My Project Notebook is probably the most important—not to mention the funnest—part of writing a book.
I’ve changed my approach over time, adapted it little by little to find out what works for me, and this is what I’ve come up with. The basic idea comes from Nancy Campbell Allen’s project notebook—here’s the link where she explains how she does it. You can even order her pages and print out a million of them:
But I’ve changed it to what works for me—she’s much more organized, and an outliner, and I’m sort of a mess.
So, first of all, my notebook has the cover—I try to make it something that sets the mood of the story, so as soon as I pick it up, I’ve got the right frame of mind. For some reason, this is a huge deal to me, just getting the feel of the story. And I do it a lot through pictures and colors.
This example is from a book I wrote about Spain. The characters—I love finding headshots of my characters—Sidney and Emma are on there, and a map of Cadiz during the Napoleonic wars, and then I also have a picture of the city. I love the cool architecture of southern Spain, and this city surrounded by water inspired this story, so I like to have that picture right away when I pick up the notebook.
And as a side, I love the little rings instead of a heavy binder so I can roll it up, fold it back, whatever. This baby will be in my purse, or my computer bag or my car or wherever I am for the next 6 or so months, so I like it to be flexible instead of a solid heavy binder.
Of course there’s a pink bow—this is a romance with a naïve, and cheerful main character, so I like that to remind me of the mood I’m setting.
This notebook is from a short story I did for a Series set in a fictional town—Lobster Cove. And it was contemporary, so I didn’t need to do tons of research. I kept everything in this little notebook I ordered from zazzle.com. That’s a map of Maine sticking out of it, and I have a postcard book that I kept with it.
Alrighty, what’s inside?
These are the tabs I use—I know there are more that would be smart to include, but this works for me. I have Brainstorm, Outline, Character, Running Edit, Research. I like to keep everything together. And I usually don’t start my notebook until I’ve done a whole lotta research and made outline notes and brainstormed plot and characters, so it’s nice that I can just take it out of wherever I’ve written it and stick it in here.
Let’s talk Brainstorm. I do it everywhere. On napkins, on church programs, whatever…Then I keep all the little scraps of paper and stick them in the brainstorm section of the folder. Even if it doesn’t make sense, or if it’s messy—if nothing else, I can look back and think, “wow, this story was really headed in a different direction…”
I combine Outline and scene tracking in one tab—it just works for me, plus these cute pastel paisley tabs only came with 5 sheets, so I consolidated.
I like to have a scene goal—or sometimes it’s a chapter goal, and when I think of something that should happen in that chapter, I stick it on the page. I use the sticky notes because I found myself crossing things out all the time when I changed my mind, and ripping the pages out and starting over. It was a mess. This is messy too, but what can ya do?
In this page, I made a diagram of where everyone sat at a dinner party—It’s not pretty, but sometimes you have to see it all laid out for it to make sense.
Character—In my Project Notebook, I write pages and pages about each of the main characters—what are their strengths, weaknesses, character flaws? What do they look like? Their goals in life, etc.
And I brainstorm things that they might say, or how they might feel in particular situations. Sometimes this is where I get my best ideas for conversations and interactions, so I love to have my notebook with me when I’m at soccer practice or sitting in bed without my computer.
As I’ve worked on a series with recurring characters, I’ve found how important it is to have a separate “Character Bible.” This is independent of my notebook, and I record things in here that are going to affect the characters in the next book.
Things like, How old was Emma when her father died? Did I mention that in the book before when I talked about her brother? Not in depth character things, just so I don’t have to go back a hundred times and look for the information.
I love having pictures in this book. And I add to it all the time.
The ARC system at Staples is awesome for this—I’d love to use it for everything in the world, but I don’t. I just use it for my Character Bible. No reason why. It’s just how it is.
Running Edit is where I make notes as I go.
So, if I change my mind about something as I’m typing, I don’t have to stop my forward momentum and go back and make the butler’s name Miles instead of Hastings, I just make a note and do all that later.
This is also where I put my notes I take at Critique Group and things that I know I should change, or check on. Like, I write questions to myself here of things to look up, but if I did that every single time I didn’t know something, I’d end up losing my train of thought.
Last of all is the Research Tab.
It’s pretty self-explanatory. I take notes in every book I read, and keep good research notes, sometimes, I want to go back and re-read something, or I want to know where I got the information. I love the diaries in Google Docs, and if I print out something from there, or some information about, say Charleston during the war of 1812, it goes in this section.
Also things like poems that the characters refer to, or pictures.
I always print a calendar in this section, too.
One reason is because when I do a historical, there are no lights and I can’t have the moon bright and shiny every night. Another reason is because while I’m a disaster in some areas, I like to be as accurate as possible. This is a calendar of 1812.
Maps go in here, things like that.
So, I’ve been preparing to start on my next historical. I’ve read and taken notes from a bunch of books, printed out maps, a few journal entries, I have all my tabs ready, my headshots and scenery shots, and a general outline. So now to put it all together—create the mood (I know that sounds so cheesy, but that’s how I roll)—for what I’m working on for the next few months.
Pretty wonderful, wouldn’t you say?