#1 NYT bestselling author Linda Lael Miller

When I get a story idea…

In response to Debbie’s question in the Comments section–yes, at the beginning of any writing project, there is a lot of brainstorming and notetaking.

I’ve tried plenty of brainstorming techniques–clustering, etc.–but the one that works best for me is one called “The List of 20”.  Years ago, when Debbie Macomber and I attended a motivational seminar in Tacoma (I lived in Port Orchard then), we heard Zig Ziglar and Brian Tracy speak, along with several other people, who have now faded from memory. Tracy explained the list of 20, and both Debbie and I adopted it.  I’ve been using it ever since.

Here’s how it works.  You take a sheet of paper (I like lined notebook pages) and ask yourself a question–in the case of a new book, my question might be, “What are 20 things that could happen in this story?”  or “What are 20 things I know about this character?” (This process works for ANY goal, of course.)  Next, you write down, as rapidly as you can, no judgment or editing allowed, every idea that comes to you.  Some people set a timer for 10 minutes or so–I’ve never found this necessary, but different strokes for different folks.  Most likely, the first few things you come up with will be pretty lame–for example, I once wrote, ‘heroine jumps off a cliff’–the magic happens when you keep going.  Toward the end, you’ll be coming up with thoughts and scenarios you might never have uncovered otherwise.  As with any other technique, the more you practice, the better you’ll be at digging deep for more original stuff.

Once I’d been using the list of 20 for a couple of years, I wrote Brian Tracy to thank him for sharing it.  He wrote back that he’d learned the trick from the great Earl Nightingale, author of the classic, “Lead the Field”, along with many other motivational gems.

So, when I’m starting a new project, I do lists of 20–lots of them.  If I get stuck somewhere along the line, I’ll make lists of 20 for individual chapters or even scenes.

A funny aside: that long ago day in Tacoma, Debbie and I showed up for the event in sweats and sneakers, only to find ourselves surrounded by crisply-suited, shiny-shoed business types of both sexes.  Undaunted, Debbie turned to me and quipped, “We represent the people who succeed in spite of themselves.”

We roared–still do, when we are remembering all the great times we’ve had together.

I could go on and on–there was the time, for example, in France’s Loire Valley, when we trekked back to our tour bus, a little ahead of our fellow touristas, in a downpour, no less, and, guess what–no bus.  The driver had evidently decided to have his lunch elsewhere and, with no shelter, we took refuge under a tree, Deb on one side and me on the other, with our arms wrapped around the trunk, laughing like crazy women.  I was wearing a cashmere blazer at the time, and it never quite recovered.   :)

Then there was the weird but mostly delicious soup we were served one snowy day in a Seoul restaurant–we were afraid to ask what those little strands of meat actually were.  (We were able to rule out both chicken and beef immediately.)  We ate the vegetables and the broth and left the–whatever.

Or the time we got lost in New Orleans and wandered into a neighborhood that was definitely not tourist friendly.  My daughter Wendy was with us, and she immediately said,  in all seriousness, “Somebody’s gonna pump us full of lead!”  Being my daughter, an avid drama student and a budding writer as well, a simple, “I’m scared” wouldn’t have done.  :)  Since Debbie was leading this dangerous expedition, I immediately dubbed her Marvin Boone–since she was clearly no Daniel–and the name stuck.

But I digress.

Be well, be safe and be kind.

And while you’re at it, find something to laugh about.  The best memories are made that way.

31 comments to “When I get a story idea…”

  1. Teresa
      · October 2nd, 2013 at 2:20 pm · Link

    Oh my isn’t it nice to have those kind of friends who are not afraid to go on another adventure with you no matter what the outcome!! Gotta LOVE them!!

  2. Maryjane Hoffman
      · October 2nd, 2013 at 2:28 pm · Link

    Thanks for some awesome laughs!! I love reading you books and Debbie’s and reading your comments here today just makes things even more special!! My Nana always said laughter was the best medicine and I think she was so right. And I love the idea of the 20 Idea/Thing List!! You can use it for just about anything. Enjoy your day too!

  3. marilyn hurst
      · October 2nd, 2013 at 2:49 pm · Link

    One of my favorite memories is of my older sister and me leaving the military housing in Vicenza Italy and walking for hours, not knowing the language or where we were going, just exploring. We did this for two years before she returned to the U.S. It’s still one of the best ways to explore a new city or town. We met a lot of fun people who were really patient with two American Girls exploring a new country.

  4. Diana E
      · October 2nd, 2013 at 2:50 pm · Link

    What a interesting blog today. I really enjoyed hearing about your exploits with Debbie, she is another one of my favorites. Have a wonderful day, Linda. Blessings.

  5. Pat
      · October 2nd, 2013 at 2:55 pm · Link

    I’m laughing when I finish reading this today. (Can you see the grin on my face?) You entertain me daily dear friend. I may not be yours but you are definitely one of mine! :-P I like Debbie’s books too, just different subjects and yours are more in the same vein as the life I have lived. Farm growing up, gardening, livestock with my boys and husband, music, my dogs ,cats and books, books ,books.
    Keep up the good works, God bless.

  6. Jennifer L.
      · October 2nd, 2013 at 3:17 pm · Link

    I love the List of 20 idea! I’m going to try that, ASAP! :)

    And your stories made me laugh. Thanks for the smiles! I hope you’re having a wonderful day! :-o

  7. Jennifer L.
      · October 2nd, 2013 at 3:19 pm · Link

    Please overlook that last emoticon; I have no idea how it got there. Haunted computer, maybe? :)

      · October 2nd, 2013 at 3:22 pm · Link

    This blog today was very interested. I always wonder how you get started on writing a new book. And your travel to the different parts of the world with your friends & family.I also like Debbie books, especially the Cedar Cove series.

    Just keep on putting our your good books, your talking about your cooking, and your arts.
    God Bless

  9. Norma Stanforth
      · October 2nd, 2013 at 3:48 pm · Link

    Linda, i would of love to of seen that with you and Deb hugging that tree, that would of been something for sore eyes, as they say! That is very interesting about your 20 list. I know where he wrote lyric and music. But on the lyric part he would write words and then come back and write words that rime with it.Then he may and he may not use it.It is strange how you come up with different ideals. God blessings to everyone.
    As always your friend,

  10. Jessica W
      · October 2nd, 2013 at 4:13 pm · Link

    There is no telling how many people you’ve inspired to do the list of 20 today. I know I read this and immediately grabbed the nearest notebook. I imagine the hardest part of writing a story is deciding what it will be about, as soon as that is out of the way its smooth sailing. Thank you for sharing your stories with us and for the laughs :)

  11. Becky Strobaugh
      · October 2nd, 2013 at 4:15 pm · Link

    Thank you! I’m not a writer but I can see this coming in handy for my family tree writing. :)

  12. Tammy R. Dodson
      · October 2nd, 2013 at 4:34 pm · Link

    Linda – Thank you for the smiles you gave us all today. This afternoon I was just thinking of a friend who was on a cruise with me several years ago Sadly, she passed away not long after that, but every now and then something reminds me of her wonderful smile and joy of life.

  13. Gloria
      · October 2nd, 2013 at 4:47 pm · Link

    Linda, you and Debbie seem to have lots of fun. Good friends are hard to find, but I’ve found a lot of them. Some are so far away that I don’t get to see them, although I’ve seen one of them one time, but…in spite of all the miles between us, we still “have fun”.

  14. Patricia M Hann
      · October 2nd, 2013 at 4:54 pm · Link

    Love hearing your adventures. :wink:

  15. Becky Johnson
      · October 2nd, 2013 at 6:06 pm · Link

    Hi Linda, Thank You for sharing the List of 20, I will use it in the future when I get stuck for ideas in anything I am doing.
    When I can’t remember someone’s name I play the ” ABC game ” in my mind. I just go through the alphabet letters and when I get to the letter that is the first letter in the person’s name, their name comes to me. Sometimes their last name pops out first which usually clues me in to the first name. If it is someone who I haven’t thought about in a long time I may have to let my subconscious work on it for a bit, then it pops out suddenly. Love reading your blogs! :-P

  16. Lois Rotella
      · October 2nd, 2013 at 6:07 pm · Link

    I really enjoyed your blog today. It made me laugh. Love the tree hugging. Thanks for sharing your thought process. When I travel with my family and we get lost, we ate just temporaly missed placed. We find interesting things that way. :-D

  17. Joanie gonsalves
      · October 2nd, 2013 at 6:21 pm · Link

    Thanks for the laughs. As you always manage to do.

  18. Janet
      · October 2nd, 2013 at 6:44 pm · Link

    I do love your daily, almost daily, posts. Sometimes, like today they are like “little” books you write for us.
    Just finished Big Sky Wedding, kept putting off reading it because I knew I’d rush thru it and then be frustrated that the story ended. Loved, Loved, Loved the Big Sky books.
    I’ve never been one for “re” reading a book, but I have most of your books and it’s truly been a while since I’ve read some of them so I think I’m going to have to get my fix by enjoying them again. I think I’ll start with the oldest I have and work my way forward. Please believe that you bring so much joy to your readers. I’m looking forward to the next release. Thank you, Linda.

  19. C. C. Harrison
      · October 2nd, 2013 at 6:46 pm · Link

    And, Linda, I want to thank you for sharing the list of 20 technique with me all those years ago. I use it all the time for everything now. God Bless.

  20. Linda P
      · October 2nd, 2013 at 7:05 pm · Link

    I love your humorous asides!

  21. Ruby Norwood
      · October 2nd, 2013 at 8:51 pm · Link

    I love that list of 20 Linda, a very smart idea. I think we all had smiles on our face today. I just happened to be on Facebook and saw where you did blog today. I didn’t get a e-mail yesterday or today. God bless!!

  22. April Mc Vey
      · October 2nd, 2013 at 9:18 pm · Link

    I am going to try this idea on setting goals . Being the great procrastinator that I am this should help me run forward! :idea:

    Thank you!

  23. judy
      · October 2nd, 2013 at 9:59 pm · Link

    I love to read your comments, they are so enjoyable.

  24. Juanita Rice
      · October 2nd, 2013 at 10:28 pm · Link

    Such wonderful memories! :)

  25. Rosanne Bolton
      · October 2nd, 2013 at 10:41 pm · Link

    Dear Linda,

    I love reading your blogs. You make me laugh when talking about your fun filled (but workable) adventures. I enjoyed the same adventures with my sisters. Please keep your adventures up so you could keep getting new ideas. I love you books and of course all your cowboys. thank you for all the hours of enjoyment you have given me through the years.

    (one of your biggest fans)

  26. Emily
      · October 2nd, 2013 at 10:47 pm · Link

    Trust me, you don’t want to know what the meat was in Seoul. Been there, done that!

    I also travel with a friend. We go on a trip once a year. My husband is kind about this. We love to travel and are always planning our next trip. Great fun and great friend.

    Love your blogs and look forward to reading them. Love your book more! :lol:

  27. Tinna Doub
      · October 2nd, 2013 at 10:59 pm · Link

    I had wondered, when I read about the girl hugging a tree if it was a personnel experience. Thanks for sharing!

  28. Cheryl Messer
      · October 3rd, 2013 at 12:05 am · Link

    Thank you so very much on that tip of “list of 20”! I will pass this on to my son in 6th grade for when he has a writing project… He has this great little character that he has been writing ‘adventures’ on for the past year. It’s rather interesting to see where his mind leads him. He surprises me with the insight that he has for an eleven year old. I call him an ‘old-soul’. I think he might like this concept of the list of 20. :-D

  29. Deborah Rae Nelson
      · October 3rd, 2013 at 1:27 pm · Link

    What a great story teller! Thanks for the creativity hint and the laughs. :-P

  30. Joyce M.
      · October 3rd, 2013 at 5:36 pm · Link

    Great writing and interesting idea.

  31. Pat Parker
      · October 3rd, 2013 at 11:47 pm · Link

    I love knowing that one of my favorite authors is such a good friend of another of my favorite authors.
    Love you both.

    Pat Parker

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