Confessions of a Paper Magnet

I have been doing a major decluttering job on my office. In fact, I wonder if it will ever be over. It’s the very definition of ongoing.

Decades, anyway. I’ve lived in this condo for nearly 30 years. And I’ve been accumulating stuff for longer than that. And no, we won’t talk about the walk-in closet that I’m afraid to open for fear of what might fall out.

I confess. I am a paper magnet. Show me a writer who isn’t. We collect ideas for stories and nuggets of research and stash them away like squirrels gathering nuts for winter.

Because I might use that piece of paper one of these days. It’s a plot point, a character study, an interesting setting. Or it’s just the intriguing bit of research I need to bring that scene to life.

Case in point. About fifteen years ago, I clipped a short, intriguing article out of the San Francisco Chronicle. It told the story of wallets found discarded in the heating ducts of an old military barracks at Camp Roberts, wallets with cash missing, but in many cases, personal items such as IDs and letters left inside.

Camp Roberts, World War II

Camp Roberts, which straddles the Monterey and San Luis Obispo county lines in central California, was a military base back in World War II. At the time, it was the largest military training facility around, with thousands of soldiers passing through. The base was deactivated after WWII, then reactivated during the Korean War. Nowadays, Camp Roberts serves as a base for the California National Guard.

As for those wallets, the theory was that they had been stolen from soldiers in the barracks, the valuables taken. Then the thieves tossed the wallets into the heating ducts, where they were found decades later, when the building was torn down.

A National Guard officer at Camp Roberts was taking steps to see if he could locate the wallet owners, using what papers remained. Later articles outlined some success in doing that.

I clipped that article out of the newspaper and kept it on my desk for several years. I was sure I would use it, someday. I was right. Those stolen wallets at Camp Roberts turned out to be an important plot point in Bit Player, a Jeri Howard novel.

One newspaper article leads to another. In fact, it led me to the Bancroft Library at Cal, where I looked at the Camp Roberts newspaper during the war years. I found out what movies were playing at the base theater and what a fried chicken dinner cost at a local restaurant. And the cherry on top? Bing Crosby and his band played a gig at Camp Roberts at the time I was writing about. That’s just the sort of detail I love, one that adds flavor and spice to my writing. Of course, that mention of Bing wound up in the book.

I used to clip articles out and leave them in folders, part of a work in progress. I still get vital information for my plot from various newspaper. Though these days, I don’t save the print copy of the article, Instead, I save the URL, or cut and paste a copy into a Word document. Or the pertinent piece of paper can be scanned and saved electronically.

Much less clutter. Paper clutter, anyway. Then there’s digital clutter, which is a topic for another day.

13 thoughts on “Confessions of a Paper Magnet

  1. I team-taught years ago with a woman who clipped articles of interest and filed them. She had thousands of meaty, fascinating stories in alphabetized folders in her office. She was an artist, and her plan was to use the articles to fire her creative imagination in painting or sculpting.


  2. I love this story. I have two files drawers full of clippings and other bits of paper on which I’ve scribbled my brilliant-at-the-time ideas. A news article about a money laundering ring back in the 90’s gave me grist for Murder Unrehearsed, my debut novel. Roxanne Dunn


  3. I can relate to this article, Janet. Especially the part about never knowing when or where you are going to use a nugget. I wish I also had a closet to store things in like that. I do have a bookcase, hidden behind a curtain because it is so revealing as to what I’m doing. And boxes of materials in storage. All nuggets I hope to use someday! Thanks for a great article.


    1. Boxes everywhere. I pulled all the stuff out of my office closet a couple of weeks ago and was shaking my head. Things I forgot were in there.


  4. When I started writing, I clipped and saved everything I saw that might be fodder for a story. Now, like you, I tend to save it digitally. But I still every once in a while clip something because I know it’s going to go into a book. Great post!


  5. As a paper magnet myself, this piece really spoke to me. My study and elsewhere in my condo is filled with various drafts of manuscripts, some never published, and clippings from newspapers w/ stories of interest. And then there are the piles of books, which I added to when I had to move them from a set of shelves so that the windows behind them could be replaced. Hope this will inspire me to donate or otherwise dispose of some of the books and not simply put them back on the shelves, but who knows when I’ll get around to that.

    Thanks for your post!


  6. Oh, how I do relate. I keep thinking I’m going to de-clutter, but in reality, I think my kids will have one horrible job to do.


  7. You’re right about writers saving paper. I have the same problem with saving newspaper articles, story ideas, book titles (for my TBR pile). I try not to think of the digital file, which I try to limit to research articles for stories and novels. The only way this will end is with a personality change, and that probably won’t happen.


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