The Uncommon Commonplace Book

Okay, so I have this method of prewriting that we are going to be talking about for the next week or so. Mostly because I have a whole lot of methods I cover in Muse Therapy, but this one is something I suggest all the way, every time as a foundation for your writing. Mostly because it is so moldable. I’ll tell you how I do it, why I do it, all the good stuff. First, though, we need a little general understanding of where the commonplace book came from. I am not the first to use this method, though I’ve tailored mine to my way of writing, and there are a thousand ways to do it, but, first, lets talk about the renaissance.

Don’t worry. We aren’t having much of a history lesson; there are a bunch of blogs on what the commonplace book is, where it came from, and why you should have one, writer or not. The easy answer is: it makes you smarter.

Okay, so, before the renaissance, reading was the privilege of the very wealthy, monks, record keepers, all that jazz. If you were born a common person without loads of money, then you were illiterate. Yay. That’s sarcasm; it sounds horrifying to me, but you don’t miss something if you don’t know you don’t have it, I guess. Most people just drifted around, probably assuming that royal blood, money, or God’s call made someone worthy of reading and normal people were not so blessed. Considering how little leisure time they had back then, I suspect most people didn’t have the moment to care.

A large part of this lack of reading or writing has to do with two things. One, every manuscript was carefully handwritten. This means there were very few copies of the manuscripts that did exist, and most of those were not what you’d call enlightening. I do believe the monks viewed it as a worthy task and spent whole lifetimes copying and illuminating valued manuscripts (and that fascinating subject is another whole post on it’s own). The second reason was the pencil hadn’t been invented yet (along with a number of other things) and it was expensive and difficult to get to a place where learning was possible.

Then comes the Gutenberg Press. Want to know how important that was? Watch Day After Tomorrow. The scene where the guy is sitting in front of the fireplace, clutching the Gutenberg bible is my favorite; he immediately informs the girl asking that he doesn’t care about the bible as a religious artifact. He cares about it because it represents the dawn of an age of intelligence. The Gutenberg Press (and you can tell I feel exactly the same because those words will always be capitalized) made it possible to mass produce the written word. Hallelujah indeed. And the pencil was finally invented.

So, this is where everyone, common or not, began to have the possibility to be truly educated (yeah, generalization; there was still plenty of downtrodden masses and illiteracy; this was a time of great social and economic strife in Europe). This was a time when the written word began to rise up as king, proof that humans were more than just an animals that lived, scrabbled to survive, then died. The renaissance lifted human intelligence. It encouraged people to begin using the brain in their skulls, and this is when people began to keep the commonplace book. It was usually a journal in which people would record quotes, questions, arguments, reading to think, thinking to read, moving deeper, drunk on intellect.

People didn’t read the same way back then; they would read several different books at once and you can see how this little book would help them understand on a deeper level. Just imagine, you can write out bits and pieces of what you’re  reading, keep track of the questions you have, become throughly fluid in the language of your preferred subjects and what they are built on, maybe even get to where you write your own book in answer to the books you are reading. You could put writers who disagreed with each other on the page where you could think about what they were saying and maybe disagree with both of them.

So how can we apply this today? Even if you aren’t a writer, the commonplace book can help you learn a subject. It isn’t a textbook – though I can’t help but feel that textbooks have a root in this practice. It is something that is a mixture of your reading and your thoughts; unlike a textbook, which tells you what the teachers think you should memorize, you learn the actual ideas and can choose for yourself what is relevant. Learning a subject is best done by interacting and this is a perfect medium.

When I was younger and in high school speech class, I had one of these books and didn’t even realize it. I could still tell you about Mata Hari and tell you how scandalized I was by her as a shy, uptight sort of kid and how, now, I see her as fascinating. I could probably still give you the beginning of my speech on siamese cats (hey, don’t laugh until you know they were once trained to scratch out the eyes of thieves in the temples they guarded). And the Greek/Roman myths? Yeah, I used to know those so well I once out taught a student teacher on the subject.

When I was first writing the original version of Morrigan’s Harvest, I had one of these books stuffed full of Celtic language and the superstitions of the Celts. Names, dates, ideas, this was all gathered up in this book which spilled out on the page as story, yet I had no idea how important the book actually was. I may not have used a lot of what I studied, but I enjoyed learning it. This practice makes you think. It makes you pay attention. Sure, the books you read for fun don’t require this, but how many of us wish we could think on a higher level? Or read those books which always feel just beyond us? This is certainly the way to do it. There are a ton of blogs that will tell you ways to keep a commonplace book and I encourage you to look them up. For the writers in the house, I’ll be describing how I am currently working mine over the next week. Trust me, it is a little bit insane, but it is doing wonders for me.

I handwrite my commonplace book, which is actually a nice, refillable organizer, like those dayrunners everyone used to carry before our phones started recording our entire lives. I feel like having a physical object is part of the fun, but that is the romantic in me. Just like I have trouble accepting ebooks (no, really, they are awesome, but I am so, so in love with paper), I have trouble sitting at a computer to keep my book. The whole idea, for me, is that it is portable. As in, it serves as my over large wallet in which you might find any number of things including my driver’s license, my bankcard, or a leaf in a plastic photo sleeve. Yeah, I’m weird. I keep telling y’all that.

If you question the beauty of this idea, just go back to season one of Supernatural. Remember John Winchester’s notebook? Yeah, see, that just made you light up, didn’t it? It was fabulous! This book had so much stuff about monsters and demons. Have a question? Check the book first. Wonder what Dad was thinking? Check the book. Have we come across this monster before? Check the bloody book. And every single time I saw it, I wanted to snatch the book out of Sam’s hands and spend hours just paging through it, loving it. Seriously, that whole first season I was watching for the book and the Impala. How often can you feel that way about a computer file? 

I do back everything up on my computers. I also clean out the unnecessary bits, once in a while, but we’ll cover that later. The hard copy, though, is essential. Just the act of dragging it around with me from place to place keeps me mulling over my ideas and that is part of my new writing game, which we’ll also cover while talking about this. Some of the material changes with the books I’m writing, some stays unless I’m shifting genres or finished studying (how much do you want to know about skinwalkers). It is half intellectual notes and ideas and half weird collections of myths, rocks, pictures, and who knows what else, that may or may not make it into the actual manuscript. If I opened the darn thing and a bat flew out, I really wouldn’t be surprised; some strange things gravitate there.

After Bone Deep, this book will become the pivotal way I write; it is making me a better writer by focusing my ADHD brain and allowing me to mature my ideas without losing my interest in writing the story. I didn’t really use it for this upcoming book because this was the last of the books I wrote by the seat of my pants, threw in a dusty corner of my hard drive, and left for four years. I still have part two and three of The Dragon Rune, but those are skeletal at best.

Also this week, the final chapters of the Red Queen’s Grave (so long as I continue to stay on top of the book release), the end of Annie, and another sneak peak or two at Bone Deep. Also, Skylar will be posting and Far, Far Away is coming out of it’s silent phase. I am taking a small break from The Daily Riff today, just because I’m still running behind on some things and need to play catch up. Have a great night, guys, I’ll see you tomorrow!

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