The Futures Box

Many writers, whether of fiction or non-fiction, have ways of nurturing inspiration. Some jot notes and keep an “idea” book set aside for the purpose.  Others use post-its or index cards. Those who are bent on technology record their brainstorms on smartphones and computers.  Some use Flipboard or Pinterest. I use a ‘futures’ box. Initially, this was just a very large box.  Now, it’s a deep drawer devoted to the purpose, but the principle is the same.

Here’s how my system works. Every time I read something in a newspaper or magazine that interests me, I cut out the item. If the article is in a book or a borrowed magazine, I photocopy it.  If it comes from television, radio, or other audio-video source I can usually find the same thing online so I print it. If a gem of an idea, a particularly clever phrase, or something striking pops into my head, I jot a note to myself.  On the top of each item, I write the date and the source.  Then I throw it into the cardboard box and forget about it.

I let the box fill for two or three months – sometimes longer. When I have the time and inclination, I dump the box and sift through the contents. By now, I’ve forgotten what’s in there so it’s a little like opening a gift.  Each item hold surprises. Often entire themes emerge. 

I learn a lot about myself when I do this.  Once, for example, I discovered that I had at least 10 clippings about people who had done valiant things when really, they could have just as easily stepped aside.  I didn’t realize that this was a subject of interest for me.  The end result was At the Edge: Daring Acts in Desperate Times, a book about people and the moral dilemmas they faced in times of crisis.

Who knows what themes emerge?

It’s not just non-fiction themes that emerge from the box.  An item about a recently discovered plane that had gone missing 50 years ago struck a nerve, and eventually became an important element in Missing in Paradise. A clever advertising jingle has become the backbone for a picture book that is simmering on the back-burner.  And then there’s an article about a meteorite the size of a basketball that fired through a Kentucky roof, bounced off a coffee table and ricocheted off a woman sleeping on a couch. Now how can I not write about that?


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