Friday, October 12, 2007

Research: Like Salt To Mashed Potatoes, Part 4

What can I learn from strangers who cross my path?

By Lonnie Cruse

Art generally imitates life rather than the other way around. It’s difficult to make up stories that are stranger than what actually happens to people . . . or what they make happen to themselves. So it’s a good idea for a writer to be a “people watcher.” I was delighted to read an article online in The Motivated Writer by author Carl Brookins where he said: “Driving down the street, I see a man walking. Where is he going? Where has he been? Who was he just with? What did he just do, or decide not to do? I play "what if" incessantly.”

I do the same thing, but I thought I was weird. Well, okay, the fact that Carl Brookins does it as well doesn’t make me any less weird, it just means there are two of us. But speculating about people we see on the street and asking “What if?” can lead to creating a great story, or characters for same.

And overhearing conversations in public (discreetly, of course, not leaning over to the point of being off-balance and falling out of our chairs) is another great way to get inspiration. I was doing a book signing at a local mall with several other authors last year. The mall personnel set up our tables between the kiosks in the middle of the mall, and most of us sat alone at our tables, watching traffic pass by, poised like cocker spaniels hoping for a treat. My ears perked up when I heard a voice behind me say: “I’m so tired of this, would you please shut up?” My jaw dropped and I carefully turned my head to catch a glimpse of the guy who could be so outspoken in such a public place. The lady with him kept walking and didn’t say a word. (I’d a let him have it, but that’s just me. My guess is she probably did, on the way home. In private.) I wondered if he didn’t realize how easily he could be overheard or if he just didn’t care. It led me into the “What if?” question, and to speculating about the things we say and do in public.

A couple of days ago I was downtown and as I passed a group of people standing on the sidewalk, talking, one person said: “I didn’t take the baby away because _____’s always been so good to her.” That’s the only phrase I heard as the speaker stopped talking in order to take a puff of cigarette and the listeners were silent. Okay. So, who is _____? Guy? Gal? Is it his/her baby or is this a step-parent, in-law, other relative, friend, lover, babysitter? Why would the speaker even THINK of taking the baby away in the first place? Away where? For how long? See where “What if” takes you (or in this case took me?)

How are the teenagers in your mall dressed? Are any of them actually shopping or are they all just “hanging out?” Is that elderly gentleman waiting for his wife? Or is he putting off going home to an empty house. Is that a bored hubby sitting on that bench eating ice cream, or is it a detective following a cheating wife? That lady attempting to corral four or five boisterous kids of different ethnic backgrounds, is she their mother, teacher, foster mom, kidnapper? If it’s the latter, someone better call the cops to come rescue HER. And even if you never find out what these people are doing or where they are going, you can make notes about their dress, mannerisms, the words you DO hear, etc, and take off with your story from there.

I pre-date (by quite a few years) the cell phone phenomenon, so seeing people chatting away in Wal-Mart or Kroger always makes me snicker, but I confess, I do it myself. If my friend Debby and I are shopping together, that’s how we keep from losing each other. But many people who were used to talking on the phone only in the privacy of their homes or offices are now likely to say just about anything on a cell phone in public. Great fodder for stories.

Bottom line, be aware in public, head’s up, eyes forward, ears perked. Pay attention to what’s going on around you. How did your waiter behave? Was the clerk in the department store having a tough day or is he/she always that rude? What did that woman say to her sister/daughter/friend, and how did the listener react to it? Not only will you get great story ideas, but you will be able to polish your characters, make them more real to your readers who will nod their heads and agree that they know people just like those in your stories.

What most amazes you about people in public? Or disgusts, surprises, turns you off, etc? Keep your notebook handy and your brain on alert. And have fun. Just don’t be obvious about observing or listening in. No need to get a punch in the nose for the sake of your art.

SUGGESTION: Sometime this week, when you find yourself in a public place, choose a stranger to observe and make notes about what he/she says or does. Or if you can only see them from your car as they enter a restaurant or other public building, play “What if?”

In my new series I have a scene where three of my characters are eating lunch at their favorite restaurant and the guy at the next table is talking on his cell phone, giving out information most people used to guard with their lives. In this day of identity theft my characters are amazed at his stupidity. But as they go shopping, the lead character’s purse is stolen and she now has to deal with protecting herself from identity theft. I got the idea from seeing and hearing the way people use cell phones.


Darlene Ryan said...

I do the making up stories for strangers all the time to the extent that this morning when I was driving down the highway and saw a raccoon walking along the shoulder and occasionally glancing back at the cars, I started trying to figure out how he ended up walking down route 7. It was 8:30 in the morning. Where was he going? Where had he been? Why did he keep looking back at the traffic? Was he waiting to be picked up? Was he planning on committing raccoon suicide by jumping in front of a car and just couldn't get up the nerve?

I'm guessing non-writers don't have these thoughts

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks, Valerie--that was very fun and interesting.

I confess I'm always making up lives for people, but there's a downside--it makes me often assume that people are more mysterious or even glamorous in real life than they really are. Sometimes I write in backstory that just doesn't exist. :)