I have beside me, as I type this, a stack of commonplace books. Well, Moleskins, but it’s all zibaldone, right? Compilations of ideas, notes for stories (mostly unwritten, if we’re being honest), sketches, names, song and poetry fragments, directions, maps and whatever else I thought I needed to scribble down at a given moment. I scribble a lot. And when I say a lot, I mean an inordinate amount.
I scribble when I’m on the bus, on the train, at breakfast, before I go to bed. Other people take pictures, I scribble. It’s automatic writing, only there are no ghosts. Or if there are, they haven’t said boo to me.
Sometimes it’s just word-salad, other times its cross-indexed and neatly organized, as I gnaw at an idea from several different directions. Most of my commonplace books are like this.
A few are not. Some are downright odd.
Of the weirder commonplace books, there’s one has nothing but overexposed pictures I scavenged from the bins beside automatic photo machines, back when I worked at a photo processing center. Yes, I asked permission. Yes, that’s weird. No, I don’t know why. Regardless, I’ve got a notebook full of blurred faces and melted landscapes.
Another is my little black book of names. Names have power. You conjure the character with the name. Names define a character and give you an impression of who they are and what they’re about. A couple of syllables can do more to build an image in the reader’s mind than any number of pages of back-story.
A few years ago, or maybe more than a few now, I went to a certain church yard of some passing local infamy. It was an old place, and forgotten, crouching off a dirt road that you’d miss unless you knew it was there, situated way back up where the woods gave way to the swamp.
Kudzu was eating the clapboard shell of the church, and what the kudzu didn’t want, the moss gladly took. The congregation had moved on or died off, leaving their snakes behind to repopulate the surrounding woods in peace. It just sat, year after year, forgotten and forgetting.
But the graves were still there. Less than a hundred, and most of them under water, or sunk deep. It was an old burying ground, with wooden markers as well as stone ones. But I could still make out the names well enough, and I set to copying all of them down. By the time the sun started to set, I had all of them that could be had.
The burying ground is gone now. It sank down into the swamp, year by year, and whatever was left of it got washed away for good in the big flood of 2015. But I’ve still got all those names, all copied down in my black book. I might well be the only one who does.
I use them, but only when I need them. There’s power in names, and those names especially, and the right name can sell a story or hook a reader. When I require the services of a special name, a name that needs to be just right, I go to my book. Some names I use more than others, and they form an inadvertent thread through my stories—fictional family lines, scattered across worlds. They’ve got a life, those names in my book.
Sometimes, rarely, I add to the book. When a friend dies. When I meet someone interesting. When I spy a name I just have to have. In my black book they go, more characters waiting to be conjured.