I write historical fiction, so the idea of keeping a notebook to gather my research and questions about a new project isn’t a new one. But over the years my notebooks have expanded into something other than just a collection of historical tidbits. They’ve become an on-going private conversation where I can noncommittally explore the fragile beginnings of a new idea or work out troublesome knots once the story’s under way.
In other words, my notebooks are teaching me the importance of writing about the writing.
My novel Jasper and the Riddle of Riley’s Mine didn’t yet exist when it sold as part of a two-book deal. For a few weeks I was thrilled with my good fortune, but then panic settled in. I pulled out my notebook and scribbled down my worries: I’m not very good at plotting and have never created with a deadline. There’s pressure knowing I’ve sold something I haven’t even begun. Then I made myself try and answer these worries, to the best of my ability. Plot comes, I wrote. It can be discovered in character development and drafting. My agent and editor believe I can do this. If I can’t see this in myself right now, I can borrow their belief. I returned to this page in my notebook throughout the drafting process any time I needed a little courage.
The word “writing” is sometimes a heavy load for me to carry. My mind fills with word counts and productivity — the opposite of how my projects often progress. I’ve allowed myself to replace “writing” with terms that don’t hold so many expectations. Now I explore. Create. Discover. Tinker. Wonder. Practice.
This might mean figuring out what’s working with a premise and what isn’t. Or creating a list of historical details I need to further study. Some days it includes questions I have about a story’s timeline and plot or notes on characters — their secrets, their fears, the stories they tell themselves to make sense of the world — and their relationships with others. My notebook becomes a running commentary, an in-the-moment chance to reflect.
There was a particular scene in Jasper that I just couldn’t get right. Each time I’d turn it back in to my editor she’d point out what wasn’t working. One day I set aside the manuscript and returned to my notebook. I needed to hear from the characters in that scene — how their lives before this moment had influenced how they saw themselves, how their experiences had shaped their choices. Using first person, I wrote quick character sketches of both men. I realized one felt cheated, like he was owed something. The other was guarded and afraid. Knowing this opened up the scene in an entirely new way, allowing me to see how these two would interact and how they’d treat Jasper, the kid who’d stumbled in on their conversation.
In going back over my notes, I witness a book slowly taking shape. Each page records challenges that I eventually find my way through. Writing about the writing becomes a promise that someday my book will come together. Though it might be hard to believe in the moment, I hold the proof my story has made it this far, that it will reach the end.