In a previous post I wrote about how I manage my ideas. TL;DR – Notice Stuff, Write It Down, Read It Again.
This is fine, it’s a method for not relying on your flawed memory. But a story is much more than a laundry list of stuff you noticed during the day (unless you’re talking about a Seinfeld episode, then it really is just a laundry list). You need characters and plot points and emotion and conflict and resolution and all that stuff. No matter how cool, accomplished, and savvy you are, you’re only just one person. Despite your best efforts, you can’t know, do, or be everything. Your personal scope is very limited.
So how do you expand your scope? Travel is a great way. International travel. To a place where you don’t speak the language and can’t read a newspaper. I used to work for a government contractor, and I traveled all over the world. I can tell you for certain that my perspective expanded immensely in those three years. I was not the same person on my last day as I was on my first, and I came out the better for it.
But what if you don’t have the good fortune of being paid to travel on the Federal government’s dime? What if you can no more afford a trip abroad than you could pay off your mountain of student debt? What if the court says you can’t leave the county? What if you’re agoraphobic? You can read non-fiction, but even better, you can watch non-fiction. You can find slice-of-life videos everywhere online. Search them out, people are eager to show others how they live, and visitors are eager to show differences, too. Google ‘Japanese toilets’ for a good start on how different other cultures can be.
Absent travel, what’s a fantastic way of expanding your scope? Exploiting your friends and family. You go to work every day, and you do stuff and know stuff that’s a combination unique to you. Nobody else does your job quite like you do, nobody else has the exact same interests and hobbies you do. The same is true for every other person on the planet, including your boring family and idiot friends. Everybody you meet knows something you don’t. So ask them about it.
For instance, I have an attorney friend (mentioned previously) I can bounce stupid legal notions off of. I am always wrong, and Attorney Don gently corrects me, but his regular work day is labyrinth of interpretation and ambiguity that I just can’t wrap my head around. Talking to him lets me appreciate how a good attorney is like a good chess player, always thinking one move ahead.
I have a friend who spent years as a lab tech, and just this week I had lunch with her to pick her brain about what happens to a person who dies of liver failure. This is for the sequel to Special Circumstances that I’m writing now. She’s forgotten more about that kind of thing than I’ll ever know, and she helped me pin down a terrible, terrible death for a terrible, terrible character. It’s what friends do.
Talk to strangers. I know, I know, it’s a scary world out there, and you have to pick and choose who you let into your circle of trust, but I have learned so much talking to complete strangers. Like why you don’t want to weld in the rain but sometimes you have to do it anyway. Like how slowly the plane I was a passenger on would have to fly to drop out of the sky. Like how many different diagnoses it would probably take to get on full disability. Like how complicated the chemistry of toilet paper actually is. Like how emergency rooms have printed protocol on how to get stuff out of people’s butts because getting objects stuck in their butts is a thing people regularly do.
I encourage your curiosity. Find out what makes people tick. Find out what makes YOU tick, your writing can only benefit.