Use Your Noggin To Get Lots of Ideas


Herein is another entry from the unpublished journal of legendary pulp writer William “Wild Bill” Armbrewster. For the previous entry, see hereabout his initial meeting with the young writer, Benny Wannabe.
The kid came in all freshly scrubbed and smelling of Brylcreem. He had a big stupid smile on his face, like he’d just kissed a cheerleader.
“Well, I’m here, Mr. Armbrewster,” he said.
“Don’t state the obvious,” I said. “You want to be a writer, don’t state the obvious. Let the reader figure out things for himself.”
I was typing at my usual table at Musso & Frank on Hollywood Boulevard. This was the first “official” meeting between Benny Wannabe, kid writer, and yours truly, William “Wild Bill” Armbrewster, professional scribe.
“Go get me a usual, and a Coke for yourself,” I said, handing Benny a fin. I took that time to type out a line for my tough guy, Cliff Hanlon, to say to an embezzling bank president.  “Money may not grow on trees, but it certainly sprouts on your girlfriend’s ring finger.”
When Benny got back with the liquid, I said, “Where’s your notebook?”
“You know, that thing? With pages? To take notes?”
“I don’t have one.”
I slapped my forehead. “You want to be a writer, don’t you?”
“More than anything.”
“Then you have to write things down. You’ve got to observe, and record what you see. Look around the room. Tell me what you observe.”
He turned his head like Charlie McCarthy and gave Musso’s a quick gander. “People eating,” he said.
“Wrong,” I said.
He frowned.
“You’ve got to see more than you see, see?”
He shook his head.
I sighed. “Look over there. See that couple?”
He looked.
“Who are they?” I asked.
“Why, I don’t know. I never met them.”
“I’ll tell you who they are. She’s a cigarette girl from the Trocadero. He’s a bigshot lawyer from downtown. He’s also married. And not to the cigarette girl.”
“You know them?” Benny said.
“Never saw ’em before in my life, but that’s what I see. And in an hour I can type a story that’ll sell to Dime Detective.”
“But how?”
I tapped my noggin. “Up here, boy. You’ve got a muscle between those big pink ears of yours. A brain, with an imagination already included. But you’ve got to work your imagination, like it was training for a distance race. You’ve got to run it around the track, every day. Do that, and it’ll get stronger.”
“Now look at the corner over there. What do you see?”
He looked at the big man with a napkin stuffed in his shirt, giving the business to a steak.
“A big man eating a steak,” Benny said.
“Try again.”
“Try, Benny, try. Look at him. What do you see?”
Little furrows appeared on Benny’s forehead. He kept looking. That gave me time to give the business to my Martini.
Finally, he said, “Maybe he’s a policeman.”
“Good, Benny, good! Keep going.”
“What kind of cop?”
“A…big one?”
“Think! Why is here?”
“Because he’s hungry?”
“I’m going to need another drink.”
“Wait…let me see…he’s off duty.”
“That would explain the suit. But why here, at Musso’s?”
“He likes the food?”
“Come on, kid, don’t make me despair of life! What’s strange about a cop, on a cop’s salary, eating a steak at Musso & Frank?”
“It’s expensive!”
“Ah ha! And what kind of cop can afford an expensive steak?”
“A cop who…”
“Come on, you can do it.”
“A cop who is…”
“Getting money on the side?”
I slapped the table. “That’s it! Benny, my lad, you’ve done it! Now keep that imagination whirling. Where would side money come from?”
“Why, from…bribes.”
“Yes! What else?”
“Benny, I think I’m gonna cry. You see what you’re doing? You’re starting from absolute scratch, and you’re thinking up a character and several possible story situations. You know what that’s called?”
“Making stuff up! And that’s all this writing game is, boy. We make stuff up, and we jot down the ideas, and then we pick the best ideas and make a story out of ’em. And we do that over and over and over again, until we die.”
“In fact, I take half an hour every week just to let my imagination run free. I make up opening lines without knowing anything else. I write down as many ways as I can think of for people to get murdered. I can look at the front page of a newspaper and come up with five or ten great plot ideas on the spot.”
“I write ’em all down, without judging any or them. Only later do I look at the ideas and pick out the most promising ones. I put these in a file for further development. In short, my lad, I am never without something to write.”
“Benny, you’ve become positively monosyllabic. So here’s what you do. Run over to Newberry’s and get a notebook and some pencils. I want you to spend half an hour every day writing down ideas. I want you to go down to Pershing Square and watch people. Make up situations on a dozen people you see there. Go to Echo Park and the Santa Monica Pier. Look at the people in your rooming house. Each one of ’em is a story waiting to be told. You fill up that notebook and come back here in a week.”
“Okay, Mr. Arbrewster!” He stood up. “What are you going to do?”
“Me?” I took the page I was working on out of the typer and set it aside. Then I rolled in a fresh sheet. “I’m going to write about a crooked cop tailing a shyster lawyer who’s making time with a cigarette girl.”
Benny just stood there, smiling.
“Who deep sixes a kid without a notebook. Now get going!”

Are you intentional about getting ideas? Do you have a regular creativity time? Do you have a file for all your ideas, and another file where you develop the best ones?

26 thoughts on “Use Your Noggin To Get Lots of Ideas

  1. I had a notebook (several, actually) but now use Evernote to jot down ideas: having it sync automatically between my phone and my computers makes my life easier. Plus, at 2 am, I can type on the phone without having to switch the light on πŸ™‚

  2. I love making stuff up about people. A lot of times I find out I’m right. Makes me feel like a crackpot detective, making observation and writing a bit like sleuthing on paper.

  3. Great post. I use several pocket-size notebooks. I can use an ink pen, a No. 2 pencil, or a crayon to record my observations. Never needs recharging. Charmaine, I really like watching people and inventing stories about who they are, why they are in the same place I am, and where they are going next. How do you find out if you’re right or not?

  4. Definitely keep a little notebook. Several of them, in fact, strategically placed around my house like my cheaters. Tried note-taking on computer…doesn’t work. There is something un-creative and cold about it. Seeing your scattered thoughts in your own scrawl makes it more real, like it’s really YOUR brain speaking.

    These pages end up in a file in my office called BRAIN LINT. I open it and read it once in a while. Once, it gave me a great idea for a short story. Mostly, it’s for laughs. But that’s good for the brain too.

  5. I have an odd method. I use artist’s sketch pads – no line, no order. I write all over them where there is space. If I’m not home I use my iPhone voice recorder. Seems to work for me.

  6. I have a notebook in which I write any snippet of a new idea. I often find they just spring out when I’m doing research on a totally different book. My problem is not getting too sidetracked too often:)

  7. Ideas come at me like sneaky little pranksters in an attempt to catch me off guard but I’ve learned to always, always have something close by to record said ideas. They come from conversations, the corner of my eye, something misheard on TV or radio. I have notes on sticky sheets, torn napkins, backs of envelopes, and even the occasional notebook entry.

    My favorites are misheard words or Johnny-isms (a term I coined for the mispronunciation of things my husband says). His latest was this morning when I was rambling on about an epiphany I had concerning some volunteer work that is going sour. I said I was pissed off at [blankity-blank] and he replies, “You mean you were epiphan-offed.” Oh yes – that one gets put in my idea file for future reference.

  8. I do keep an idea file for my Bad Hair Day mysteries and another one for my scifi/fantasy stories. I’ll also keep files with clippings on topics of interest, crime writers research, and that sort of thing that I can flip through when looking for an angle that interests me or motives for a suspect.

    • Sorry Nancy but when my eyes first scanned your comment they caught the following:

      …keep an idea…Bad Hair Day…clippings…interests me…suspect…

      and my brain immediately pictures you walking through the mall clipping locks of hair from suspicious looking strangers to keep for later use in your crime research.

  9. JSB–
    Although Wild Bill is certainly right to get The Kid thinking more, I have to say Wild Bill lets his young charge off very easy. We see where the leading questions are headed and, sure enough, that’s where they lead.

  10. Ha! What a fun reminder that there’s characters and stories all around us, if only we pay attention. I don’t want to be the writer who’s deep sixed without a notebook! Thanks, James

  11. The best place for me to get ideas is songs. I don’t know what it is about music, but it seems to speak directly to my muse. Either from listening to a song, and wanting to evoke that feeling in a scene, or more frequently, listening to a song and wondering what happened to make someone feel like that.

    For example, there’s a song by The Fray called “How to Save a Life” and it’s pretty emotional. The chorus is: Where did I go wrong/I lost a friend/Somewhere along in the bitterness/And I would have stayed up with you all night/Had I known how to save a life.

    Through the other lyrics you get the impression that these two friends were talking, and the conversation was more important than one of them realized, and that of course made my brain work in over time trying to supply details. For the record, it’s not specifically about suicide, but more about the end of something important.

    There’s a lot of other things I feel about this song, and trying to get it down into a situation or a scene is half the battle for me.

    When I find a song like that, I can sometimes get an entire book out of it. Sometimes just a crucial scene. But whenever I need more ideas I just listen to some music and wonder What if…

    Another weird thing that happens is sometimes I hear a short pitch of a book or a movie, and my brain supplies ALL of the other details, even though I have nothing but a vague sentence to go on. I’ve gotten some good ideas out of my misunderstanding of the latest action flick. πŸ˜€

  12. Ideas for stories, characters and scenes just pop right out of the ozone constantly. I do carry a little notepad and a pen around with me. If I happen to be in carpenter mode at the time, I write on the inside of a box with my blunt carpenter pencil.

    This very afternoon I was on the phone with friends when I observed a fellow dressed in a pink bunny costume walking down the middle of the street in front of my house. Yunno. How could anyone forget that? However, what seems obvious, most often isn’t. I wrote, “Pink Bunny Suit” on the closest paper at hand. You don’t think you could forget some of these things. Unfortunately for me, I forget all the time. The simple solution is to write it down. Then I stuff the paper in my pocket. As soon as I am at my computer, I pop open the little file on my desktop called Book_Notes and put the notation in there. Eventually, I reorder everything. The juiciest stuff tends to end up at the top.

    So now I am thinking about a crew of fellows dressed in pink bunny suits and some kind of face masks and all carrying Mossburg 500 Persuader shotguns. What are they doing? Don’t know. Waiting for the boys in the woodshop to call home.

    • Huhn….I didn’t think anyone saw that…

      …that was your neighborhood, eh?

      It was actually a Mossberg M590 though, just for the record.

    • In all honesty, many years ago when I did standup comedy full time I found a pair of size twelve bunny slippers…amazingly found right here in Fairbanks Alaska, go figure…and that was pre-internet days too.

      Who in the world, in Fairbanks AK of all places, would think to stock a pair of size twelve pink bunny slippers?

      This has weirded me out for nearly three decades.

    • Very true Eric. One thing I learned young, is that there is pretty much nothing that exists that does not eventually show up in Fairbanks. The only thing big cities really have to offer, is big crowds.

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