by Deborah Elliott-Upton
Writers are often liars, gossips and eavesdroppers. Why? Because everybody loves a good story. The best ones come from a seed of truth whether it’s found while standing in line at the bank, nuggets from sessions around the water cooler or while reading Proverbs. The idea is to pay attention, be prepared and keep an ear at the ready.
I suppose eavesdropping isn’t polite, but writers have an imaginary license to do so. Or at least, we pretend we do. Bartenders, wait staff and hair stylists hear great stories every day. They may or may not write them, but you can bet if a writer is in the establishment, too, he may devise a way to turn someone else’s truth into a more fascinating tale to share. Mystery in particular seems to attract law enforcers as authors, but that may be because police officers are trained to listen carefully and are privy to more confessions than the rest of us.
It’s human nature to share our woes and celebrations. Writers just take it a step farther.
At the doctor’s office, I overheard a woman tell her mother about a note she had received in the mail. The letter basically said, “If you feel a need to supplement your earnings with a garage sale, perhaps you should move to a neighborhood you can afford without stooping that low.” With no return address and no signature, she had to guess who’d sent it. The woman was livid and she had raised many eyebrows in the waiting room. Several people said the anonymous letter writer was not only rude, but a coward. I kept silent, but I pulled a notebook from my purse and started taking brainstorming ideas. What if my protagonist received such a letter? The neighbors could rally with her or perhaps take a formal stand against garage sales in the neighborhood. Either way, I’d have immediate conflict. What if slowly our hero suspected one after another of her neighbors of the deed? Would she eventually wonder if her best friend and neighbor were the culprit? What if someone started toilet-papering trees of one neighbor. Would everyone suspect she was the author of the letter and our hero had been the vandal? Hmm, my imagination was spinning now and I had another idea for a short story.
Besides waiting rooms, I adore coffee shops. I admit to being addicted to coffee, but also, coffee shops are a perfect location for people watching. Who is the man sitting alone at the far table? Is he waiting for someone to take the empty seat? A business acquaintance? A lover? The man he secretly hates? There’s a story there.
The matronly lady with more jewelry than fashion sense scurries past the tables with a tiny dog in her purse and orders a concoction I’ve never heard as if it were her “usual.” Perhaps it is since the Barista nods and fills the order without conversation. The woman walks away without payment. I suppose she has an open tab running or doesn’t keep cash, write checks or carry a credit card. Maybe she is Paris Hilton’s future. (I know, JLW will slap my hand for mentioning her name, but I couldn’t help it: there is a story here.)
In a corner booth, two women conspiratorially speak ill about someone named Marlene. Suddenly jumping to their feet, they take turns embracing another woman whose name turns out to be (what else?) Marlene. There’s a story there, too.
And what about the group dominated by one woman with lots of opinions, but unfortunately, none were her own. Every sentence she uttered began or ended with, “Robert says.” I rubbed my forehead wanting to ask what she said, but I doubt she would have an answer. (I’m sure we’d have to wait to hear what Robert said.) Even though she gave me a headache, there’s a story there, too.
Stories are everywhere, not just between covers of a book or magazine. Listen up and you just might hear a good one. If you do, share it with me. I might just get an idea for a short story from it.