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The Commonplace Book: A Miscellany of New Ideas.

Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves or we know where we can get information upon it…Samuel Johnson.


Johnson was quite right (which is just as well, because he generally did think he was right!); if you know where to get the information you need, your research is halfway done. Which is where a Commonplace Book comes in, because sometimes (quite often, really), writers don’t know what they’ll need to know or even what they’ll want to write about until it jumps out at them.
Think about this. I was skimming through the Sunday supplements one afternoon (not necessarily on Sunday of course…) and was absorbed by an article on genetic history….the story of people who’d discovered that they have ancestors that don’t belong to the cultural, social, national or even racial group they always imagined they were part of. I cut it out, for no better reason than it was interesting, and as a writer, I keep things that are interesting. I put it into my Commonplace Book.
Months later, I came across it and started to write a story about this subject. I researched it closely, battled on, finished it, submitted it, and, a year later, saw it published as a novel for 9+ children called Tough Luck.

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Thank you – Commonplace Book!
A Commonplace Book is a store of incidental items that a writer might find useful, informative or inspiring in time to come…a collection of  ‘miscellaneous’ cuttings…pages from magazines or printouts from the internet…photos, postcards, business cards, leaflets, maps, CDs & DVDs. Collecting incidental items is what a Commonplace Book is all about.
A Commonplace Book is useful in two main respects:

  1. Sparks of inspiration – save anything and everything that might get you writing.
  2. Research material – if you know what you are interested in writing about, search out cuttings, pamphlets, etc on specific subjects. If you don’t know what you’re planning to write, keep things that attract your attention.

Get into the habit of collecting ideas in this way, and leaving them in the file for however long it takes for them to brew-up into something you might want to write about – this might be days or years. What you are doing is nourishing your imagination. A writer never knows what will spark an idea that later becomes a poem, or a novel, or any kind of creative writing…one newspaper article might easily become another.

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Project Three of Part One, Writing Skills, introduces you to The Commonplace Book, also explaining its history. But writers who have never heard the term may still have one; they’ll be calling it their cuttings file, or ideas box, or whatever. I’ve always called mine a ‘Miscellany File’, and out of this file has come several of my children’s stories, most magazine articles, and many of the various themes, ideas and characters you’ll find in my novels.
When I use an idea from my file, that section starts to grow. For instance, I have a completely separate file on stories and pictures of shamanic interest, most of which I’ve gathered on my travels, but sometimes have clipped from publications. I browse through this file when writing my Shamanic Mystery Series.
If you haven’t started your own Commonplace Book, then now is as good a time as any. Keep a writerly eye open for things of interest that might spark your interest or fuel your research into a specific subject.
In Writing Skills, I don’t recommend using a notebook or scrapbook, because cuttings often include articles that run over both sides of a page, and ‘sticking them in’ will become a problem. A writer’s commonplace, or miscellany, file will contain all the visual or written material that catches their interest, or excites the imagination, so it will grow like topsy – although such a file will probably start out as an envelope of cuttings, but the collection will eventually become large enough to be moved into its own box folder or office drawer. Mine is in a shoe box with the word Amblers on the side.
This idea may date back centuries, but the concept can be brought bang up to date by printing out the things you find on the internet and adding these (do check the source URL is printed at the bottom of the page). I recommend doing this, as well as ‘saving’ such sites or pages, because it has been shown that when we physically read a hard copy of something, we take far more of the information in. And a hard copy, popped into your CB, is actually harder to lose than a saved file.
I’m pretty sure Johnson had a commonplace book, full of miscellanies, if this quote from him is anything to go by…If it rained knowledge I’d hold out my hand, but I would not give myself the trouble to go in quest of it…
Sometimes, the right information drops into your hand, and when that happens you’ve got your Commonplace Book to store it in until further need.
Image: Samuel Johnson c. 1772, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Posted by author: Nina
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7 thoughts on “The Commonplace Book: A Miscellany of New Ideas.

  • I think a commonplace book would be an excellent idea for visual artists too. I like the way you talk about keeping things that relate to areas you are already researching and keeping things that seem interesting, even though you don’t really know why at the time. Most visual artists keep sketchbooks which, I suppose, relate to a writer’s notebooks. Things like photos, postcards, magazine articles can also spark ideas for visual artists, but I wonder how many of them think of keeping them in one place for reference?

  • Thanks for this Nina, such a useful and inspiring blog.
    I can’t believe I didn’t already have a CB, but I printed a news story that caught my eye today, so now officially have one! I can see it being useful for ideas and inspiration for many years to come, so thank you for the prompting!

  • For the IT purists, there’s EverNote which can be installed on several devices and synchronised across all. I already have 500+ articles after less than a year 🙂

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