When you’re preparing to write a novel or a story, you need to be in a receptive state, alert to all the diverse scraps of conversation, news, visual images and situations that come your way. As Margaret Atwood wisely observed, it’s all material. How you collate everything is an intensely personal decision – I use a notebook, but I’ve heard of other people using index cards, box files and pin boards. The important thing is to nail something while it is still fresh, otherwise you may forget an idea or it might lose some of the vividness that drew you to it in the first place.
It’s a kind of hoarding and when I’m researching I spent quite a lot of time, like Silas Marner, counting my gold, fingering the coins, holding them up to the light with greedy glee. I think about my stash of ideas often and add to it when I can, so that over a few months it becomes a bit of a ragbag, but I think that’s a strength rather than a weakness – anything that doesn’t fit when you come to start work can always be recycled somewhere else.
If you want a writing exercise for the weekend, try this one for size. Have a rummage round in your own ragbag and come up with something you’ve heard (this can be some gossip, a snatch of conversation, a news item), something you’ve seen, something you’ve been given and something you want but can’t have. Mix them up together and see if the seed a story starts to germinate – writing as an exercise in thrift, as a source of renewable energy, perhaps.