cross it out. When I want to remember something, I circle it and draw a hasty asterix next to it.
My latest book is a historical novel for adults, which entwines a retelling of the Rapunzel fairy tale with the true life story of the woman who first wrote the tale. The Rapunzel narrative is set in Renaissance Venice, and the story of the writer – a 17th century French noblewoman called Charlotte-Rose de la Force – is set in Paris and Versailles at the time of the Sun King. So I had two notebooks for this book, one for the Venetian part of the story, and one for the French.
I thought I would show you a few key pages from my French scrapbook:
1) The front cover I made for my notebook. It is a painting of an unknown young woman in the 17th century, who I thought might look a little like my heroine Charlotte-Rose de la Force. She is holding a quill, which becomes a recurring motif for my heroine throughout the novel.
2) The first rough outline of ideas for the book
3) Note(s) about bees from early on in the notebook – bees become a key symbol in the novel
4) Idea(s) from early on in the notebook – a key motivation for Charlotte-Rose for retelling the story of the girl in the tower
5) I was out to dinner with some friends when I was asked about the novel I was then writing. I told them I was writing a Rapunzel retelling, set in Renaissance Venice, and that I was looking for a place to set the scenes in the tower. One of the guests, a man I didn’t know, was German. He wrote down a few suggestions on this pink Post-it note. When I got home, I stuck it in my scrapbook. The first suggestion was Sirmione, on Lake Garda, in northern Italy. A year later, my three children and I spent a week staying in Sirmione, the most beautiful medieval village with a tower that looked exactly like the one I imagined Rapunzel living in. Eventually I chose another tower on the shores of Lake Garda, but I love this note in my scrapbook because it reminds me of how writing a novel is really just a series of serendipitous discoveries.
6) The opening lines of the book, written in longhand. I don’t always write scenes in longhand first. Usually I write straight on to the computer. However, I write longhand when I wake in the middle of the night, unable to sleep because of the words clamouring to be given voice, and I write longhand when I am away from my computer, or turned it off for the evening.
7) The book begins with Charlotte-Rose being banished to a convent in the country by her second cousin, Louis XIV, the Sun King. I had to do a lot of research into life in a 17th century French convent. To help me imagine what it must look like, I stuck in photos of convents, floor plans, lists of their daily devotions and chores, plus much more.
8) A list of characters in the opening scenes at the convent
9) Another character list for Charlotte-Rose’s years at the French royal court
10) Here is a chapter outline. You can see it has been dated at the top, plus there’s a word count for how much I have already written. I usually do chapter outlines as I reach them in the narrative, rather than before I start writing
11) A time line for Charlotte-Rose’s life – as I discover new things I scribble it on the page, then type it up and print it out again. By the end of my notebook, the time line takes up two pages
12) A map of Gascony, where the scenes of her early life are set, along with a list of things to do
13) A list of chapters written, where and when they are set, word counts, and dates completed. I find it really makes me feel I’m accomplishing something if I keep a record, and it helps me control the structure and pace of the novel.
One of the things I love most about the way I work is that it shows the evolution of an idea, or a sequence of ideas, into a full-blown novel. It reminds me that I start with a blank page, and then follow all sorts of trails and false starts and sidetracks until I discover the story. This reassures me next time I start a novel, and am overwhelmed by the audacity of what I am setting out to do.
Do you also have a book journal or something of the sort? If so do you do anything different? If so what do you do?
Kate Forsyth, Australian Author is well known for her Fantasy writing. You can follow her blog here!