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© Marg Gilks

Many years ago, a friend gave me a blank journal as a gift. I set out to fill that journal with detailed and insightful entries that would serve as a wellspring of ideas for my writing.

The rambling entries lasted for about a week. But that journal is still one of my best writer's resources, chock-full of ideas I've collected over the years.

An idea doesn't have to be an entire novel outline, or pages of research, or an in-depth analysis of your feelings or observations. It doesn't even have to be a proper sentence. It can be one word. It can be a picture. It can be a phrase — a few words arranged in a manner beautiful to the eye or to the ear, or which evoke imagery or emotion, or send a thrill of "what if?" up the back of your neck.

I collect ideas. The journal has become their repository. It's a wild jumble of ideas, a breeding-ground for stories, a treasure-trove of details. In it I tuck scribbles and scraps of paper that have somehow excited my imagination. I reread these tidbits periodically, perhaps pausing to do so while leafing through the journal in search of another idea altogether. The seed of an idea that originally prompted me to place the scrap in the journal germinates and sends out roots in the back of my mind, until one day it will burst forth as a story element, or a story entire.

Here are some of the things I find in my idea journal, and how I've used them in my writing:


Lists of words that roll from the tongue: Corinthians; pueblo; vector; philanthropist — all words I find pleasing to read out loud. These, I've discovered, have attuned my ear to language's natural rhythm.

Lists of names

I have a weakness for names; several pages of the journal are devoted to names. These are not typical "Name Your Baby" names, however. These are the names of computer fonts, name combinations pulled from my imagination, unusual words or place-names from languages other than English, or from history. These become exotic monikers for characters, tribes, cities and ships in my stories.

The list of computer fonts, spelling altered slightly, became names for members of a nomadic clan; the font "Ajile" became the name of their headwoman and "Aneirin" became her son, Nyrin. Ancient Greek words and place-names became the names of starships and planets in a space opera. I named a flagship "Arete," a Greek word meaning courage, excellence; my arid, desert land of Rakis evolved from Rhacotis, an ancient Egyptian fishing village where the city of Alexandria was founded. Too exotic for your tastes? Then consider the first name of a client — Sandro — coupled with a PC font such as "Galant" or "Verdana" for a memorable leading man's name: Sandro Galant. Never again will you settle for "John Smith"!

Magazine and newspaper clippings

The headline for a newspaper article — "Neighbors didn't notice man dead five years" — struck me as a poignant example of isolation and loneliness in need of exploration. An article found in an archaeological magazine that discussed Greek vampire burials led to a short story about a skeptical researcher, a superstitious prince, and the power of myth.

Overheard conversations

Borrowing from these can make your characters come alive. Picture the character who would utter the colloquialism, "Lord love a duck!" Or the one who would reply to "Don't be afraid of your body" with "You live in it for a couple days!"

Obscure bits

There are observations in my journal: obscure bits of trivia I've picked up in my reading, or my comparisons of these; the stray "that looks like/smells like/feels like" thoughts I have about something (the color of a cornfield in winter; how smoke moves; what green walnut husks smell like). People populate the pages, too — people I've met, or people I've watched. A man with a laugh like an asthmatic wheeze; a woman with the doughy face of an apple doll, a man dropping off a resume in a suit that's too small . . . they're all there, waiting for a place in a story.

Story ideas (and sentences aren't necessary, remember? All that's required of an idea is that it make you think): "Striving toward the ideal of a violence-free society . . . what happens when they meet the warrior society?"

What else is in that journal, that repository of ideas? Cartoons and poetry — my own and others'. Dreams remembered upon waking. Quotations — my favorites being those of successful authors, in which they relate their early failures. Nothing like a few of those to help you over that latest rejection slip! Scientific discoveries. Weird facts. And questions: what if? how come? who would?

Dump it all into your repository of ideas — every little scrap and fragment — and just watch what comes out!

Marg Gilks is a writer and professional editor specializing in fiction. She's been working one-on-one with authors to help them prepare their work for publication for over ten years. Visit to learn more about her editing services, manuscript evaluations, and FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION, her 8-week e-mail course covering fiction-writing basics including point of view, showing instead of telling...all the way through to putting the final polish on your manuscript.

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