by Sheila Connolly
People who don't write won't understand why sometimes their writer friends go still, with a distant look in their eyes. No, it's not a form of seizure: we're just paying attention in a different way.
It often happens unexpectedly. Every now and then, we'll be going about our normal business, and a little bell goes off in our head: this would be great for a story. It's like a switch is thrown, and suddenly all your senses are on high alert. You're paying attention to details—sights, colors, the space around you, facial features, voices, and just about anything else. Or maybe it's like when your cat suddenly sits up and pricks its ears, watching or sensing something you haven't even noticed yet (my cats once spotted a mouse coming down the stairs on the other side of the house in the dark).
It can happen anytime, anywhere. For example: this past weekend I attended a (non-writer) conference, and stayed in a slightly shabby midrange hotel in the Boston suburbs. I was headed downstairs for the cocktail hour, and when the elevator arrived on my floor, there were already two people on it, clearly a couple. And that alarm went off in my writer head, and I started making mental notes (all the while trying to look like I wasn't looking at them, of course, and obviously I don't have pictures).
The details: both thirty-something, tall, attractive, fit, well groomed and (for lack of a better word) interesting-looking. He was wearing beige dress pants and a sage-green fine-waled corduroy jacket that looked like suede, so smooth that I wanted to touch it. She looked a little more "artsy," with slim jeans, layered shirts and a scarf. They were a well-matched pair. They never said a word during our three-story ride down to the lobby. Neither looked like they were trying to impress anyone, but they definitely didn't look like they belonged at that hotel—I would have put them in Cambridge or Boston. I really would like to have known who they were and what they were doing there. But I didn't ask. That would spoil the spell.
All this in less than a minute. I will file them away and use them somewhere, like when one of my protagonists gets on an elevator, and the people already in it make her feel like she should turn around and change clothes, get a haircut and find a new job.
Something similar happened when I was in Ireland last fall, on a much bigger scale. I had the chance to visit the pub that is the model for Sullivan's Pub in the County Cork series. When I first saw it, it was called Connolly's. In its heyday it was a widely-known music venue in Ireland (far beyond the regional level—musicians whose names you'd recognized have played there, even though it can hold no more than maybe a hundred people, at least legally). I hadn't been inside in over ten years, and it's no longer open, except for special events. But I wanted to see how accurate my memories were, so I knocked on the door because the woman in the café down the street had told me that the last Connolly owner still lived above the pub, and she was there, and I ended up spending a couple of hours in her parlor with her cat on my lap talking about the old days. Of course I was delighted to be there, and of course I was taking pictures of the place like crazy.
There went that bell in my head again. I realized that the whole plot of the third book in the series had just fallen into my lap. Not just bits and pieces, but the whole story. Suddenly I was looking at details in a new way, and figuring how I could use them to give the story color and substance.
And that's one of the joys of being a writer—the gift or the craft of seeing in a different, more intense way, and then sharing that vision with other people.