I’m a big advocate of writers carrying notebooks. You can jot down thoughts, overheard conversations—I’m a terrible eavesdropper—sights you want to call up later.
Yesterday, a father was trying to coax his daughter out of a car parked on our street. "If you could move at any speed beyond painfully slow, that would be very helpful, honey."
That’s just a funny to share on social media, but there are also the sorts of incidents I wrote about last time, the waiter running after me and my hockey buddies as we left a restaurant, swearing and throwing back his tip (eighteen per cent) because he didn’t think it was good enough.
Here’s the follow-up: One of my friends phoned the restaurant manager the next morning to complain, and was told the waiter had been suspended when he got back from effing us off. He would be fired later that day.
What issues did that waiter have, what (unknown) complicity did we have in sending an apparently brittle man over the edge?
This was in Phoenix, and I kept running into those very subtle differences between Canadians and Americans that can cause all sorts of mix-ups, leaving me to wonder if miscommunication was part of the problem.
Being there for a hockey tournament, talking to people on American teams, I said something casual one night about flooding the ice that caused consternation. Turns out they don’t use the word “flooding” the way we do, at least one team from California doesn't. “Flooding” makes them think about a serious resurfacing that closes down the rink for a couple of days. They say “cleaning the ice”—which made me smile in turn, picturing someone kneeling down mopping up a spill.
When I’d asked the waiter for cutlery, he had gaped and stuttered, and I’d thought it was weird until an American friend later told me she would use the word “silverware.” What else was going on?
Not that I feel responsible for the guy being fired. He was pretty incompetent and more than a little weird. After we got the vocabulary cleared up, I still had to ask a couple of times for a knife and fork as my dinner cooled, and when he appeared a third time offering a refill of wine, I felt a little testy until he smiled and produced a knife and fork from his sleeve like a bad magician, his hand all over the tines of the fork. Maybe he was a magician forced to take a food service job? Because he was a bad magician, too?
Endless source of speculation. That’s why I might use it someday.
People seem to find it useful to hear about a writer’s methods, so I’ll say that after jotting a couple of memory-jogging phrases in my notebook ("you call this a tip?"), I usually unpack them in my journal, writing down thoughts and details at greater length.
As I tell students, it can make people pretty uneasy to see you writing things down. Turn a corner before you make your notes, take a trip to the washroom so you can scribble things down in a stall. Same with the journal. Writing for hours in a coffee shop can bother people (especially the baristas, if you only order a single cup of coffee).
I seemed to make some of my hockey teammates uneasy when I spent a couple of hours writing in my journal at the pool, our tournament having been housed in a surprisingly cushy resort instead of the basic motel we’d expected.
What do you put in there? a friend finally asked.
Things we’ve seen and done, I said, thoughts about the script I’m writing, the novella, plans for when we get back.
She still looked dubious, but aside from everything else, I feel over-full if I don’t periodically write things down, as if I’ve eaten a big meal and haven’t been able to digest it. The nice thing about travelling is that you can always find moments at the pool or café, on the plane or train or in a quiet hotel room, at least if you decide it's important.
And by travelling, as I tell broke students, I also mean going somewhere on the subway or bus you wouldn’t normally go, and making notes in a coffee shop before you head home. I find that fewer thoughts get away when I’m on the move than during a routine day, when the doorbell rings (it just did, and where was I?) so that you end up concentrating on daily stuff at the expense of a crucial and ephemeral thought that, once it’s flitted away, you can't always get back.
I don’t think there’s any one right way to write. A friend of mine loves shopping the thrift stores, making up costumes for her main characters and dressing up in them when she writes in their voices. I don’t do that, but when I stumble on something that rings a loud bell, I give it its own page in a small precious book that I keep at home. If the idea feels particularly promising, I'll open a paper file to throw in related information until I have something that demands to be written.
The next step, of course, is composition. Maybe you use your material quickly. Maybe you only return years later to the thought, the glimpse, the idea. Let’s be pretentious and call it your inspiration.
Speaking of hockey, a weird man with a fetish for women hockey players used to stalk our rink. Sometimes he'd even follow us to the bar. I kept notes about him for a couple of years until I wrote a short story called The Hockey Stalker that’s been anthologized a couple of times. I took the central incident, added entirely fictional characters, made it a love story, and ended up somewhere I couldn't have predicted before starting to write. (It's available for download from Smashwords via iTunes at https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/hockey-stalker-love-story/id881652664?mt=11, which I only mention because it's free.)
There’s no one route to writing a story, a novel, a script. Maybe you don’t want to keep a notebook and feel like wearing thrift store clothes instead.
Actually, keep a notebook. The clothes are up to you.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Lesley Krueger is a novelist and screenwriter. Richard Dadd’s first cousin-in-law five times removed (if she has the genealogy right), Lesley drew on family information unknown to biographers in writing Mad Richard. The author of six books, she lives with her husband in Toronto where she’s an avid member of a women’s hockey league and a writer-mentor at the Canadian Film Centre. Find her online at LesleyKrueger.com.