Hey there, Idea Campers. How are your imaginations feeling? Excited to hit the trails? YES! But also a bit hungry? Yep, mine too.
Today we're supplementing that foundation with an easy, fun habit. Which also packs a huge punch.
This is the habit that helped me build my favorite writing project EVER. (So if I'm a bit excited ... that's why.)
And it is so simple—you'll love it. Ready?
I call it Idea Scouting. And it's one of the best ways to build an army of ideas that will absolutely march in and rescue you, whenever you need 'em.
So get your word nerd on, and let's dive in to what Idea Scouting looks like.
1. Run to your most beloved reference book.
The point of Idea Scouting is to develop a rich catalogue of ideas, right at your fingertips.
Where do you find these ideas? From fantastic reference books.
Any compendium of words, phrases, or facts will work splendidly: I'm having a fling with a set of old encyclopedias, and I'm also still in love with my Collegiate Dictionary. So that's what I head toward.
But any other collection of facts, random entries, explanations, or odd tidbits will be perfect.
Browse the reference section and see what strikes your fancy.
(My most recent favorite place for this kind of thing is Atlas Obscura: I signed up for their emails and now get an incredible selection of fascinating info emailed to me every day. Trust me, it's completely addictive!)
2. Read like a scout (and not like a student).
Here's the great thing about this kind of work: You don't have to dutifully copy out facts and dates. You're not writing a report. You don't have to care about any entry that doesn't grab you.
You're a scout.
You're on the lookout for anything that glimmers.
You're walking through the woods of all this information with your eyes wide open for any motion, anything out of the ordinary, anything that strikes you.
In other words, it's meant to be fun. You're searching for what you naturally like—and there are no wrong answers for that.
Notice what you notice. And leave the rest.
What's awesome about this: you are a totally unique, super original person. And by grabbing the ideas that appeal to you, you're building originality right into your idea files.
Which is GREAT news for all your future writing.
So feel free to play to your quirks and lean on all the subjects you most love.
3. Take notes—and write wide.
This is the most important part of the whole Idea Scouting ritual: where your simple habit turns into mega-genius.
But it's super easy. Almost effortless!
When you're reading, and you notice something that catches you—a word, a concept, a phrase that's fun, an image, or anything at all—you write it down, of course.
I've created separate files for different categories: character ideas, setting ideas, miscellaneous concepts, etc.
And I've arranged mine alphabetically because I adore the alphabet. But whatever suits you will work just fine.
Pull up your appropriate file, and jot down the tidbit that caught your eye.
But then you press just a bit further: Write down anything that your imagination is already telling you.
In other words, you don't just copy down the words that sparked you. Add everything else that showed up in your brain.
Maybe a definition brings to life in you a particular character, with a certain tone of voice. You write down at that entry everything you sense about the character, and maybe some exact dialogue as well.
If another entry sounds like the perfect place name, you write that down, and anything about the place itself that you can see or sense.
Or maybe there's just a word that you love: if you can see it clearly, add in the specifics about what you can see.
Remember that great Heather Sellers quote about writing down images instead of ideas? Yeah. Do that.
Because this is definitely a place for images.
The more you can see and hear and sense, and the more you write alllll of that down, the much richer these files will be when you need them.
THAT is what makes your Scout Files so valuable. Every idea comes partially prepped!
At the moment of writing it down, it feels like almost no work at all. It's easy to write when you can see something clearly in your head, right?
But when you're searching for something later, you'll have all that juicy imagination work all ready to go.
COMPLETELY amazing. It's a game changer.
4. Keep coming back.
Turn the process into a habit, and you'll never be low on ideas.
So when do you do this? It's up to you.
Maybe it's the first ten minutes of your writing day. Or maybe once a week you have a thirty minute idea-finding festival. Or some other pattern.
The most important thing is: To do it regularly, and to do it in such a way that it's a fun exploration.
Not drudgery. Not something you have to do.
Keep it light. Ten minutes really works just fine! Long enough to find some ideas, and not so long that your brain turns to mush.
The other thing is: You'll want to come back to your Scout Files from time to time and scan them. Just check 'em out, read some of the entries, and see what stands out.
Maybe you'll want this review to be a regular habit too. It can be really inspiring to breeze through a list of ideas and feel your imagination revving up!
Or, you can just wander back through whenever the urge strikes.
However you choose to do it, you'll definitely want to do a major review of all your Scout Files before starting a new project. (Or, of course, whenever you feel stuck!)
See what works for you. The goal is to feel refreshed—not like you have one more homework assignment hanging over your head.
Scout Files in Action:
How is all this helpful? Well, the process itself gets you thinking and searching and imagining like a writer, which is incredibly valuable training.
But there's another huge reason why I love Idea Scouting and my Scout Files so much: those files are what fleshed out my current work-in-progress.
I had a slim, quiet little idea, something that wouldn't leave me alone. But there wasn't much meat on it.
So when I decided to take that idea out for a spin during Nanowrimo (way back in 2009!), I combed through my Scout Files. Especially my huge lists of possible characters and quirky concepts.
I pulled out everything that snagged my heart or made me happy or seemed to fit with the atmosphere of my new idea, and I put them in a separate file of their own.
And then, as I hurtled through Nanowrimo's daily writing quotas, I snatched those prepped ideas every time I needed a new character, a bit of setting, a detail, a plot twist, a new layer to the conflict, or a chance reference.
The result? A wacky, marvelously fun book that's packed full of ideas I love. (And which wasn't too hard to draft!)
It's become a book that totally grabs my heart. And it's turned into a trilogy, as those ideas launched more ideas.
... Not a bad payoff, for spending ten or twenty minutes every day, cheerily reading the dictionary (and feeling quite writerly).
YAY for that, right?
As you settle into this habit, you'll see that it radically ups your confidence. Eventually, you'll have your own army of ideas.
Wonderful notions for characters, settings, and amazing little details begging to be sprinkled through your next piece.
With that kind of back-up, you can march into any writing project ready for action.
... And also, can the nerd in me just say: it is super fun to work with ideas in a no-pressure situation. To be looking for delicious ideas before you need them.
There's another name for that. ... Hang on, what is it? Oh yeah: PLAY.
This is a great way to play as a writer! Because you're just messing around, reading a bit and letting your brain look around and scavenge what it will.
Wahoo!! This is what we love, am I right?
So which reference book will you be taking out for a spin? The incredibly useful dictionary, an agreeable encyclopedia, or some other reference that you're partial to?
Dig in. Let your imagination ramble.
And relish the ideas that come running out to meet you.