Don’t worry. I’m not after intimate details about your relationships, or how bad working from home is, or that you drank too much wine last night.
It’s not the topic I want to hear about. I’m looking for a particular word or phrase or sentence or tone of voice. I want to examine the way you’re standing or the way you hunch your shoulders or the way you tilt your head. I need to inspect the clothes you’re wearing too.
Overheard in a cafe
You might not know it, but if I’ve overheard or watched you – in a café, in the street, on a train, or in the place we both used to work – a little bit of what you said or how you looked or what you were wearing might have featured in something I’ve written.
It’s not voyeurism – well, only slightly – but it shouldn’t be seen as creepy or odd or even unusual.
I don’t know many novelists who don’t find inspiration from watching people, listening to the things they say, and observing what they do. In fact, I know quite a few non-writers who enjoy people-watching too. But for us authors, it’s not an enjoyable-but-casual thing, it’s a means to an end and that end is a character, part of a conversation or an incident in one of our books.
How could overhearing someone once say: ‘It was a tiny multi-coloured sock – floating in the middle of the lake…’ not result in a short story about a missing child?
Or how could I resist writing down (and later using) a conversation between two women on the next table to me in a restaurant that went:
‘She’s one of those shakers, you know.’
‘Yes, she goes to those parties where they all mix together and, you know, have relations.’
‘Yes, relations. You know – sex.’
‘Oh! You mean she’s a swinger.’
Nuggets of inspiration
Overhearing snippets, observing people, making a note of things going on around is often the starting point of something I’m writing. Imagination and research takes over, but it’s those initial nuggets that give me inspiration.
And currently, there’s little inspiration to be had as we can’t sit in cafes, wander idly round shops, and I’m not that keen on taking buses or trains at the moment. And I’ve got to keep my distance from people in the park even though what they’re saying to each other could be vital for my next book.
I used to walk up a long, empty beach on the east coast when I suffered a writing block – and, incredibly, every time, the block would unlock and the plot that had defied me would become clear. But we now have to stay local and I’m not allowed to drive to the seaside from the landlocked town where I live. I’m lucky that home is amidst open green spaces, but on the currently water-logged paths and boggy fields around here you need to concentrate so as not to become stuck in the mud. No chance for the brain to run free.
I miss being able to walk without a thought in my head, which was often when new ideas started emerging. I miss eavesdropping, listening out for those overheard gems. The notebooks I keep with me to jot observations and plot lines are often empty and tittle-tattle free.
When I mention this to friends in Facetime and Zoom meetings, they offer up suggestions with an accompanying: ‘Write this down …’ before telling me something which, frankly, doesn’t inspire. Sorry, friends, but I have to overhear or see something in circumstances where my victim doesn’t realise they’re being recorded and my brain can think: ‘Ah yes. I can use that…’
Which is why I’m asking for volunteers to come and stand outside my house and chatter away. I’m only looking for the odd word or gesture, and you really won’t recognize yourself when you finally make it into my latest work. I promise.