Writing fiction is a gloriously self-indulgent activity. (Well, the first draft anyway). Why? It allows you to gather the moods, places, characters, issues and items that intrigue you most, and write them into a world you can share with others. All the other stuff you can just ignore. (Well, until an editor has had a look at your manuscript). And one of the easiest starting points is a journal or diary.
John Berendt, author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, offers this practical advice: 'Keep a diary, but don't just list all the things you did during the day. Pick one incident and write it up as a brief vignette. Give it color, include quotes and dialogue, shape it like a story with a beginning, middle and end – as if it were a short story or an episode in a novel. It's great practice. Do this while figuring out what you want to write a book about. The book may even emerge from within this running diary.'
This overlaps a little with the 'morning pages' advocated by Julia Cameron, author of The Artist's Way, as a way for burnt-out writers, artists and other creatives to rediscover their inspiration and sense of purpose. She recommends filling three A4 pages with handwriting – just stream of consciousness: thoughts, worries, weirdness – first thing each morning, to release them from your headspace. The idea is that you once you've written about how you're going to sort out your blocked drain, for example, your mind is free to pursue higher thoughts.
A useful exercise, after 12 weeks of morning pages, is to take a highlighter and go through them to mark recurrent ideas: these trends show you what keeps coming up for you. For me, buying an easel kept surfacing in my morning pages. What was stopping me from buying one and starting to paint again? They're expensive, duh. And if I bought an easel I'd actually have to, er, paint. But I bought one, finally. Then I wrote a novel.
I've also written in a journal every couple of days since the age of ten. Occasionally I dip into one. Doing this a few years ago, I saw some trends emerge and started writing a list of the things I realised I enjoyed writing about: Cape Dutch houses, farms, history, politics, human rights, self-development, books, sensuality, sumptuous meals, opera, wit, offbeat moments in everyday life, chocolate, lists… In fact, I decided to create a whole fictionalised world around those things I love and write about naturally: The Presence of Peacocks or How to Find Love and Write a Novel was the result.
In your diary, you might just find yourself as an author.