For those of you who think writers simply magic up tightly spun, coherently woven, and logically tied off reams of sentences and paragraphs, let me enlighten you. You’re wrong–unless you’re talking to someone like Gayle Lynds or David Baldacci, whose first novel, Absolute Power, is one of my favorite books of all time.
For the most part, our words spill out over the page like runaway Scrabble bits which we then clumsily attempt to form into something sensible, something readable. And sometimes, ok, many times, we need help. Our characters are flat, we’ve run out of witty repartee or are just stumped on how someone should look. That’s where surreptitious behavior comes in handy.
To put it plainly, writers eavesdrop and spy on other people.
No, we really don’t care about you per se, we just want to hear your choice of words, the tone of your voice, see your intriguing selection of clothing. You could have won the lottery for all we care just as long as you’re dressed in a shocking lime green shirt, pink and blue checkered shorts, wearing white socks with Birkenstocks and speaking in a twangy Boston (that’s Baahstan to everyone outside the east coast) accent. Or you could be the 20-something blond on her very first hike ever, wearing pink, open-toed espadrilles, black biker shorts, a string tank top, grasping your fashionable beige Fendi clutch bag to your chest in lieu of water. What makes the picture even more memorable is your comment about how there seem to be a lot of rocks in the park.
We also look to our relatives and friends for help. Got a nana who has a collection of smart-ass zingers? We’ll happily steal them. Got an uncle with hair growing out of his ears? Guess what, he may be our favorite uncle but by golly, ear hair is just too good to pass up. Same with behavior patterns. Know someone who always wriggles out of paying the bill, even though she makes twice as much as you? Someone else who’s color blind, but still insists on wearing mismatched colors? A boss who’s a screamer? All fair game.
Now please understand that we lift only that particular habit, comment or clothing style for our use (and Taylor Swift seems to be the master of this trick). That’s it. We don’t go any further than that. Doing so is bad form and just downright dumb considering libel laws. Nope, we just want your funny comments, odd behavioral ticks, and insightful behavior to give our characters and plots that little extra punch and sparkle.
Sometimes, we’ll even get a whole book idea out of it. Tess Gerritsen did when she went out to dinner one night. She overheard such a frightening conversation that it eventually spawned her breakthrough book, Harvest.
So be warned. The next time you’re in a coffee shop, outdoor restaurant or even the beach, take a look around. Notice anyone paused for thought, head cocked to one side, eyes staring off into the distance as if he/she is pondering the deep problems of the universe? Yes, it’s a good act, isn’t it? Guess what, that person is most likely a writer and is probably scoping out your conversation for interesting bits and pieces.
You’ll know for sure if there’s a little careful scribbling after you say something particularly witty. Or if you are wearing some sort of clashing colors.