Friday, April 15, 2011

A Thief in the Night (and Day)

By Deborah Sharp

I have no qualms about stealing. Before you call the morals police, let me clarify. I'm talking quirks, tics, snippets of speech -- the kinds of things I observe in strangers and friends, and then turn into personal traits for my characters. All authors do it. It's the reason that websites can sell t-shirts to writers that say: Careful, or I'll Put You in My Book!

A former reporter, I've long been skilled in eavesdropping. Just because I changed careers doesn't mean I stopped doing it. When my husband and I are out to dinner, he can always tell when I start: Head cocked, distant look in my eyes, finger-shushing him. Yep, I'm mining the conversation two tables away for a valuable nugget.

Hard work, right? Well, somebody has to do it.

Sometimes, though, I don't even have to work that hard to steal. Sometimes, I'm given a gift. Like the note from a stranger that came across the e-transom the other day. ''I'm a 67-year-old who says whatever needs sayin,' and people can like it or not,'' wrote Carol, a feisty reader from Florida. ''A lot of people want me to be nicer sometimes, but people in Hell want ice-water, too . . . ''

I knew two things immediately when I read that sentence. One, I LOVED Carol. Two, Sure as shootin,' her words would be coming out of my ''Mama'' character's mouth just as soon as I could work them into the plot of my work-in-progress. (I know you're not asking, but that one's No. 5, and it's called MAMA GETS TRASHED.)

I e-mailed back to Carol, confessing my thieving tendencies. I told her I planned to steal her saying, and give it to Mama. She was so happy about that, she offered to send me some more.

I'm not always that upfront about it. And, people aren't always pleased to have their personalities purloined. To research the setting of my second book, I rode the Florida Cracker Trail cross-state horseback ride. After MAMA RIDES SHOTGUN came out, several of the female riders asked me, accusingly, if I'd based this description on them: ''... a middle-aged cowgirl whose bottom was too broad for her jeans.''

I denied it. In that case, I was actually describing me.

People always assume the Mama character is based on my own mother. They're right, of course, and they're wrong, too. Unlike the books' Mama, my mother is not a Southern belle. She's . . . gasp! . . . a Yankee. On the other hand, my mama has had multiple marriages. She drinks cheap pink wine. She's gambled a bit with the Seminoles. Just like the ''fictional'' Mama.

Even so, it's never bothered my mother that I borrowed some of her traits for the books. The one thing that does bother her?

"I don't like that title,'' she told me, as No. 1 was hitting bookstores.

"Well, it's too late now,'' I said. "But, why not?''

She pointed at each word on the cover: ''Mama Does Time? People are going to think I'm in prison!''

So, allow me to set the record straight here. My mama, at 96, is not in prison. At least not currently.

How about you, writers? Do you steal for your characters? Readers, have you ever recognized yourself in someone else's book?


GigglesandGuns said...

LOL I may not know what's going on at my table but I can give a blow by blow of at least five others.


Jessie Chandler said...

Deborah, I've done exactly what you've done and invariably something winds up in my stories. Even sometimes experiences I have with customers or others wind up in my tales. And you tell your mama that at her age she can raise all the hell she wants and she gets at least one get out of jail free card :-)

Deborah Sharp said...

Mary: I'm with you ... the action at the other tables is usually more interesting, right?
Aww, Jessie, my mama thanks you. She just might need that get out of jail card, too!

Kerry said...

Hey, if the action is at the other tables nearby, what does that say about me? Am I boring? Signed: Deborah's husband!

Jess Lourey said...

Are we eavesdroppers because we're writers, or are we writers because we're eavesdroppers?

Based on what you've written, I love Carol (and that line), too. A couple years ago, I was emailing a reader who'd entered and won a recipe contest for September Fair. One of my emails ended with a preposition, and I apologized. The sentence was, "Where should I send the book to?"

She emailed back. "I find the best way to distract from grammar errors is to swear. 'Where should I send the book to, dammit.' See how that works?"

I stole that line.

Victoria said...

Isn't there some line about stealing being the ultimate form of flattery...or something like that.

or truth being stranger than fiction...

I think your thievin' lends an air of authenticity and grounds the story. It makes the funny situations that Mama gets in even funnier.

And Mr. Sharp, I can't imagine anyone ever calling you boring.

Keith Raffel said...

Thanks for the post, Deb. Say hi to your mother for me. I just had lunch with a friend this week who said he had trouble finishing my Smasher because a venture capitalist in the book was so like one he'd had troubles with. No, I'd never met the VC he knew.

Terri Bischoff said...

I knew I should have checked my bags more carefully after spending a few days with you! ;) And what I find to be really funny is that I can picture your head tilt and faraway look perfectly.

And Kerry - boring is not a word I would ever associate with you. Next time I'm down, you and I will again have wonderful conversations while Deborah is listening in on the other tables.

Keith Raffel said...

P.S. Deb, the lit quote of the day I tweeted this AM (@writerkeith) seems a propos.

"Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency... to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he'll not hesitate; the Ode on a Grecian Urn is worth any number of old ladies." Faulkner

G.M. Malliet said...

I eavesdrop, too. Rather than interrupt the dinner conversation, I try to memorize what I overheard that was so delicious (see above for standard writer pose of head cocked and faraway look in eyes). Then I forget what it was by the time I get home.

Beth Groundwater said...

When I go shopping at the mall, one of the favorite things I like to do is sit on a bench and listen to the snippets of conversation as people walk by. A lot of interesting stories could be developed around those snippets!

Alan Orloff said...

I have to steal stuff. I can't make it up on my own. Go MAMA!

Darrell James said...

Some lines are just to perfect not to steal.

Kathleen Ernst said...

"Research" is a much nicer term that "eavesdropping." And I agree with Jessie: at 96, your mama can do or say anything she wants!

The other trend I've heard about happens when writers do base a character on a real person, and the person doesn't see it at all.

Sylvia Ney said...

Great post!

Deborah Sharp said...

Hey, y'all ... every single witty response to your nice comments just DISAPPEARED when I tried to post it! Ack!!
These are the ones I remember:
Jess L: When I steal that funny line, who do I have to give credit to, DAMMIT?

Keith: So, how do you think Faulkner treated his mama?

Victoria: Mr Sharp ... I LIKE that!

Sylvia, and all ... thanks for reading!

Patrish said...

Kerry, you're on the phone anyway, and you know it!!

Deborah Sharp said...

Patrish: Oh, you know my phone-addicted husband SO well!
Belatedly, to Terri: thank goodness there'll be someone to entertain Kerry while I'm listening in. C'mon down!
GM: You need a spy recorder for those moments.
Beth: What about a story about a woman who sits quietly on a bench at the mall, stealing pieces of strangers' lives?
Alan: Sure, you have trouble making up stuff, Mr. Agatha Nominee!
Darrell: Never pass a perfect line up (dammit!)
Kathleen: Yep, the evil folks I steal from NEVER recognize themselves. In fact, one unpleasant acquaintance thinks my heroine is based on her!

Shannon said...

I went out with a multi-pubbed writer for a time and I'm afraid to read his last three books in case I'm in there somewhere. Even if I'm not, I might think I am! I'm happily with a non-writer now and planning on staying that way.