When we’ve got a problem to solve, we’re often advised to “sleep on it.” And when i surveyed the writers of the Sisters in Crime Guppies chapter about brainstorming techniques,* many said they posed the problem to themselves before bed and let their subconscious mind work it out.
Turns out there’s a good reason for that sage advice.
According to Steve Calechman, writing in “Sleep to Solve a Problem” on the Harvard Health Publishing blog in May 2021, the brain is designed to find connections to problems while we are sleeping so we can act on them when we’re awake. That’s the reason we so often wake in the morning knowing what we want to do — or not do — even though we can’t necessarily articulate why; we don’t remember going through the logic, but our sleeping brain did it for us.
For some people, the process wakes them up and they find themselves regurgitating the day instead of sleeping; if that’s you, the article suggests some solutions. But we’re writers. Our goal is to use sleep to help us solve problems on the page. Sometimes ideas occur to us just as we’re falling asleep; at other times, the work is happening in the REM state of the 5:00 to 6:00 am hour. How to enhance that process? Trust it. Ask your subconscious mind to work on an issue — tell it the problem. “How does Pepper solve the conflict with Nate?” “How does my young reporter convince her editor to let her write this story?” Keep a pen and pad by your bed and write down all the ideas that wake you, without judging their merits. (Take your notepad into the bathroom if you need a light and don’t want to wake your partner!) The moment you wake up, remind yourself that you asked for help and scan your mind for its offerings. Jot them down. Build that trust. Build the process.
Way more fun than counting sheep.
*This became my article, “What Happens Next? 9 Tried-and-True Brainstorming Strategies for Fiction Writers,” in The Writer, February 2022.
“Writers depend on ideas. Whether we’re planners or pantsers, every sentence, paragraph, and scene embodies an idea. It’s inevitable that at some point, you simply will not know what happens next. You’ll be stuck and forced to brainstorm.”
That’s the opening paragraph of my article, “What Happens Next? 9 tried-and-true brainstorming strategies for fiction writers” in the February 2022 issue of The Writer, available now. I hope you’ll take a look and try some of my suggestions, worked out through my own experience, research into creativity, and conversations with other writers.
(And lest you think the subtitle a bit cliched, I promise you, I didn’t write it!)
On another topic, are you Team Prologue or Team Just Start the First Chapter? In this blog post, To Prologue or Not to Prologue, at Suite T, the Southern Writers blog, I discuss the uses and abuses of the prologue and give examples from crime fiction and other novels.
I’ve been thinking a lot about brainstorming lately, about how to move forward when your conscious mind has no idea what happens next.
And one answer is to mine your setting. Think about where your characters live and work. Does that location give them an opportunity to question a witness or suspect, or to dig into a box of neglected files? Who does your protagonist run into when she stops for gas, where another character can threaten her and drive off, or when she pops into the grocery store, where options for conversation are limited by the presence of others? Move your characters around—what or who will they see while in transit? What idea will occur to them because of something they spy out the window of a car or bus>
What’s their favorite place, and what might happen there? Who will they run into? Where do they seek refuge and solace? Where do they hide?
Haul out the maps. What does Google Earth show that gives you more options? In writing Killing Thyme, my third Spice Shop mystery, I looked at photos of the Seattle Police Department headquarters to better describe the building, and discovered a parking garage I hadn’t remembered. That led to my protagonist, Pepper Reece, traipsing after the cold case detective and confronting the man as he got into his car, where she demands information and gets more than she bargained for.
Spend an hour—set a timer!—reading the newspaper for your story city, browsing the police department website, reading neighborhood blogs. Pore over real estate ads. Look at pictures of landmarks. Ask what a city is known for, what’s its politics, its burning issues. What happens there that happens nowhere else? How does that influence your long-time resident and surprise your newcomers? Why do people move here? Why do they live?
Think about your relationship to the place where you live, or where you’ve lived in the past. What would your protagonist say if asked the same questions? Your antagonist? What are the tensions inherent in the community, and how do they influence your story people, even if they aren’t front and center in the plot?