creative list-making

I love lists. I have lists for shopping, to-do lists for home and work, books I want to read, what to take on holiday lists; to list just a few! Add a timeline and finances and possibilities explode: I’ll produce budgets, monthly goals, an annual plan and so much more.

I’m happy to be teased about my prolific list-making because secretly I’m thinking I’ve got it sussed. I mean, how do people who don’t make lists function? What do they do with all those ideas, wishes, tasks? Do they keep them in their heads? Or, perhaps – a suspicion I suspect most list-makers try to hold back from allowing to fully form – the ‘others’ are people without enough ideas, wishes or tasks to warrant a list. But surely that’s not possible? You can make a list out of anything.

Maybe non list-makers don’t realize what they’re missing out on. They don’t know that there’s a whole world of pleasure in notebooks, coloured pens and sharp pencils. They haven’t yet been seduced by the soft suspense as you ponder what form your list should take.

I find setting words down attaches purpose and value and makes what they represent harder to ignore. And there is pure satisfaction when you can tick something off as ‘done’. I love the meditative moments that come with the ordering of thoughts, and the rush of releasing a mess of words onto paper where I can contemplate them at leisure – making connections and meanings for future use.

Each novel demands a slightly different approach but lists, naturally, form part of my creative process and will feature at some point in the novel’s evolution. A word-doodling list might help me find a way forward when I’m stuck; lists of objects or observations pushes me deeper into a character or setting; specialist phrases and words gives me access into unknown worlds and the authentic ‘mot juste’. Sometimes the juxtaposition of words or lists can bring out new connections and provide texture and fibre.

My third novel, Never Stop Looking, is set in a fictionalized London. I took a research trip there back in 2008 to stay with a friend who happens to work in the area where my character lives (Vauxhall). I spent the day slowly making my way from Paddington to Vauxhall where I then spent a few nosey hours wandering  the streets. While I waited for my friend to finish work, I sat in the lovely café in Kennington Park and noted down everything I’d experienced that day, without hesitation or censor. When I look at those pages now, I can see it, smell it, feel it all. The taxi drivers relaxing against their cabs is as clear to me now, the tall man with long legs walking along with a full box of kiwi fruits on his shoulder, still makes me smile.


The night-time plays a strong role in the novel and this also influenced the overall visual impression that I wanted to convey of light within shadows. I sought for words, objects and sounds that would reflect the metallic and monochrome world I imagined Abbie, the main character, living in: the silver cold of the moon, the shocking, stark whites against disorientating shifting shadows.


The character, Abbie, repairs and makes theatre costumes for a living. I needed to access sewing terms and vocabulary, so I started a classic word-doodle list. Words were slow to come at first. I thought about sewing classes at school, about outfits my mother made me and my sister when we were younger; I remembered my grandma who crocheted. Memories of sensations and emotions returned alongside words and phrases like threading the bobbin, hook and eye fastening, tacking stitch.

I visited backstage at a local theatre and snooped in the wardrobe departments of other theatres on the internet.  I drew on the experience of plays I’d seen and the few I’d had first-hand involvement in.  The list grew not only with sewing terms, but equipment and fabrics and the damage the costumes could suffer that Abbie might have to repair.


In the creative process, lists allow me to explore, to reach deeper and find new directions. Lists encourage those serendipitous moments: I discovered pearl on my sewing list and pearl(y) on my metallic list. This word shines at the core of the novel and plays an important role in Abbie’s healing.