It?s Creepy, but Good Story Material
Sometimes the best inspiration?for writing new stories is other people. I don?t mean asking them for ideas, I mean they are the idea. I watch people as they eat, work, walk down the street, talk with their friends or children, or sit across from each other in the middle of a busy mall saying nothing. I know that sounds creepy, someone sitting there watching everyone like a spy or something, but I?m not just watching. I?m imagining.
Examples of ideas
A young mother struggling with her infant and toddler while she gets a coffee becomes this story:
Molly just discovered that her husband will be staying late at the office . . . again. For the third time in four weeks, her best friend has cancelled their coffee date. She teeters on the edge of depression and longing and then, her nightmare comes true.
A middle-aged man sitting at his laptop in the middle of the library is thinking:
I hope no one sees me here. What if she walks in?
A sample story
I adopted this practice when I was a teenager. I worked a minimum wage job at a retail store in a mall and on my break, I would sit in the middle of the mall and watch people. One day, inspiration hit me and I wrote?the following short story after watching an old couple for a while.
??????????????? They sat there, the two of them opposite one another. Although they were seated in the middle of the mall where several people passed them each minute and where music played continuously through unseen speakers above them, a lonely silence filed the space between the man and his wife of too many lost years.
She would not look at him; she was afraid of what she might see. Instead, she would glance at him every few minutes to see if he was looking at her. She noticed the tired lines that marked the years upon his every feature. The skin on his hands was no longer taut and strong, but loosely hanging on his bones. This was true for the rest of his body as well. She could remember when he had been a younger man, full of dreams and expectations. She remembered how he would lift her up in his arms and hold her so close she thought he would never let go. Those were grand times, she thought, and smiled.
He saw that smile over the edge of his newspaper. He wondered what she was thinking about. Probably those grandchildren of ours or, she?s remembering that it?s Janet?s birthday on Wednesday, he thought. He remembered then the different things that she had done for his birthday over the years. She had thrown a surprise party for his fortieth birthday and later on, they had their own little party upstairs. Oh, those were the days, he thought, and he, too, found himself smiling.
Soon, both of them found themselves smiling?at each other?and, as they rose from their chairs and embraced, both could swear they were young lovers again.
Everyone?s life is a story unfolding. As a writer, I uncover the hidden truths that are under the surface, waiting to be discovered.
You can do it, too.
When I taught a literature class featuring short stories, I gave the teenagers the assignment of going to a public place and writing a story based on what they saw. Don?t just look at people, though.
- What are they feeling?
- What happened to them earlier in the day?
- What are they thinking about?
- Why are they in the caf?, park, museum, etc.?
- Who is with them and what is their relationship?
- What do they secretly think of the people they are with?
- What problems are they dealing with?
In other words, create a whole backstory for that moment. And then, imagine what that person might be doing later in the day, later in the week. Now, you have the beginnings of a short story. Do this in different places and at different times of the day, with different sexes and ethnicity, with different age groups. Pretty soon, you will have a collection of very interesting characters to use in your stories. Even if you never write a story that features any of these people, you will have still gained a greater understanding for your fellow humans.