Constantly finding fresh and realistic story ideas can be one of the toughest challenges an author faces. All you need is one thought, one idea, from which you can then build your story, but often inspiration is elusive. It doesn’t have to be this way. If you’re open to it, inspiration is all around you, everywhere you go. All you have to do is train yourself to recognise it and to put yourself in a position to capture it. Thus, every author should learn the art of eavesdropping.
For an author, eavesdropping should not be a dirty word, and I’m not advocating that you secret yourself away and spy on personal conversations taking place behind closed doors. Rather, anytime you’re out and about, keep your eyes and ears open for an opportunity to observe the surrounding people. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll be surprised by what’s happening around you and I guarantee inspiration will strike when you least expect it.
Here’s an example of what I mean:
I recently went to a café for breakfast and sitting at the table beside me were two people obviously on a first date. They’re in that awkward ‘getting to know you’ stage, and things weren’t going well at all. I will call them Jane and Jack.
So, there they are, sitting at a little table. By the time I’ve arrived, they already have their meal and are talking between bites of food. Actually, Jane is talking. Jane has taken on the role of high inquisitor in the Spanish inquisition and she’s firing random questions at Jack, who is doing his best to answer despite Jane continuously cutting him off.
“Do you live near here?”
“Yes, a couple—”
“A couple of streets over, on Wilcott.”
“Oh, I’m in the other direction. How long have you been there?”
“It’s a good neighbourhood, isn’t it? Does it take you long to get to work?”
Poor Jack kept trying to hold up his end of the conversation, but Jane was so aggressive in her questioning that she wasn’t taking the time to listen to his responses. Unfortunately, things go from bad to worse.
“What work do you do?” Jane asks.
Jack pauses, and from the look on his face I just know I’m going to love the answer. “The same as you. We have the same job.”
Jane’s face flames red, she’s realised her mistake but she valiantly tries to recover. With a wave of her hand in his direction and a nervous giggle she says: “I know that, but you’ve only just started there, what did you do before.”
Again, Jack seems perplexed and I can tell the exact moment he’s written the date off as a lost cause because even though he still has a polite smile on his face, his eyes no longer reveal any interest in the conversation. “I did the same thing.” Jack finally replies, his voice taking on the slow speech of someone talking to a child who isn’t quite grasping the concept of the lesson being presented to them. “I’ve been with the company for three years, I’ve just moved departments. Remember? We worked together on the O’Conner project last year via email.”
Immediately Jane realises her error, and she tries to dispel the sudden tension by again waving her hand in his direction and offering a nervous laugh. Already I can see Jack won’t be asking for a second date, but Jane hasn’t yet realised this, and she attempts to keep the conversation going. While they finish their meals, they talk about family and friends, travel and hobbies, but when Jack mentions he likes to go camping and finally appears to become animated about a topic that clearly interests him, Jane steps in and drives the final nail in the coffin of any potential relationship they might have had.
“Oh, I love camping!” Jane declares. “I went camping with my parents’ last year and we stayed in the most adorable little cabin in the woods. We felt like we were in the middle of nowhere, but we could still get pizza delivered, it was awesome.”
Jack blinked hard and I could see the cogs turning in his head as he tried to decide if it was worth explaining to Jane that staying in a cabin and having pizza delivered was not camping. After a pause that lasted just long enough to become awkward, Jack looked at his watch and swore. “I forgot I have a meeting and I’m already late. See you back at the office.” Without another word, he raced out of the café. I didn’t blame him.
Out of that single conversation I had no less than four story ideas form in my head:
- From such a disastrous start, could I find a way for the two of them to come together?
- What if my hero was the anti-alpha, someone who allowed women to walk all over him and how would that change when he found someone he was willing to stand up for or to?
- What if my heroine had no idea how to talk to men and never got past the first date?
- Tension in the office. How would things play out back at work after a date that left one person still interested and the other person running for the hills?
Chances are I won’t write every one of these stories, but I’ve made notes about what I witnessed and I’ve jotted down my story ideas and the next time I’m struggling to come up with a concept, all I have to do is flick through my ideas notebook and reap the benefits of my eavesdropping.