I live in downtown Portland, Oregon, on the second floor of a 113-year-old building. I love my apartment, and while the building has its issues, it also has a fair amount of charm. I work at home, so I’m able to look out any of my four, big, north-facing windows throughout the day to see and hear snippets of stories unfold or pass on by. And sometimes, in the middle of the night, I wake up to the sound of alcohol-induced squabbles and lines of dialogue that stay with me.
The storyteller in me kicks in and I can’t help but create a beginning and end to the middle I’ve witnessed and/or heard.
As writers, we have at our disposal a jackpot of fodder and triggers for our writing. Even if we’re working on a longer piece, like a novel or memoir, taking the time to write a quick story based on a conversation we’ve overheard, a facial expression we’ve witnessed, or a scent that stays with us after someone has strolled past can lead to breakthroughs we might not have expected. Or it could lead to a finished piece we submit for publication, and getting our words in print never hurts, right?
Here are three ways we can use strangers to enhance or kickstart our writing, keep the cogs in our writer brains in good working order, and nurture our imaginations so we can keep funneling words onto the page.
- Physical appearance. I’m fascinated by the vastly different physical traits humans have that can add to a character’s appeal or intrigue. From meaty cheeks, tiny teeth, and lush eyebrows to slender fingers, perfectly painted toenails, and dancing Adam’s apples, human beings are charming bundles of physical intricacies and abnormalities, all fit to be explored, described, and elaborated on. Keep a writer’s notebook, and when you’re out and about, do some people watching (coffee shops are excellent for this) and jot down interesting features you notice (but be stealth… staring at strangers for more than 5 seconds is creepy!).
- Dialogue and speech patterns. Again, coffee shops are great for this, or any public place, for that matter. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to sit in a public space and not overhear conversations. I know it sounds invasive (and I have a thing about being overheard in a public space when I’m having a conversation), but it will give you some great indicators about how to vary language, cadence, and tone so your characters are distinctive. The last thing we want is for our characters to all sound alike. Listen for that slight lisp, where the voice emanates from (chest, throat, nasal cavity), the nervous laugh…
- Fill in the gaps. After you’ve watched and listened, start to imagine the rest of their stories. If someone is sitting alone, imagine what the rest of their life might look like. Do they always sit alone? Are they lonely? Or are they happy to be by themselves, away from a house full of roommates or kids or visiting relatives? If two people appear to be having a meeting, imagine what their home lives are like. Who and what do they go home to at the end of the day?
Writers are avid students of human behavior and the human condition. It’s why we do what we do. And what better way to fill our notebooks with rich, usable fodder that will serve as prompts for practice or, perhaps, a polished piece of prose. And it will keep your storytelling brain in prime form, too.
Do some sleuthing, then let us know what you uncovered in the comments below. The voyeur in me wants to know!
Sending you mad writing mojo…