Turn Time Wasters into Articlesby Bridget Becker
The Internet Writing Journal, January 1998
Writers have a tendency to separate their personal lives from their writing lives. Routine tasks and events are viewed as interruptions rather than opportunities. Writers are always told, and always preach, "Write what you know." A writer gains the most useful knowledge by living, not by hiding from it. A real writer is a writer twenty four hours a day. Without life, we have nothing to write! Every event in our lives, no matter how insignificant, is a rich source for a character study, a scene, a story or an article. Combining several of them can make a novel.
Writers need an uninterrupted block of time during which they can actually write their stories, but none of us can expect life to come to a grinding halt in order to accommodate our needs. We have to be adaptable and open to new ideas at all times. Your muse will not die of starvation if you tear yourself away from your novel in order to complete some short articles that can provide your financial support for the next month.
Every writer has his or her peak time of the day. I prefer to write at night and do research in the daytime. I tune my kitchen radio to talk show stations. I set the TV on a news channel. The radio in my office is tuned to National Public Radio. I am prepared to receive any vital tidbit as I roam through the house during the day making coffee and snacks. I sit at my computer, anxiously awaiting the inevitable interruptions. When they arrive, I welcome them with open arms and incorporate them into my daily research activities.
The "interruptions" that writers complain about most often are: the telephone, the doorbell, running errands and family and friends. This article does not promise to relieve you of these interruptions. It does promise an opportunity to use them to your creative and financial benefit.
Interruptions caused by the telephone are easy to handle. Writers can screen their calls or simply choose not to answer the phone. I answer every call. I keep a steno pad near the phone and make notes of every conversation. I especially enjoy marketing surveys. I cooperate with every one of them. I note the questions, I determine where I fit into their desired profile, hence into modern society, and voila! I have a story about my life as a social misfit.
Telephone conversations with friends provide vast amounts of fodder for characterization, problems, goals and good old gossip. I recently had a friend who called to tell me that she had lost her dog. She placed an ad in the local paper. A woman called saying that she had the dog. When my friend arrived, it turned out that the woman owned her dog's brother. They had picked up the dogs at the pound on the same day. This anecdote served as the basis for "Buddy Goes Home."
On another occasion, a friend, whose husband had recently committed suicide by hanging himself in the garage, called to talk. "I know you can cheer me up. I'm so angry at him. Men are pigs." I knew she wanted one of my biting one-liners, but I had never dealt with this situation before. I took the risk. Bracing myself, I replied. "It took a dead body to fall on you to figure that out??" She laughed hysterically and I got the idea for my second book, Look Before You Leap, a high-risk humor oriented yet factual study of suicide. It is now in search of a daring publisher.
The doorbell is my favorite interruption. It's better than a telephone call because you are face-to-face with another human being who wants something from you. I live in a typical suburban neighborhood, replete with a smorgasbord of door-to-door species ranging from Jehovah's Witnesses to Girl Scouts selling their tasty wares. The Jehovah's Witnesses are always polite and always leave several free publications which contain articles on a variety of topics. I scan the publications, highlight areas of interest and file them for future use.
Visitors provide an opportunity to utilize all of your senses as you gather your information. Here are some ways to incorporate this intrusion into your writing:
1. Observe their physical characteristics, their mannerisms, their dialect and personality traits.
2. Turn the tables. Ask them innocuous questions like "Do you live in the area?" "How long have you lived here?" People love to talk about themselves. Within five minutes you will have their whole life history.
3. Understand what they want from you and why. How do they handle your rejection or acceptance?
Associate as many adjectives as possible with your visitor and write them down as soon as they leave. Then describe the behavior that prompted you to use that adjective. You will have the basis for a character in your next short story or novel.
I recently received a visit from a vinyl siding salesman. He described his services and I proceeded to interview him? When did vinyl siding first come into use? What advantages does it have over aluminum siding? How long have you been in the business? What other houses have you completed? The resulting information and twenty minutes of internet research made a feature article for my local paper.
I hate errands. I am a homebody bordering on being a hermit. I deal with errands by connecting myself to a cassette player/recorder. I attach my microphone under my shirt and wear my headphones. Everyone I encounter thinks I'm listening to music. They have no idea that I am recording every word they say. After an hour of this I arrive home with quotes from grumpy government clerks, pushy salespeople and temperamental bank tellers. I especially enjoy the rude ones. I simply ask "Are you having a bad day?" The result is another article or short story.
One day, while making a rare deposit into my bank account, I noticed my favorite teller on the verge of tears. "Kathy, what's wrong?" I asked. She related a terrifying tale of being trapped in her car with her two year old son during a blizzard we had the previous night. The car was buried under several feet of snow. It took the Sheriffs five hours to find her and dig them out safely. She was seven months pregnant. Her bank manager made her work that day. This tale resulted in two works; one was a short story portraying her obnoxious bank manager as the antagonist. Revenge is sweet, but revenge by pen is best. Her story also provided the basis for an article on preparing for the sudden weather changes that occur frequently in northern Nevada.
Friends and family hold the richest source of material you will ever receive. Family crises and events are never-ending. Oftentimes, family and friends have no respect for your writing routine and are certain that it is nothing more than a hobby or a sign of mental illness. They are familiar to you and, at the very least, can be the start of your own Character Library. Develop a detailed Character Form. Sample forms can be viewed and printed at The Eclectic Writer and Bricolage. The relatives you do not like are filed into Protagonists and the ones you do like are filed into Antagonists. Revenge mixed with reward.
Whatever your genre, interruptions will prove useful, even valuable to your productivity and success. Welcome the intrusions. Don't distance your writing from your life. Remember that life is your best resource. Dust it off and use it.
**Bridget Becker is a resident of Carson City, Nevada. She is the publisher of the monthly tabloid called The Bar Flyer which contains sporting events, community fundraisers and stories about the owners, employees and customers of the many bars and restaurants in the area. After publishing 27 issues she is now focusing her attention on her freelance writing.