Paper is the writer’s friend, especially when you have a great idea in a restaurant and want to scribble down the main points but your cell phone is dead and your laptop is back at home and the idea is losing its thread and you’re desperate…ah-ha! The crumpled napkin from your lunch sits next to your pen and…you create a masterpiece outline. Too bad it fell out of your pocket as you left the restaurant. See #10 on what might become of your great idea.
There are all kinds of personal papers just waiting for writers to mine the gold found within. For July’s 10 on the 10th, here’s 10 takes on what you might discover.
1. Excerpts from diaries and journals can fill in details in a story without being an “As You Know, Bob” moment. Be careful though — avoid info dumps or long boring passages — create excerpts that seem real while providing only the details the character (and readers) need to know.
Use this technique if it’s a logical addition and not “oh yeah, the reader needs to know there’s a secret rendezvous place so let’s have the character who can barely read suddenly have a journal with all the details conveniently hidden under her bed…”
2. Actual diaries and journals can be a tremendous research rabbit hole for writers to fall into. Tantalizing pieces of history are on offer that often set up more questions than answers:
Today, we stopped at Aunt Mable’s farm. Cousin Dedalaus refused to come out and say hello. After we left, Papa said we weren’t to ever go back there. Mama just smiled and said We’ll see.
3. Shopping lists can give insights to character personalities such as someone who claims to be on a diet yet has ice cream, sugary drinks, cookies and candies on their list.
Or how about a character who writes their shopping list in alphabetical order: apples, auger, bananas, bread, garden hoe, jam, measuring cup, milk, onions, plywood, yams, yellow spray paint.
Or a character who creates a shopping list by cutting out the pictures from grocery store flyers and pastes them onto a sheet of paper?
Why not just take the flyer along and circle the items to buy? Well, maybe she needs items that are not all shown on one store’s flyer. Or maybe he has a thing for certain coloured foods. See how you can play with it, writer?
4. Shopping lists (or lists in general) can create questions when there’s something strange in the mix such as:
- take the dog to the vets
- pick up order from hardware store
- call Calli’s dance teacher to rebook
- rotate the body in the freezer
5. Letters can deliver surprises – Twists and turns in your plot can arrive in the mail — and of course, that can be via email. But there’s something offered in an envelope that email can’t capture. Before pressing SEND, consider ideas around handwriting versus typed addresses, and scented paper, or fancy seals on the flap.
Email will deliver the news but anyone who mails a letter or card these days is offering a bit of insight into who they are and perhaps even their motivation:
- Hello. You don’t know me but your father and my father were the same person. Call me if you want to know more. (what reader isn’t going to want the character to make that call?)
- Dear Homeowner, did you know your house is built over the remains of a sacred Druid site? (again, the reader’s interest is piqued)
6. Letters can add layers to relationships — Again, there are differences offered in snail mail vs email. But no matter which you opt for, the opportunity to enrich your story is there for the taking:
Dear Algernon, I haven’t been able to sleep more than an hour or two each night without knowing if you have any feelings for me. Last weekend at the dance, you spent almost the whole time with other women. But when you took me in your arms for the last dance, the warmth of your hand on the small of my back and the intensity of how you looked at me almost the whole time — Algernon, please tell me I’m not imagining things. In breathless hope, Hortense
7. Letters can reveal character — So, about that layering of the relationship. What Hortense perceives can be made clear to the reader if her correspondence gets this kind of reply :
Dear Hortense. Thank you for your charming letter. I confess to being confused, however. As an instructor, I’m required to dance with all the women in class. As you must know, it would be difficult for us to waltz without placing my hand on the small of your back. As to intensity of expression, that might have been my effort to avoid your rather sharp heel landing on my feet. Again. And it might also explain my waiting until the last dance before escorting you to the dance floor. I wish you only the best in any future dance classes. Regrettably, my classes are all full for the foreseeable future. Sincerely, Algernon
8. Classified ads can be a treasure trove of inspiration and ideas. Who hasn’t been moved by this famous six-word story, attributed to Ernest Hemingway and framed like a Buy & Sell advert: For sale, baby shoes, never worn.
But actual classified, “For Sale: Gently used prosthetic arm”, and especially the personals, can inspire or confuse – or both. Like this gem culled from New York magazine early-1990 archives:
Lovely, Lively, Literate — Lean, Lollobrigida-like NY lady — longs for love, laughter, languid lunches, lunar libations, with legally-free, long, lean, literate, loquacious non-lunatic, 40s–50s. recent photo, personal note.
Was she a writer with a penchant for alliteration? The possibilities loom large.
9. Glossy ads and feature articles are full of interesting characters and scenarios that can inspire ideas, such as beautiful happy people driving shiny sports cars with the top down on treacherous mountain roads. What’s waiting beyond the next bend?
Some ads are deliberately provocative, such as Australia Ad Standards: If You Are A Woman Don’t Bother Reading This Ad, meant to highlight unacceptable issues in advertising like sexism, racism, and other social issues.
And some ads are simply head-scratchingly inspirational for backstory, as in who thought a sarcastic ad about zits and a teen’s lovelife was a good idea?
10. Discarded scraps with phone numbers, cryptic notes, and even doodles can trigger ideas, questions and creative thinking. The Litter I See Project features poetry and prose based on found litter.
Since June 2015, Carin Makuz, has been sharing intriguing images of her trash-on-the-ground discoveries on her website and Facebook page, and more than 100 writers have answered her call. Visitors to the website can donate directly to Frontier College, a well-respected national literacy program for adults, youth and children.
Now that’s taking lost, forgotten or unloved items to a very good place. And the poems and stories are terrific examples of what you can do with scraps and scrawls.