People like to ask me where I get my ideas for stories.
“From you,” I reply, and they look confused. And then the confusion turns to suspicion.
“Oh really?” they ask tentatively.
“Mmhmm,” I reply. I drum my fingers on my writer’s notebook. (Well, okay. I don’t have a writer’s notebook. I store everything in my head. So I drum my fingers on my head.)
“Sooo . . . what do you have in there?” they ask.
“You’ll find out in my next book.” I smile and wink.
They’re getting scared. “Were you at Kroger last week? Did you see me in the bakery? I swear to God I didn’t do what you think you saw! It was somebody else! Please don’t put that in your book!!”
“Oh, I saw you all right. And it’s sooo going in my book,” I reply.
“You writers!” they scream. “You think you can slap a disclaimer on your books and write whatever you want!”
The truth may shock you. It may scare you. It may piss you off. But your favorite writer? Well, she most likely got some ideas in that favorite book of yours from spying on people. Maybe even you. That’s right. Flat-out, creepy-but-trying-to-look-nonchalant-about-it spying. And it happens every second of the day. You’re just not aware of it.
We’re sponges, see? We soak up everything we come into contact with. Smells, sounds, tastes, conversations. We store these tidbits away (either in our heads or in notebooks) to later develop into characters or plot ideas. Because the bottom line is this: we can only infuse so much of ourselves and our experiences into our characters and stories before they turn utterly tedious or narcissistic. One of my favorite things about Brooke in Going Under is that (aside from her foul mouth) that girl is nothing like me. (And for the record, I like her a whole lot better!)
So who do I spy on? Where do my ideas come from? Well, all over. I’m acquiring ideas all the time (and I should really start writing them down instead of relying so heavily on my memory). One I’ve been trying to work into a story for a long time comes from an acquaintance who described a church for me she used to attend. One located in the deep South. One with a preacher who liked to stand up at the pulpit and call people out for their transgressions during the service:
“Pete! Jimmy saw you down at Pumpkin’s Bar last Friday! Now we all of us in this congregation know that you have an alcohol problem, son! So what were you doin’ at Pumpkin’s?”
All eyes on Pete. Poor, poor Pete.
“Darlene! I done told you to stop gossipin’ about Jimmy’s wife behind her back!”
Jimmy’s wife looks outraged.
“If you’ve got somethin’ to say to her, say it to her face! But make sure you say it in a loving, Christ-like way, of course.”
Yeah, so I’m trying to work that in because it’s too hilarious to be true, but it’s so freaking true. And stories like these are precisely why writers spy. We soak up these events, these real-life people/caricatures, these conversations because they make delicious stories. They add what our imaginations can’t. And when you write realistic fiction, you need that. The world around you becomes your candy store of ideas, and you begin to discover that reality is pretty crazy.
I love reading reviews of realistic fiction that state, “Oh, that isn’t very realistic,” or “That could never happen.” Wanna make a bet? That story you just read is a collection of soaked up people and events sprinkled with the ideas of the author. It may not be one hundred percent true, but it’s pretty darn close.
So the next time you’re out and about, you might want to look over your shoulder. Go ahead and let your eyes dart around. Think twice before you do what you’re just about to do. Because we’re watching. The notebooks are open, people. We’re watching and we’re jotting.
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