On Keeping a Book Journal, and the Nascent Beginnings of Books

By JT Ellison





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WHEN SHADOWS FALL releases next week, and I wanted to show a bit of the process I went through writing the book. Every book has a different genesis, and I’ve been trying to keep better track of how the stories come alive for me.

I am not a natural journaler. I had the requisite locked diary as a girl (Dear Diary, why doesn’t so and so like me?) and when I found it a couple of years ago, I saw a familiar pattern: daily January entries faded into a sporadic February into one or two lonely March entries, then nothing at all until July, when I wrecked a friend’s moped and finally – finally! – had something to talk about.

It is the mundane that I’d always found of such little interest. And yet, how I wish I’d stuck to the discipline, that I’d at least put down a few words here and there for all those childhood years. Dinners, friends, sleepovers, heartbreaks. So many things lost, so many ideas gone.

I tried for years to journal properly – even took a class in college that called for a daily journal. What do you think happened? Yep, the night before it was due, there I was with my day runner, trying to recreate a semester’s worth of entries.

In 2003, blogging became a part of my life. It was a journal, though I didn’t realize it at the time. I can go back through the entries on my blog and on Murderati and watch my journey – my highs and lows, my successes and failures. When I stopped blogging weekly, I realized how much I missed it, and it hit me – you’ve been journaling. And you like it.

But I was still horridly inconsistent. I’m like many writers, I think, I have multiple notebooks and snippets of ideas and open file folders and cocktail napkins and half-finished blog entries scattered about my office. I need a method, a practice. And I found it again through two things – daily pages and a book journal.

Again, my fear of the mundane kept me from combining the two. What if, years from now, someone actually wanted to know my unpublicly chronicled thought process on a book? And what if they found my notebooks, and saw some of the ridiculously boring things that happen in my life?

So I kept them separate.

In each folder, for each book, I have a small journal file. I try to document the moment the idea for the book came to me, how I approached it, the emails I sent, anything that will help explain the genesis. And as I write, I keep score – word counts, what’s working, what’s not.

Which brings me to WHEN SHADOWS FALL, which comes out next week. You’d think, after all this time, I’d know what sparks a book idea for me. But for the life of me, I can’t remember. So I’m writing this blog, and now, I will go open the magic box that is the Book Journal and see. Be right back…

Here’s what I found – it’s a copy of the transcript of the email I sent my agent on 5.15.12

So the story idea for Sam #3 pranced into my head two nights ago, and I wrote it down. It’s a fun idea, I think, and based in part of a real case in Mississippi, where a man moved from California running from the “Masons” then committed suicide. Don’t worry, not a DaVinci Code-esque storyline. I have something much more fun in mind, as you’ll see when you read the synopsis.

The title – obviously a working title, but I wanted to go with three words, and have a play on the darken and black from the first two. I like this. Second place is BREATH AND SHADOW – from Sophocles. (A human being is but breath and shadow.)

Ah – I remember now. I was in the shower, and the idea for the book hit me out of the blue. I messed around with the story, wrote up a synopsis, found a title – I can’t work without a title – and sent the email to my agent.

The title, by the way, was WHEN SHADOWS FALL – everyone loved it off the bat, and my agent loved the proposal, and the editor loved it, and suddenly, I was in business.

Except – I had a few other things on my plate, and I couldn’t come back to the story for a year.

A year is a very long time between concept and writing for me. Normally I dive right in, but I had to write my first book with Catherine Coulter, and I can’t write two books at once. So SHADOWS went on the back burner for a year.

Not surprisingly, the book journal shows a rough start when I got back to it. I just read through the diary, and realized – I am rather hard on myself.

But, all that said – the journaling is now a Godsend. It was with this book that I really got into sharing my thoughts at the end of each day, which has morphed, these many years later, into an actual daily journaling habit!

I was using my blog, but there’s a strange, uncomfortable level of intimacy to sharing a book’s life while it’s under construction, so I’ve switched to a great app called Day One. I record the mundane and the important, the books stuff and the life stuff, all in one place, and I find I can’t move on with my evening if I don’t write my little bit at the end of the day.

Apparently, I’m a journaler after all.

A little added bonus, here’s an excerpt from WHEN SHADOWS FALL


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