Harriet took the cigarette, which she felt she had deserved, and sat with her hands about her knees, mentally turning the incidents of the last hour into a scene in a book (as is the novelist’s unpleasant habit)… — Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night
Something that I have noticed about writers, both myself and my friends who write, is that we are endless collectors of little facts, incidents, and trivia. Even if we have no idea how we could ever fit something into a book or a story, we are unable to stop observing and collecting. I cannot tell you how many small scraps of paper are stuffed into my desk drawers or tucked into folders that have an interesting name that I heard, or a tidbit, or a fragment of an experience. Because the thing is, you’ll never know when something could become useful, or you might find a home for a particular shred of information. I was visiting with a friend from my masters program who had recently had a cyst removed from the back of her neck, and she was joking about how the whole process had been so gross that even in the name of writing, she hadn’t really wanted to take a look at the gunk that had come out of the hole. Which we both laughed about, because here’s the thing – writers are like cats. We can’t help investigating something, reading random magazine articles, or listening to a bizarre story that someone is telling. I had a friend who was in a terrible car accident that flipped his car and ended up lacerating his spleen, and when he was telling me about the whole experience later, I couldn’t help but start hoarding the details in my brain for possible later use.
Because it isn’t just the collection for its own sake, it’s the hope that someday this will be useful. That observing the gunk that comes out of an incision (yes, I did that when I had minor foot surgery), or listening to a friend’s frightening survival story, or even just sitting on the beach on a sunny day and thinking about what it feels like – that this will help in your writing. And the truth is that it actually does. Sometimes it helps with the big plot stuff, but a lot of the time it comes out in the secondary elements. At one point in Iron Night (to be published January 7, 2014, but available for pre-order now) I introduced Suzume’s home. The layout of her house is based on the duplex apartment that a friend of mine rented in Somerville, MA. Fort has a new crappy job in Iron Night, working as a waiter in a fancy restaurant and tormented by a foodie chef – that entire idea came to be because I was reading Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. And there’s actually a section where I mention how the fancy restaurant handles food allergies because I was also reading Sandra Beasley’s Don’t Kill The Birthday Girl: Tales From An Allergic Life. Houses, businesses, cars, weather, random elements – it all bleeds through from things I’ve seen or read. I was on a great panel at WorldCon this year about how to write horror, and at one point a casual comment ended up revealing that all of the writers on the panel were fans of books about Himalayan climbers (myself quite definitely included) – not because we were adrenaline junkies or wanted to ever do it ourselves, but because the topic itself was absolutely fascinating to us – the danger, the discomfort, the possibility of having to leave friends behind to certain death – that was the stuff we were hooked on.
From what I’ve seen, it seems to be practically universal to writers. So if you’re around me and you start telling a great story, or something funny happens, or we visit a certain restaurant – someday that might end up in something I’m writing. Maybe the whole thing, barely changed from life, or just the tiniest fragment will be glued into a larger scene. But it will definitely be there.