The joy of lists for writers (and for normal people too)

The to-do list

lists of listsThis weekend, with the revisions for my second crime novel on my editor’s desk rather than on mine, I spent the weekend working through lists: essentially my “to do list”, catching up on housework, the ironing and reading a “treat” book.

They were on my mental list of things to do and, mentally, I ticked them off.

One of the things I did, once the heavy lifting was done, was sit down with a cup of tea. The radio was on – I love the radio – and Weekend Woman’s Hour was playing.

shopping list

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

Lucy Ireland Gray was talking about the 200 discarded shopping lists that she’d collected from shopping trolleys (we’ve all seen those) and picked up from the ground. They went on display at the Museum of London Brands, in Notting Hill. 

One of her friends was horrified that one of the lists might be hers. Not so much worried that her shopping list would betray her inner secrets, but that it would out her as a litter lout. 

Why do we make lists?

lists for writersObviously as an aide memoire. This is a list of a colleague who is a lot of more organised than me.

My lists are messy, jotted down on the nearest piece of paper or notepad and maybe, later, transferred to this notebook.

I do, weirdly, have a book of lists.

This is from when I started using Instagram and was making a note of useful hashtags. I have lists for romance readers, for gardens, for cyber crime (they’re for my son’s books) and for food photographs.

I need a new one for crime fiction…

Looking through it, I discovered all sorts of lists I’d forgotten. Hero Names, a list of the events at the Tasting Rooms in East Grinstead, sadly now closed, a victim of the pandemic. Motives for murder. Poisons…

murder listsThis recent list, jotted down during a brain-storming zoom call with colleagues, needs to be transferred before it gets lost. (I could tell you what it’s for but then I’d have to shoot you. Writing crime…)

Do Lists Set You Up for Failure?

I didn't do the thing today by Madeleine DoreMadeleine Dore, author of I didn’t do the thing today: On letting go of productivity guilt, was on the radio programme exploring the tyranny of lists.

The ones we make at the New Year, for instance. She believes they set us up for failure. I am never going to start a list with Run Marathon so I’m safe there.

lists of New Year resolutionsI don’t actually make that kind of list. Mine tend to be more prosaic. But it did make me think about the lists I make.

The shopping lists that I always forget – although writing things down does seem to fix them in the memory. If all  else fails, I stand in the middle of the aisle, getting in everyone’s way, while I attempt to visualize my notepad lying on my desk.

Clearly, I need to get up to the minute and make my shopping list on my phone, which I’d have with me. One day…maybe.

But list-making isn’t all about remembering to buy cous cous, sadly forgotten this week. I had to use brown rice, which takes forever to cook. Never mind. It was good for me. Probably.

Writer’s lists

lists for revising a bookAs the contents of my notebook can testify, a writer’s to do list is often weird. Okay, there’s a list of goals… Write 1000 words a day, write 3 books a year (I can fantasize!), make the Sunday Times Bestseller List. (This list is thirty years old, okay, and mostly in my head!)

This is last week’s list as I worked through my revisions and renumbered the chapters…


These days my list-making is mostly  focused on the basics. Character names for instance. Romance is very focused on the two main characters, with walk-on parts as required, but when I started writing crime, I quickly discovered that I was going to need a much larger cast. Here’s the list…

A sleuth and her buddies – maybe a romance interest
A body or two
People who know stuff
People who don’t know stuff but like to gossip
A red herring or two

Lists of names

lists of namesAll of those people require names.

Names that fit the character’s age, background, social status, bearing in mind that mothers will often give their child a name for a future they hope they’ll achieve.

Alexander Bonaparte Cust, anyone?

This is the book when I first started writing. It helps, but isn’t the entire answer and is no help when you’re not paying attention.

lists on a spreadsheetWhen, doing a global search to check up on what a minor character had said earlier in Murder Among the Roses, I discovered that I had three minor characters called Steve and, later, my editor pointed out that I had a Molly, Polly and Olly… Clearly snatching names out of the air when in full flow was not the way to do it.

I had created a spreadsheet of all my major characters, their ages, anything significant and their basic role. It was the bit players that caught me out.

graphic of murder listWhen writing my second Maybridge Mystery, Murder Under the Mistletoe, to be published on 7 November (and this little list will give you a hint of what it’s all about) I had a group of characters that were using their bus pass.

I looked up names that were popular when they were born and added those to my spreadsheet, so that when I introduced a new character, I didn’t have to waste time hunting for something suitable. They might have been changed later, but the creative flow wasn’t interrupted.

By the time I was on my third book, and knew that I’d need an extensive cast list, I started a spreadsheet of characters as they appear on the page. And I now realise that I need an index-card system with cross-referencing for the regulars, and so that I don’t repeat names. They do tend to stick in the head and insert themselves.

Pause to add the  cards and box file to my shopping list…

retreat listMy next list is going to be a shopping list for my annual writing retreat, bearing in mind fellow retreaters’ dietary needs when it’s my turn to produce the evening meal. I’ve made a start…

Fortunately, I’ll be forwarding that list to someone a lot more organised than me who will be picking up the groceries. Remembering it will be their problem!

So, what do you do with your shopping lists? What other lists do you make? And what did you go home without the day you forgot your shopping list?


Liz Fielding

4 thoughts on “The joy of lists for writers (and for normal people too)

    1. Joanna

      Oh yes. I’ve been known to do that, Liz. And if they’re proper things that should have been on the list in the first place, that’s OK isn’t it? 😉

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