Do You Do This? (And How It Can Make You a Better Writer)

Wednesday, September 09, 2020
Do you do this?

You’re plopped in front of the TV or screen of your choice, watching a favorite program—maybe it’s a series like Outlander or a paranormal investigation or a classic comedy like The Andy Griffith Show—and you see an actor or hear an historical tidbit or watch something outrageous and your mind begins to wander with all kinds of questions. And suddenly, swoosh. You pick up your cell phone to get more information.

I’ve met a lot of writers over the years and though they write anything from haiku to horror, they tend to have one trait in common: curiosity. And thanks to technology, we don’t have to sit around wondering whatever happened to the actor who played Otis, the town drunk. Or when exactly was the Jacobean era? And perhaps most importantly, has anyone ever found Bigfoot poop?

It’s all right there at our fingertips, a veritable goldmine of facts (and sometimes conjecture). But what does any of this have to do with becoming a better writer? Here are the handy steps to get you there:

Step 1: Falling Down the Rabbit Hole Pays Off

Often, when I begin a simple Internet search, I end up twenty minutes later, thinking, “Huh. That would make a good nonfiction picture book. (Or article, or short story, or even a novel.)”

But the trick to finding that idea is to explore beyond the obvious. Consider the other day when I was watching a paranormal investigation of a saloon somewhere in the Old West. There was a connection to Wild Bill Hickock and the narrative zeroed in on his infamous murder and the blood spilled at the gaming table. But an hour later, I was more shocked by what I’d found out about Hickock’s life than his death, and that led me to Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West Show, and on to sharpshooter, Annie Oakley and another endlessly fascinating cohort, Calamity Jane.

Now, I already had a general knowledge about all those people but I wasn’t there for general facts. I was more curious about the outlandish and the unusual, the whys and hows behind these larger-than-life characters. Sifting through the dry facts, you’ll eventually be rewarded with a sparkly nugget!

Step 2: Exploring Strange New Worlds

So there you are, a sparkly something whipping around your brain and a tingly feeling in the pit of your stomach. Oh, this is good, you’re thinking, and you can’t wait to start writing. Except you really should. Because someone else may have snatched up that gem first.

Fortunately, you’re still sitting there, cell phone in hand. A quick search will tell you if the great idea you want to write about is already out there. But to be clear, it’s not that you can’t write about a subject that’s already out there. In fact, it’s pretty darn hard to find a topic that hasn’t been written about…I mean, you found the information, so obviously, someone has written on your subject. But you have to be like the starship Enterprise, boldly going where no writer has gone before. Find that, and you’re on your way!

Step 3: And Now, We Write

Just when you were feeling a wee bit guilty about all that sitting around, that nagging voice known as your conscience is silenced and all your hours and hours of binge-watching and scrolling on your phone have been justified. You’ve mined a great idea! You’ve verified that no one else has expressed this idea in the brilliant way you’ve imagined! You will be that better writer!

All you have to do now is write.

~Cathy C. Hall (Who may or may not have a brilliant idea pertaining to the DNA analysis of Bigfoot poop and the hitherto unknown scientific talents of Calamity Jane.)


Jeanine DeHoney said...

Great article Cathy. I'm a documentary addict so after watching a documentary it often leads to searching the internet for more information, and that will spark a story idea.

Ashley said...

I’ve watched The Crown three times now because everytime I turn it on, I get distracted by googling various bits of information from the show!

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

"Pause it! I need to look something up."

Fortunately in my family, I'm not the only one who does this. Where have we seen that actor debates draw in everyone. Is that fact accurate is another big one.

Sometimes we pause. Sometimes we just key in the question. Often we discuss our findings over dinner. Fortunately, I'm the only writer in the family so the stories are all mine.


Margo Dill said...

Hahahaha. And yes.

The entire time I was watching Hamilton on Disney Plus the first time, my eyeballs were in my phone trying to understand what was going on. It's so much now that Katie will say to me, "Did you search up so and so yet?"

But I like knowing all the connections. I like being able to figure out where I saw that actor before without it driving me nuts.

Cathy C. Hall said...

Yes, Jeanine! Documentaries are great stepping off points for more research!

Ashley, I've missed whole chunks of movies while I'm scrolling. And now I know why I'm always saying, "I don't remember that..." :-)

I like knowing all that stuff, too, Sue. And I'm kind of obsessed with death dates of actors and how old they were when they died. I have no idea why--but I think it might make a good character trait for a creepy antagonist in a MG novel, right? :-)

Hahahaha, Margo, yes! If my kids are around and we're all watching something, we're also scrolling, so don't be surprised to find Katie doing the same thing when she has her own phone! Curiosity is a positive trait, right? :-)

Sioux Roslawski said...

Cathy--I watched a series recently (I'll Be Gone in the Dark) and was fascinated with how it was organized. Usually, I just binge and escape.

Also, I plowed through season 1 of Ozark, and am fixated on a few of the characters.

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

Or the antagonist's creepy grandmother! "He's dead, isn't he?" Oooo, what marvelous backstory.

Oops. Sorry. Hijacked your idea.

Pat Wahler said...

One of the best compliments I ever got was when someone told me one of my books sent them searching for more information on the subject. Knowing you've piqued someone's curiosity is a wonderful feeling!

Renee Roberson said...

Margo--When I watched "Hamilton" for the first time, I turned on the subtitles. It helped tremendously--but yes, I was also Googling at the same time!

Cathy--This is such a fun post. When I watch true crime shows I usually have a notebook with me because I never know when an idea will spark or I'll need to make a note to look something up later. I also get stumped when I'm trying to figure out where I've seen actor before and search IMDB while I'm watching. That's a whole other rabbit hole!

Angela Mackintosh said...

I have the IMDB app on my phone and I'm addicted to it. During every show or movie, I have to resist the urge to look up the actor and see everything else she's done. Now, if I could somehow spin that into writing research. ;)

I once dated a guy named Otis, who was named after the Andy Griffith character and could also be considered the town drunk! For reals.

Great post, Cath!

Sioux, Ozark is one of my favorites!

Cathy C. Hall said...

Sioux, escaping's fine, too. I just can't seem to :-) (The ellipses are just for you.)

And Sue, that is actually better. Hands off! Hahahaha!

Pat, I looked up SO much stuff when I was reading your book on Jesse James!

Renee and Ang, what would we do without IMDB??? And thank you, Ang, for that great Otis tidbit! Made my day!

Linda O'Connell said...

Great article. I remember back in the 80s when the talk was: in the future we would have a computer in the palm of ourt hands. Sounded like science fiction, and yet, here we are.

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