Index Cards & Writing

They’re ubiquitous. So common you can still buy 100 of them for less than two dollars.  Scratch a telephone message or other tiny piece of information on one and then, guilt free, you can recycle it in the weekly trash run.

I’m talking about the humble index card, of course.  I love these tools of the trade, tools of the home, and tools for just about everywhere you go.

Recently, I took a peek on Pinterest and saw some terrific uses for index cards including:

  • School flash cards
  • Scripture cards
  • Recipe cards
  • Rolodexes (yes, people do still keep contacts on paper systems)
  • Library book records
  • Book marks
  • and more!
  • Valentines cards
  • Kid activity cards
  • Fly paper . . .

The list goes on and on.

In my younger years, I used index cards as part of a housekeeping system I found in a book called “The Sidetracked Home Executives” by Pam Young and Peggy Jones.  It was salvation for a woman whose best knowledge of housekeeping was how to whine about the kids and hubby making messes that she didn’t have the energy to pick up–especially when her own “office” had been declared a disaster area.

Today, I like to use index cards to help organize my plots for next novels.  Here’s how it works:


Picture of Index Cards used for Creative Writing

Index cards help you write multiple plot lines at one time.

No novel worth its weight on your kindle has single plot lines any more.  You need backstory, secondary character stories, theme, and, if  you’re writing a mystery, clues.  How can a person keep this all clear and still firmly guide a reader from start to the final “the end?”

I start with a single theme and work my way outward.  For example, in Sliced Vegetarian, I played with the theme of overindulgence.  Then I asked how Daisy might overindulge, why an overweight accountant might be killed, and so on.  From there I had a list of plot lines to work up:

  • Murder mystery
  • Romance
  • Creative Writing
  • Pets

I wrote plot lines for each area of about two to three pages.  This was, of course, after interviews and research on various topics I wanted to play with in my story.


This next step is a lot of fun.  I rewrite every paragraph, but each paragraph gets its own index card.  As I write the plot, I number the card and name it.  So, for example, I wrote on one card, “Daisy and Gabe, 1.”  This was the first paragraph of Daisy’s romantic life.  Later, I added short codes for other pieces of information, like calendar day (Tuesday 1), Chapter (which gets filled in later), and character development (CD), high conflict or plot (PL) and so on.

In the end, I probably invested in about 75 to 100 cards (again, less than $2).


Picture of Nalla with index cards

Nalla helps keep watch over my index cards–she know’s they’re important.

After all the plots are written out on my cards, I can play the shuffle game.  Kirk Hickman color codes the top of his cards at this stage, but with my printed codes, I’m okay with just the notes. The goal of this stage is to outline your novel without forgetting the clue that belonged in chapter one and is needed in chapter six, but you might have actually slipped into chapter seven by mistake.  I think you get where that goes. Yuck!

I usually spend an hour or so playing with my cards laid out on my dining room table.  When I have them just the way I like them, then I bundle them up again and type up an outline and a calendar.


I use the index cards from then on as inspiration points.  Read the index cards that belong in each chapter and stew for a few minutes.  Then I head to the keyboard, and voila!  The story begins.

I think the index cards make the writing less intimidating because you only have to flesh out what the notes called for and you’re soon writing 500, 1000 or even 1500 words in a day.

I hope this index sized tip helps with your creative writing.  How ’bout sharing either how you use index cards or how you get organized to write.


It’s summer time again and I’m going to enjoy myself a lot this year.  Unfortunately, that means there will be some gaps in my blog posts, starting next week.  But I’ll return June 17 with tales from abroad.

Wishing you a creative few weeks.

2 thoughts on “Index Cards & Writing

  1. Great tips, Liesa. I like the idea of using index cards, but I can’t get beyond using them for more than short chapter summaries. I scribble notes in a notebook and type them in a Word document. I also use Word tables to arrange the ideas for characters and chapters. Seeing my ideas on the computer screen, rather than looking at my sloppy handwriting(!), helps me organize the plot and resolve any dilemmas I have with it.

    Enjoy your summer adventures!

    • Hi Jeanne. Just picked up “All Things Murder” and am looking forward to a great summer read there. Meanwhile, I do understand about the handwriting vs. computer print out. MUCH less likely to loose notes when you keep them on the computer. I just enjoy not having to think linearly while I’m in the beginning stages of a new project. Wishing you all the best.

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