Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Brainstorming: What's your method?

By Morgan Tarpley
Whether notecards, notebooks, journals, binders, Scrivener, Smartphones or a mass of notes pinned to a giant corkboard, there are just a plethora of options to plot and brainstorm a book. And in an attempt to figure out what works, the process can be an extremely overwhelming one.
I’m speaking from experience. I’ve tried about all of these and more and I think I’ve finally narrowed it down – to a bit of all of them actually.
When I first set out on the road to write a novel several years back I had no idea where to begin, so I naturally turned to research from popular writing books to the blog posts of favorite authors and I’ve compiled some of my favorite plotting methods from some of my favorite writers.
Michael Crichton
The first is the notecard method from the late great Michael Crichton. Crichton puts most of us “busy” writers to a bit of shame for he not only sold over 200 million copies of his books across the world but he also was successful as a screenwriter, television producer, film producer and film director—whew—and he also was a doctor and wrote while attending Harvard Medical School.
Through his notecard method he was able to work on his writing with the bits of time he had here and there. It’s not a rather complex method, but when I read about it I was blown over with why I hadn’t thought of it myself.
Crichton would tuck a small stack of index cards into his shirt or lab coat pocket and when ideas for scenes or characters, etc. came to mind he would simply remove a notecard, jot it down, replace it with the stack and forget about it until he got home and he’d toss it into a shoebox with a growing heap of others.
When the shoebox was filled and he didn’t feel any more ideas coming for that particular story, he’d riffle through the cards and arrange them on a table until he’d have an outline for his novel. He’d revisit this outline over the course of days and add new cards and shift others around until fully satisfied.
Next, he’d stack up the cards and place them in a index card box and whenever he had some time he’d remove the first card and write that scene, rinse and repeat, until the whole novel was completed.
Brilliant right! Yes, I do think so. I’m sure you can agree that ideas crop up anywhere, anytime with no rhyme or reason, so I have a slim index card holder I keep in my purse so I can jot down notes quickly. Then, I have several shoe box size boxes on a shelf in my office where I can drop ideas for each new book that’s building in my mind plus one box for miscellaneous ideas too. It’s helpful!
Kate Morton
Australian author Kate Morton has published six novels which have sold millions of copies and been translated into many languages. She’s one of my all-time favorite authors, so, of course, I had to pay attention to how she crafts such complex and unique twists and turns in her story worlds.
On her website, this is what she had to say about her use of notebooks/journals for her brainstorming: “I am absolutely a notebook person. To imagine being without one fills me with dread … By the time I finish writing a novel, I’ve usually gathered around ten notebooks of story ideas, random images, plot schematics, scene details, graphs, snatches of overheard conversation. . . you name it, it’s in there. Scribbled, crossed-out, connected with arrows, stapled in on top of other bits and pieces. Quite a mess, but a somehow lovely one. I’m a visual person and to see them sketched out in my notebook helps me to clarify my thoughts and pin down my ideas. Also, the pen in hand forces me to focus…
“When I was about a quarter of the way into The Shifting Fog (House at Riverton) I lost a notebook … It was an awful experience, but it taught me that no matter how essential the notebook seems at the time, no matter how tightly I cling to it when I’m dreaming up a story, a novel is a living, breathing organism and will continue to grow—perhaps in even more propitious ways than those sketched out—without it. There are always more ideas and new ways of tying them together, and the unconscious mind is a powerful thing—it doesn’t need a notebook to keep hold of the really important ideas.”

I love notebooks and journals and paper in general too! I’m right there with her, and like Morton I think the pen in hand and the blank pages of a journal or notebook peering back at me is a fantastic way to dive into a story. It’s one of my main go-to brainstorming methods where I can scribble and dream up any direction that the story could go.
Morton also says when she gets stuck in writing she’ll go to a cozy corner of a coffee shop, notebook in hand, and start writing as fast and furious as she can until the ideas start flowing again and she’s back deep into the world of her novel. That’s just lovely.
More Methods
There are so many other methods that authors use for writing, researching, and brainstorming, etc. I’ll mention three more here though there are so many more that I have learned about over the years. I’m sure you have too! And I’d love to hear about them in the comments.
An author whose books I really enjoy is Sarah Sundin. She writes inspirational historical fiction set during World War II. I was privileged to finally meet her in person this year at the ACFW Conference in Dallas, TX and attend her class about historical research. In this class, she shared about her research methods utilizing a well-tabbed binder with loose-leaf paper and printouts, etc. and the Evernote app where one can create digital-type notebooks and collections.
Another fascinating tool used by a favorite author, Kristy Cambron, is a smartphone. She writes all her first drafts on her iPhone. Cambron is another author I was pleased to meet at the conference in Dallas.
Popular author of fiction and wonderful writing books, James Scott Bell writes in several of his books about his use of the computer program, Scrivener. He especially enjoys using the digital corkboard feature that allows digital index cards to be moved around in different order, which also allows for a quick outline to be compiled and printed for his review.
So What About You?
So whether it’s a digital notebook or real one or a plethora of other methods writers sure employ a lot of ways to organize their thoughts and research. In my writing, I utilize a combination of the methods listed above: journals for brainstorming and character sketches, a well-tabbed binder to organize printed research, notecards or Notes feature on my iPhone for ideas that hit me throughout the day. I’m rather curious to find out what other methods are out there and are preferred.
So what method do you use? Is it listed in this post? Or is it a combination of a few of these? I’d love to hear about it! The more methods to ponder the better to find out what works for us. Thanks!

Morgan Tarpley is an award-winning newspaper reporter and photographer in Louisiana. She is also a historical novelist currently seeking representation. Besides writing and traveling to over a dozen countries, her interests include acting in her local theater, genealogy, photography, and singing. She resides in Louisiana with her husband.

For more information about Morgan, visit her website ( and blog ( You can also connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, orGoodreads.


  1. I used to use notebooks and loose paper, but the kids like to draw in them and hide them, so now I do most everything on my laptop. I create a folder for my my character sketches and notes/research, and I fill up a Pinterest board with photos, inspiration and links to useful articles. I also include mood music that sets the tone of the story. :)

    1. Hi Angela, thanks for joining in! :) I love your ideas! Mood music is so important for me in writing too. I create playlists that go with my books. And gotta love Pinterest!!

  2. Well, being an old dog who is learning new tricks (aka technology), I still gravitate back to pen and paper. I, too, like the index card method as a quick reminder but since I have a notebook/journal addiction I incorporate that into my brainstorming method(s) also.
    Thanks, Morgan, for a great post!

    1. Thanks so much for joining the conversation, Carole! :) I have a notebook/journal addiction too. lol.

  3. Great post, Morgan. Very timely for me as I start the ideation process for my next novel. I'm a notebook person. I now use a BIG Moleskine but I also take a lot of notes on my iPhone as I go through a day. Typically I just send myself messages (they're free) and you can save them forever. I keep meaning to dive into Evernote and/or Scrivener (and have dabbled in both) but still prefer the touchy feel of notebooks. It also allows me to stick clippings from all manner of places without having to do the "scan-thing" or take photo that an app requires.

    Love that you love Kate Morton. We Aussies are very proud of her - incredible the volume of books she's sold and how popular she is overseas. I'd suggest she's better known in some countries overseas than her home down under.

    1. Thanks, Ian! And yes I adore Kate Morton’s books and think it’s great that she’s a proud Aussie author! :)

      You can’t go wrong with a trusty ole notebook. Indeed. I email messages from my iPhone to myself all the time too and place them in a folder within my email. You’re right. It is free and very handy!

      I haven’t dove into Scrivener much yet. I’ve mostly just skirted around the edges of it, but I’ve heard from a lot of people that they just love it. I have been using Evernote though and it’s so neat! You can download their web clipping icon (it’s of an elephant which is neat) on your Internet bar at the top of your screen and use this feature to “clip” or save parts of websites, etc. and organize them into digital notebooks to store your online research that way. It’s soooo handy! You should give it a try.

    2. And happy brainstorming on your next novel, Ian!!

  4. Morgan, excellent post! I love using index cards and notebooks, and I eventually compile all my important story information in excel spreadsheets.

    1. Thanks so much, Narelle! :) Yes, good ole index cards and notebooks. Fairly inexpensive and lovely. Lol.

      Aha, Excel spreadsheets! I haven’t used them yet, but I have heard from several people that’s how they keep track of all kinds of things such as character description, character lists, timelines, etc.

      What type of things do you place in your spreadsheets if you don’t mind me asking?

    2. I put nearly everything that's related to my story in a spreadsheet. It helps me keep track of all the small details, especially for series books. I set up a new file for each book and keep all the background series information together. Character details, GMC, timeline, scene outline that becomes the chapter outline, word count, setting information. For a new book in a series, I use the previous book spreadsheet file as the foundation for creating the spreadsheet for the new book. I like the portability of being able to access my spreadsheet on my phone.

  5. I do very little pre-work for my novels because I'm probably 85% pantser. However, I keep everything very organized in Scrivener as I discover it. When I'm stuck, I go to my 3x4-foot white board and mindmap, using all my vibrant dry erase pens!