I thought it was going to be a wasted day. Really.
It was a "Get to Know Your Way Around the Library" kind of day, during one of the first weeks of an information/technology class in college.
You know. One of those throwaway required classes; one of those throwaway required days.
My idea of a field trip to the library involves me hiding from the rest of my class, building a fort out of the children's picture books, and then reading my way through the MG and YA stacks.
(Can you blame me? No, of course not. You'd come join me and bring snacks. It would be AWESOME.)
Our professor's idea of a library field trip involved worksheets with a lot of blanks to fill; a required chat about the library filing system; and oh yeah, an extended amount of time to wander around the reference area.
All right, I thought. Fine, I thought. Let's get this over with.
... And about twenty minutes later, I was completely absorbed. Lost all track of time flipping through a massive listing of clothing styles from the last hundred years.
After that, I found a huge book comparing architectural details across countries and centuries. And then I found the animal encyclopedias...
And I became a convert. I fell in love with the reference area.
Not to find answers or cross something off a worksheet. Not to fill in blanks.
But to stoke curiosity, to let my imagination wander around and pick up whatever it wanted. To explore for exploration's sake.
Reference books!! Do ya love 'em?
I'm convinced that we writers need to be spending time in books that are full of facts, images, and odd details. And not just when our novels require the research.
No, what I'm talking about is a regular date with a nonfiction compendium-style tome or two.
If you're already doing this sort of thing, cool.
But if, like me, you tend to look at non-fiction with a "who reads THIS stuff??" attitude, then read on:
This is how my pure-fiction novelistic imagination fell hard for encyclopedias.
1. I get a daily dose.
When I have a daily work-in-progress (like now), I don't have a lot of time to read widely in other directions.
But, without the continual input of new ideas, my writing dries up.
So here's the balance I've struck: Every morning, to kick off my writing day, I dip into my encyclopedia. I'm reading every 300th page. Just a single page, top to bottom.
2. I'm a writer, not a student.
This has been a hard switch to make, but it's absolutely key.
When I first started this practice, I couldn't shake my old habits of being a college student. I'd pick up one of these books and dutifully write down all the important FACTS about whatever I was reading.
I took notes like I'd be tested on it. Like I had an essay to write.
And guess what. It felt like homework (and my less-favorite kind). I began to dread it. I dragged my feet. I couldn't see how it was going to help my writing at all, and I chucked the whole thing.
This happened again and again and again.
Until I remembered this: part of my job as a writer is to turn my imagination into a FACTORY.
An idea-making, story-spinning, dream-designing teller of tales.
In other words: this isn't for a research paper. This is to fuel creation.
So I don't have to take notes at all...
Unless something nudges me.
Unless some stray little fact attaches itself to one of my characters. Unless a chance description makes me think of a new setting. Or a plot twist. Or a scene.
That is what I write down.
Not the dates and names and details that I don't care about. I capture the images, moments, and descriptions that are already switching from fact to fiction.
I try to be a story-seer and story-breather when I pick up an encyclopedia. Whatever trips that internal story sensor: I write that down, as completely as I can.
With whatever imagery, whatever dialogue, whatever else I can.
And I keep alllllllllll those notes in my passive idea files.
Trust me. It's a game changer.
3. Run down all the rabbit trails.
Part of the point of this whole exercise is to keep my curiosity at a healthy, strong level.
So, I do keep myself within a time limit. (Fifteen minutes each morning, or a longer session now and then. Or, between projects, maybe a whole day of exploration.)
But within that time limit, I can do whatever I want.
If an encyclopedia entry mentions something that intrigues me for some reason, I track down more information.
If I can't visualize what they're talking about, I do a quick Google images search, or I chase down video footage.
My process: I always start with a physical page, a hard copy of the encyclopedia... But then I supplement it with the glories of the Internet.
4. And then I trust my crazy imagination.
All this gathering of images and facts, all these dalliances with encyclopedias and random fact-full books: it seeds the imagination.
And this will save your idea-making bacon.
The imagination can do a lot. It can get you out of every single plot problem, every dead end in your writing. It really is your super power as a writer. (That and a consistent words-onto-paper habit.)
But it can't do much if it's been starved to death.
So I've learned to lean in to these little explorations. I go deep. I read slow.
And I let my imagination glean what it will. I've realized that I can trust it: it's storing up more than I know.
Bits of my readings can resurface months later--tidbits that I didn't even write down. The imagination shows up and unlocks a plot problem with them and then... I feel like a genius.
Which is one of those times when it is lovely to be a writer.
5. And then this: It's super fun.
So recently I was looking at gorgeous, stirring images of the Cotopaxi volcano, and then pictures of barrows in the Cotswolds, and my imagination was having a FIELD DAY. Telling me all kinds of interesting things to write down. Creating alternative landscapes and filling them with people and plot twists...
THOSE TIMES. When you feel idea-rich and word-plentiful.
Those are the times when this writing life fits. When it feels good, when the work is pleasant.
And it's that much easier to hit the desk the next day and the next.
Isn't that a habit worth having?
So that's how it works for me. I kick off my work days with fifteen minutes in a 1965 Encyclopedia Britannica. (Plenty of that old-book smell.)
My imagination grabs ideas, cracks its knuckles, and gets to work.
This is one of the many things that keeps my writing practice healthy and alive.