We can be quick to dismiss others as being of little importance or having nothing interesting to say. A business or government official, an established artist, a professor, these people are generally deemed important and as such we are keen to hear their experiences and stories. The waiter, the call centre worker, the small cog in the business world, generally are deemed unimportant, so they can’t have anything interesting to say. There can be a bit of cynicism as well, the jaded belief we have seen everything and there isn’t anything left to learn. When it comes to writing, we can shut ourselves off from the rest of the world because we know all there is and now it is just putting pen to paper.
This is a big mistake though, both in terms of being a person generally but also for your writing. Some of the greatest authors were observers and listeners which is why their work feels so alive.
Interacting and listening to people can give you a peek into how others see the world which will be reflected in your writing. Even if your story is set in a mythical kingdom, you want the people in it to feel real.
A common excuse is “my story isn’t set in the real world, it is a science fiction Star Wars type story, what on earth could I gain listening to a waiter?”
Well, does your universe have restaurants? A casual chat might give you some insight into how it works now you can either invert or use outright.
“No, it’s all set aboard a ship”
Okay, is there a dining area or mess hall on the ship?
“Oh, well yeah. A lot of the characters chat there in between the missions”
That sounds a good idea, some of the crew serve there?
That was a little thought experiment. Even if they still insist it is not relevant to this story, they might have another one it will be. Nothing makes characters and settings feel more flat and carboard than a lack of spark with the background characters. A book that has one or two flesh and blood characters and they are surrounded by bland props is not fun to read.
Here is an example from my own life.
I was chatting with someone who works in the insurance industry, not a big player by any means. As is the custom, we were swapping stories of our times in the trenches- mass layoffs we had survived, the varying attitudes to business in different parts of Scotland, East coast versus west etc.
I told him a few banking horror stories, he told me a jaw dropping insurance one that inspired the horror story I am working on now Flat Fire. A story I would not have considered if not for his tale.
He explained to me if a child is scalded or burned at a restaurant, they have to do a lot of work ascertaining exactly what happened. In this case, a coffee that was piping hot had been spilled on a kid’s arm, leaving third degree burns.
The reason they have to do so much digging isn’t anything to do with not wanting to pay out the money to victims, it is something a bit more sinister. Some parents have deliberately hurt their children in order to sue. That’s right, some parents will deliberately maim and disfigure their kids for cash. Not even a lot of cash he was telling me.
Now that is a horrifying thought.
Someone damaging their own child, potentially their whole future, for a couple of grand. Most of it to be spent on drugs or booze, they can spend it all in about a week.
My own writing often exaggerates the stories I have heard, so in Flat Fire the scam goes wrong and the kid dies (to return as a vengeful, fire spewing spirit). If I hadn’t struck up a casual conversation with a small cog in an unrelated industry to mine, I would never have come up with this story idea.
So keep talking, keep listening and keep in mind you can find stories everywhere.