You can’t make this stuff up

Posted Apr 11 2011, 7:00 am in ,

You know those t-shirts you can get online with the cutesy slogans, like “Careful or you’ll end up in my next novel” and “I hear imaginary people” or this one, my personal favorite, “Kicking adverbs and takin’ names”? I was exploring Cafe Press today and found this one: “Oh, this is SO going in my next novel” and BOOM!


Sure, all these T-shirt and coffee mug slogans are fun because there’s some truth in them. Maybe they coax a little chuckle out of us. But this one… oh, this one just grabbed me by the heart and squeezed. What writer HASN’T looked to real life and *clears throat* adapted certain moments to further a plot or play 20 Rhetorical Questions?

What’s funny about this is I didn’t realize how often I do this, how deeply the habit is ingrained in me, until I saw the damn T-shirt. My first conscious recollection of using a real world situation in one of my stories goes back several years, when I was teaching software use. I worked with the world’s most obnoxious consultant. Arrogant. Disrespectful. I so despised this man, I made him a character and then killed him in a novel I never did finish.

But more often, it’s a half-conscious activity, something I do to pass the time while running errands, or waiting on lines. Here are some examples of where my mind goes.

Um. Consider yourselves warned:

A Tattoo on a Throat

While shopping at a Kohl’s department store, saw a college-aged girl with a tattoo on her throat, not her neck, but her throat – the part that’s horizontal when you hold your head level. I couldn’t quite make out the design, but that didn’t interest me. What interested me was why she placed it there. Why not a tramp stamp? Why not put a tattoo on the ankle? What, specifically, about the throat held so much meaning for her, she needed to forever mark it? I live on eastern Long Island and residents here are anxiously following breaking news as police unearthed eight bodies from a desolate stretch of beach. The suspected serial killer is now being called The Long Island Ripper. With the latest news on my mind and then seeing this tattoo on a young girl, my mind spun a back story for her. She was the one who got away. He chased her. He slashed her. But she refused to just lie down and die and fought back. Got away. She got a tattoo of a four-leaf clover to cover the scar his blade left, but also to remind herself how lucky she was.

I have no idea what the true story is. I suppose I could have asked her, but where’s the fun in that?

The Day Job – always a source of amusement

Working in a cubicle environment is kind of like marriage…  except without the benefits. Colleagues sit within ten feet of each other, subjected to whatever we are each enduring at the moment – a bad case of bronchitis, last night’s White Castle belly bombs, dubious taste in music we listen to sans headphones, and of course, our voices. Nothing makes me more homicidal than being forced to listen to a conference call THAT I DID NOT NEED TO.

On the plus side, shamelessly eavesdropping on coworkers’ conversations should keep my back story coffers quite full. Last week, one colleague went home to discover his wife bought a dog without telling him. That got me thinking about a hero who might be a total type A personality, a real workaholic, whose high profile job required so many late nights, his poor wife bought a dog, named it after him, and cuddled up with the dog at night, crying in frustration as the perfect life she’d envisioned with Mr. Type A evaporates.

Another coworker was telling me about an argument she’d had with her husband. He’d picked the children up from school and didn’t notice they had no coats. Monday morning comes and in the rush to get out the door on time, tempers flared when coats could not be found. That’s when the kids mentioned they’d left them in class. My coworker asked, “What kind of father does not notice his kids are coatless in the middle of March?”

This story led me down a whole meandering path. I started imagining a single dad, one trying to do the best he can, but so overwhelmed by the burden, he overlooks the details. I thought of a scene in which his little boy tries to make him breakfast. There are Cheerios and puddles of milk all over the floor. This dad has to be at work by 8, drop Junior off at day care but that doesn’t open until 7:30 and now he has to mop up enough cereal to feed a small country. He doesn’t notice the light go out in the little guy’s eyes… at least, not right away. When he does, he calls in sick and the two watch cartoons and build a tent out of blankets.

There are so many stories out there. What real-life situation is going in your next novel?



10 responses to “You can’t make this stuff up”

  1. Linda G. says:

    One of my CPs gave me a T-shirt that says “Careful, or you’ll end up in my novel.” I’m wearing it in my current Twitter avatar, actually — I love it!

    I think real life is fair game for novel “research.” I try to mix it up, using elements from here and there, so it won’t be painfully obvious who I’m “immortalizing” in my novels. ;)

  2. My job is absolutely overflowing with things that will end up in my writing, or could end up in my writing, or inspire ideas at the least. I’m constantly in the jail, the emergency room, and homes within the community, rubbing shoulders with cops and corrections officers, doctors, nurses, psychotic people, neurotic people, and people on the edge. I just have to be really, really careful to make sure that confidentiality is pristine, which complicates things. I know stories so brilliant I’m dying to just write them, but can’t think how to use this scene – something I truly could never make up in a million years – without betraying a trust or hurting somebody. It’s a dilemma.

    • Patty says:

      I think the key is to follow Linda’s suggestion; mix it up. Devise a character who is a doctor, perhaps, and use some of your emergency room situations as his cases.

  3. ha! a friend of mine got me a t-shirt that said, “writers block is when your characters get fed up with all the shit you put them through and go on strike” so true…esp in my case :)

    • Patty says:

      HA! I’m often afraid to go to sleep because characters tend to haunt my dreams. One of these days, one of them is going to go all Freddie Kruger on me.

  4. abby mumford says:

    i love hearing the way your mind works. how you take one inciting incident and flip it on its head until the character comes spinning out. the throat tattoo girl is really intriguing!

    • Patty says:

      Abby, you’re the first person who’s ever said that. Usually, I get things like. “You’re so weird.” :)

  5. Trisha Leigh says:

    There are stories and characters absolutely everywhere, you’re so right.

    I have two favorite writers shirts, currently.

    1 – “Friends don’t let friends look stupid in print.”
    2 – “I give good crit.”


  6. Patty says:

    Trisha, you’re my first official comment on the new site.

    I LOVE the second one… *giggles*