Today we're welcoming Carol Snow to the blog. Her fourth book for teens (she also writes for adults), THE LAST PLACE ON EARTH was published at the end of February, and follows a wealth of beautifully written books -- all of which have been nominated for awards and included in several notable book lists. Today, Carol is writing about how talking to strangers can make you a better writer.
Talk to Strangers by Carol SnowWe hadn’t known each other long, but already Gavin was confiding plans for a Christmastime marriage proposal. Unbeknownst to his girlfriend, over Thanksgiving he had travelled from California to Tennessee to ask for her parents’ blessing. It meant taking time off work, but it was important to do things right. They had met in a bible study group, after all.
I am more cat than dog, more introvert than extrovert. I am a writer, after all; I am shy. But for as long as I can remember, total strangers have entrusted me with their secrets and asked for my advice. It’s not just an American thing, either. Drop me in a foreign city, and before you know it, someone will ask me for directions. (Well-intentioned but utterly lacking an internal compass, I apologize to all the befuddled tourists I have gotten lost, occasionally with the assistance of Google Translate.)
When I say Gavin and I hadn’t known each other long, what I mean is that he was my checker at Target. We had known each other for the time it took to scan and bag my purchases. I wasn’t even buying much. Who knows what else he would have confessed if only my cart had been fuller?
I am female, petite, middle-aged; in other words, I look incredibly nonthreatening, which is surely part of my appeal. (Let us pause to consider how infrequently “middle-aged” and “appeal” appear in the same sentence.) But I think it’s more than that. People fascinate me. Everyone has a story, and I ask a lot of questions. So when a grocery store checker inquires, “How was your Thanksgiving?” (Chatty clerks are an American thing) my natural impulse is to lob the question back: “Nice. How was yours? Did you have to work on the holiday?” Cue the impending marriage proposal story.
One of the first rules every fiction writer learns is “write what you know.” It is good advice, up to a point. Your family, your community, your workplace: you have a deep and intimate knowledge of these things and can write about them with authenticity. But unless you are going to populate your stories with characters who are thinly-veiled versions of people you already know (which can be limiting; also dangerous), you need to expand your understanding of humanity. How do other people think? What is important to them? What obstacles do they face? How do they see themselves in relation to others?
I did not rush home from Target and transcribe Gavin’s story. (His name wasn’t even Gavin; I can’t remember what his nametag said.) Nor did I transcribe my conversation with Enrique (whose name really was Enrique), the shuttle driver at my car dealership who, after five years at the same company, is hoping to be promoted to customer relations representative, which would allow him to quit his night shift driving a hospital car service and give him more time with his wife (they met in high school; she is studying to be a computer programmer) and their two kids. I haven’t recorded the countless conversations I have had with Uber drivers, hair assistants, or the old woman in the sari who walks on the path behind my house and who has informed me, on more than one occasion (and always in an ominous tone), that I should wear a hat to protect myself from the California sun.
A writer can – and should – use real-life details whenever possible. To broaden the possibilities of your imaginary worlds, pay attention to the real world around you. Watch; listen. Next time you have a free afternoon, settle into a Starbucks with a Venti drink, being careful to choose a seat near some loud talkers, and transcribe their conversation. Creepy? Maybe. But anyone that disruptive deserves it, and there’s no better way to get a feel for dialogue. When you’re a writer, eavesdropping is practically a career requirement.
But for me, the rules change when I engage someone in conversation, even if it is three minutes at a checkout. When I ask questions of people who have entirely different lives than my own, it is not so I can reduce them to two-dimensional characters, but to better appreciate how circumstances can bring a person to any given point and place in time.
So talk to strangers -- but don’t use them. Think about what they say, and try to see the world beyond your narrow perspective. If you gain a wider appreciation and understanding of humanity, you will be a better writer – and maybe even a better person as well.
ABOUT THE BOOK
Daisy's best friend is missing . . . and not for the reasons she thinks.
Henry Hawking is sixteen years old, brilliant, funny, and sly--and now he's missing. But no one seems worried except his best friend, Daisy Cruz, who knows that Henry's security-obsessed parents would never leave town without taking proper precautions. And Henry would never go away without saying good-bye.
Daisy considers all the obvious explanations for Henry's disappearance (federal witness protection program, alien abduction) before breaking into Henry's house. In his room, she finds a note that pleads, SAVE ME.
Desperate to find Henry, Daisy follows his trail deep into the California wilderness. What she finds there makes her wonder if she ever knew Henry at all . . . and if the world as she knows it will ever be the same.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Since leaving New Jersey, Carol has lived all over the place: Rhode Island, London, Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, Utah, Arizona, and, now, Southern California, where she shares a cat-fur-coated house with her husband and their two children.