I first met Alice Trego (photo right) through Women Writing the West, an organization of women and men whose writing interest primarily focuses on the American West, both contemporary and historical. The first lap of Alice’s writing career had been in newspaper journalism. But, when her attention turned toward writing book-length fiction and nonfiction, she volunteered to work various positions in writing organizations to learn the ropes. Alice “retired” her many volunteer positions in 2011, dusted her manuscripts and is in the process of polishing them for publication.
The above passage in my work-in-progress came as the result of a quiet scrutiny I had from a window seat in the middle of an airplane. I took note of people around me, but a man’s strange appearance a few rows ahead grabbed my attention. Most of all, he intrigued me with his quirky mannerisms.
I found myself drawn to him as a possible character profile for one of my stories. My sense of observation that harkened back to my days as a journalist kicked in immediately. I brought out my trusty notebook from my carry-on bag, and began to document his appearance and his actions. From the details I was penning, I could readily envision him as one of my story villains.
His brown, greasy, shoulder-length hair streaked with gray had an unruly appearance that gave him a look of having naturally wavy hair. When the tall man with the bony torso rose to go to the lavatory, I glimpsed an extraordinary strength in his swagger. I noticed cataract-clouded blue eyes that watched me as I watched him retake his seat. He had a prominent hooked nose, and he wore a sullenness on his countenance that perhaps he had carried with him all his adult life.
Shortly after my close encounter on the plane, I spotted a photo of a popular person in a magazine. Right away I knew that this person fit the profile I discovered on that flight. That’s when I knew I had a fully-developed, three-dimensional reprobate for my story.
On another occasion, I had the opportunity to converse with a young man and an older man, albeit a little secretive.
While waiting at the checkout counter at the grocery store, I noticed the older skinny-legged man carrying two packages of strawberries under one arm and a small backpack in the other. He appeared somewhat in a fidgety state, no doubt in a hurry to check out.
The young man with two nutrition bars and an orange stepped up behind me. As the line in front of me moved, the man with the strawberries hurriedly secured his place as the next customer to check out. He kept looking around as if he had secrets to hide.
Meanwhile, I looked at my full-to-overflowing basket of fruits and vegetables and decided to let the young man with the two nutrition bars and the orange take my place in line.
I spoke up. “You can go ahead of me.”
“Well, thank you very much. Are you sure?”
“Positive. I can tell you’re just dying to eat that orange so you may as well check out first.”
“Yes, I am. I’ve been picking at it a little, actually.” His smile was infectious and I returned a smile.
All of a sudden, the man with the strawberries directed his eyes at me and said with a slight accent, “Would you hold my place in line? I forgot something and will be right back.”
While I gave a quick response of, “Sure,” he had already stacked his two packages of strawberries off to the side, placed his sunglasses on his nose and walked out of the store.
He took a long time to cross the parking lot and then “disappeared” behind a large SUV. All sorts of scenarios went through my mind — did he come into the store and “pretend” to make a purchase? Was he a vagrant who decided he’d better leave because of all the people now around him? Will he come back and pay for his strawberries?
By my observations, this chance meeting, including the dialogue, could be fodder for one of my stories. I made sure I memorized that informal exchange so I could write it down when I returned home and place that bit of dialogue in my notes. I have yet to decide if these two men will fit in as villains or secondary characters in one, or more, of my stories.
Nonetheless, whether there are silent observances or short conversations with strangers, I believe slices of life that occur in a writer’s world could very well become references to slivers of fiction.
Thank you, Alice. I’ll probably never again eat an orange without thinking of my characters! I can imagine you sitting in your photo of a Utah sunset (right) contemplating your next line of dialogue.
While Alice’s website is under construction you can follow her on Facebook or over at LinkedIn.
Really interesting and sensitive observations, Alice. But I'm dying to know if the guy who left the strawberries did come back before you got to the head of the check-out line! That was quite a hook! thanks for this post.
You're welcome, Andrea, glad you enjoyed reading how I create some of my characters. As to what happened to the man who left his strawberries — you may have to wait until the book comes out… 🙂
I want to know more about both guys. I used to carry a notepad to make notes on when out observing people. Now I seem to sit at my desk all day. Clearly, I need to get out more!
Nice peek into the lives of those Alice observed with such interest. Thanks for sharing this. Occasionally, I will spot someone who fits a character I'm already working on and I steal from them in secret. My daughter gave me a tee shirt that reads "Be careful, I might put you in my novel."
Great commentary on your observations making their ways into your novel, Alice.
I've said the same thing Velda! And "everything is material for our next tome" works too.
Thanks for stopping by. kcf
The grocery store is a great place to start, Helen, and everybody goes to the grocery store at least once a week, right? I'm not sure how these two guys will fit into my stories, right now, or how I will flesh out more of their "character," but maybe this will come to me when I'm in the shower!
Thanks for your comments, Velda. As writers I believe we tend to "steal" in secret as a part of the writing process. Recently I watched a PBS documentary about reading romance novels called, Guilty Pleasures. A prolific Harlequin romance novelist, Gill Sanderson, was interviewed and they also followed him around to his cafe spots. The viewers were able to see him pull out his little notebook and surreptiously drink his coffee while writing down his observations of a couple nearby. He said he does this sort of thing all the time!
Thanks, Arletta. Glad you took a moment to come by Karen's blog to read about some of the tricks I incorporate in my writing process. As writers, I believe we have to be creative in our own unique way…
Yes, I was curious about what happened to the guy, as well. Funny how the most everyday circumstance can create a 'hook'.
And people ask writers where they get their ideas! Thank you, Alice, for reminding me that they are everywhere.
I, too, want to know whether the fellow came back for strawberries and what he was up to when he was gone.
I am curious about the "strawberry guy," too, Susan 🙂 I'll have to really think about him and make his character a good one for my future readers. Thanks for coming by Karen's Blog!
I know, Pam, this seems to be "the" main question that is asked of writers, where the ideas come from. My hairstylist asked me the same thing yesterday! Mine come from observing people as I've described here, from dreams, ideas popping in my head while I'm in the shower or just beginning to fall asleep. The list goes on…I may have to think about writing a mystery so that I can let everyone know what happens to my "strawberry guy!?"
As always, Alice intrigues. So many unanswered questions, the fodder of fiction. Thanks for the colorful images. Can't wait for that book AND, how are the buffaloes?
Thank you ALL for stopping by and leaving your comments. And, thanks to you again Alice for sharing. Hope you'll come back soon. kcf (aka Ethel)
I loved this post! It truly IS amazing what a person can pick up by observing and eavesdropping! Everything is fodder for our writing!
Wanted to chime in before too much time lapsed, Jane, to thank you for taking a few minutes to come by Karen's blog. There are a lot of "what if's" in this world and one can find them everywhere in life, so there is quite a bit of fodder for fiction. And, the buffalo are constantly calling!!
Thank you, Karen, for suggesting this and making it happen! I'll be glad to stop by again…adt (aka Lucy)
Thanks, Heidi! You're absolutely right. We never know when an observance will make it into our writing 🙂