Inspiration can arrive at any moment, yet often ideas are fleeting and difficult to hold on to. I often find I solve narrative problems or invent new story ideas when I am not writing, and the best ideas come when I am not able to write. I’ve found inspiration when driving, washing up, in the shower, at an event, in a meeting, or—worst of all—when falling asleep. Capturing these ideas in full is sometimes impossible, but there are techniques and methods to saving a part of them, which should lead to recalling the whole concept later.
The most obvious way to keep track of inspiration is by simply writing it down. Having a notepad and pen handy is always wise, especially in moments where you are able to use them. Bring a notepad to meetings and events, just in case. It looks much more polite to write notes than to type into your phone. It is also worth keeping a pocket-size notebook on you, especially on public transport. You can even have one on your bedside cabinet, along with a small torch or reading light, to record those late-night musings or lucid dreams that will prove invaluable as long as you can capture them.
This was one of my greatest investments: I keep it in my car, so if I am struck by an idea when driving I can pull over, tap one button, and then just talk whilst I continue my journey. It goes without saying that you should not break the law by holding a device when driving, nor should you do anything that restricts your ability to concentrate on the road. Dictaphones are also useful when walking, or to dictate paragraphs to yourself to then type at a later date.
My phone has a notes app, along with a voice recorder. I use both frequently in place of a notepad or Dictaphone, as I always have my phone on me. Additionally, taking photos or videos of scenes, locations, items, or conversations can facilitate later recall or help with scene-setting or characters. My phone has become a catalogue of research, background, scribbles and ideas, and is incredibly useful as such. Coupled with an app like Evernote, all this information can be seamlessly transferred to a laptop or computer for later sifting.
For those moments when you cannot write anything down, try using memory techniques instead. Coupling an idea with a certain visual cue, sound or song, taste, smell, or even texture, allows you to simply remember that prompt later, reminding you of the key details you wanted to retain. There are other systems including shapes, patterns, faces, sequences, names, numbers, or whatever you are best at remembering. Link your idea with something that you will recollect. You can even store the concept in an imaginary room or real-world location—using the ‘memory palace’ technique—or associate it with a different thought or memory.
If you can, speak about your idea with someone else. You don’t even need them to respond, just listen as you discuss the raw concept and, through doing so, filter it into something concise and memorable. Then, if you forget, they can remember details for you at a later date. If you are alone, try talking things through out loud; admittedly that sounds odd, but your brain registers your own speech as external sound and gives it more attention than internal thought, meaning you are more likely to recall the essential information.
The best way to keep hold of an idea is to store it in some way, even if that is only mentally. Remove anything unnecessary and just keep hold of the most elemental, core information. Then, as soon as you can, write.
© 2017 Seb Reilly
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.