The HR lady at my job interview was going through the motions, asking about my previous work experience (busboy, graveyard shift cook, unlicensed bartender, jeweler, copywriter, freelance editor, copywriter again, bookstore salesman and on and off writer) and she just had to know: how come someone who seems to be enjoying the company of people settle for such an introverted business like writing?
“Writing isn't introvert. I get my best work out of people,” I said without even realizing it. This led to a long off-topic discussion which ended with her describing work for the company (in a very much Hannah-Barbera fashion) as “a living.”
Two weeks later, she called me to let me know that I didn't get the job. She did enjoy our talk, however. A month later, she was featured as a plucky but deeply pessimistic space diplomat for the Terran Diplomatic Force in a short science fiction story I wrote. I renamed her “Emiko Nwosu,” to protect her privacy.
People make for the best story hooks. When you get stuck waiting for a bus, you're knee-deep in storylines. You can find every shape and size of drama everywhere you look, with comedy trailing close behind it. The real world has some absolutely awful writing and a lot of pacing issues, but you can make the most of it, if you put in the time and effort or just get stuck in enough theme park queues.
Sure, it's a daunting and scary thing to think of, but creating story hooks out of people at your day job can be made simple with just 3 very easy steps…
1. Find a People-Rich Job
Let's face it, writing is a terrible career choice: the hours are ungodly, the pay is lousy and you are your own worst editor, publisher and marketer. But you can't really stop, because you've got a writing problem and you can quit whenever you want just…not right now. Until you write the space erotica saga that will finally beat Chuck Tingle, you need to make the best out of your day job. So you might as well have it work for you.
“People-rich” jobs are occupations which provide you with a steady influx of new faces, characters and setups on a daily basis. Think of a “people-rich” job as any line of work with a constant customer rotation, especially one where people have no choice but to talk to you to get stuff done.
Think working in a gas station or sales work. Think repair work or working for a small accounting firm. Think working for support hotlines or as the fall-guy handling the interviews for an HR firm. Food service and jewelry repair have all the best characters, but then again that's just my experience.
Example: Ms. Sneer came into my store one day, asking for an oblong-shaped pendant, engraved by hand with a pentagram. Her daughter had recently married and she had hired a “wise woman” to curse her son-in-law, so they could break up. After a quick discussion over the curse's particulars (something to do with handling goat's blood), Ms. Sneer left.
She came back, a month later, having suffered from a bought of salmonella, brought on by her handling offal. Ms. Sneer of course, attributed it to her son-in-law's own hired “witch woman,” who had struck her with a counter-curse.
Since then, Ms. Sneer has been involved in a shadow occult war against her son-in-law, one that she seems to be losing.
2. Tap Into Co-Workers' Lives Delicately
Once you've established your influx of people, start tapping into it. Ask them about their holiday plans, try to find out how their day went. Say something nice about their annoying, yipping pet. Get them talking and before long, they will offer you have a particularly juicy yarn. Maybe they'll recount the story of every failed relationship they've ever had or make themselves the hero of their awful job that they hate.
This boils down to sonder, the term used to pretty much sum up that we are not alone in the universe and that each and every one we meet is going through an impossibly complex narrative of epic proportions. As a result, it's only natural that people want to be treated with the respect reserved for every story protagonist worth a damn. Naturally, they also happen to be the best-written characters you'll meet.
However, you can only mine that resource as long as you don't blow your cover: never tell a storyteller that you are a writer. Mostly because people don't really give a damn (unless you've got your name embossed on something you can buy in a bus station) but also because you're pretty much one-upping them and trust me honey, you ain't the star of this story.
Example: Mr. Foil loved to share his work on global conspiracies. According to his six-volume magnum opus (unpublished) he had proven, without the shadow of a doubt, that Greek people were space aliens, had triangulated the exact position of Atlantis a few nautical miles of the coast of Chania, Crete and was hard at work drawing up plans for building Heliopolis, the magical tuning fork that would direct the pagan energies of Olympus and reveal the hidden masters of the world forever.
When I told him that I would love to maybe write it down and make something of it someday, Mr. Foil picked up and left, after giving me a dirty look.
Since then, he has gotten himself a book deal and a late-night TV gig, so it's not all bad.
3. Make Their Stories a Part of Your Own
A story in itself isn't enough, however. It's just a snippet, a glimpse into a larger universe.
Mining for stories isn't enough for you to build your weird space porn saga, but it will give you the details you need to start building. It will provide you with just the necessary bit of window-dressing to make a story that much more real. it will paint a streak of light into your one-dimensional villains and pox your protagonists with flaws. It will populate your sub-plots with interesting characters or help you build a one-off situation.
At first, it won't be much to go by, but it will get your sorry behind going and we all know you've been stuck on page fifteen since forever and it's not like the two thousand words before it are Pulitzer material.
Isn't that right, David?
Example: It was the Captain that got me into writing, back when I was working nights in a sandwich shop in the middle of the interstate. The Captain, who made a living patrolling some abandoned warehouses, loved to make long, outrageous orders just to piss off the senior cook. I got stuck with him because I was the new guy and they had to break me in somehow.
Thankfully, the Captain loved to talk about himself: about the women he'd known, the chance at fame fortune he'd let go to waste, his travels around the world on a rustbucket of a freight ship which nearly got him killed six times before he gave up sailing for good. His stories weren't too consistent and his tales were a bit on the tall side, but he got me writing.
First, a pirate fantasy adventure that never made it past the first draft, then an awkward post apocalyptic epic which upped and died at about 70,000 words. Then came the short stories, drawn from his own drunken misadventures under an alien sun, bits of flash fiction, built out of his fantasy of a lazy utopia, run by robots.
Slowly but surely, I kept at it, until they told me the Watchman had quit working here. Apparently, he'd gone off sailing again, trawling for Nazi Gold in the Aegean sea. I quit the sandwich shop after that. After all, there was work to do.
So every time you get stuck, whenever you think that the next novel isn't in the works for you, take a look outside. Get stuck at a bus stop. Ask weirdos on the street about the weather. Strike up a conversation with the depressed-looking lady, struggling to fit in at the gym.
Because that's where you're going to get your next idea from.