Author of the hilarious Swim the Fly, Beat the Band and Call the Shots books, Don Calame joins us today on the Templar blog to talk about where he gets his inspiration from
I can’t tell you how often that thought occurs to me as I bumble around in my daily life. It can be distracting sometimes. Intrusive even. All the little details, the strange characters, the snippets of conversation one overhears. I should probably be one of those writers who carries around a notebook to jot these nuggets of gold down.
But I’m not. So I don’t.
Instead I figure that the true gems will stick somewhere in the brain to be mined when I am looking for that telling detail I need for a character in a story.
And then, of course, there are those times where actually forcing yourself to pay attention to the particulars can save you an aneurism.
Case in point:
A man stands at a checkout at the supermarket. That man is me. I’ve dashed in to grab some milk. Trying to get home before breakfast guests arrive. I am already running behind. Going to be cutting it close.
The cashier is chatting with her present customer. But not just chatting, like, “How’s the weather out there?” or “Baking oatmeal cookies today, are we?” No, this is a full on conversation like the one you might have at a dinner party. Or at the coffee shop. Or with your psychotherapist.
Cashier says, “Oh, no, my cat’s just got sick. The vet bills were enormous. Kidney stones if you can believe it. Who knew cats even got those? Took them three visits to diagnose. It was so stressful.”
Lady with the green knitting needle stuck in her straggly white bun responds, “We had to put our little Millie down last year. It was terribly sad. She was a tuxedo cat. Sweetest thing.” Her groceries are all rung up and bagged. Her tiny tattered red coin purse is in her bird-claw hands. But she’s not opening it. Not even making a move to open it. She’s just going on about her pets, and her children’s pets, and her grandchildren’s pets. How the animals are mostly all related. What they all died of. She’s laying out her entire family’s pet ancestry and the cashier is nodding and listening attentively. As if this were her job. As if she were some sort of grief counselor.
Instead of a cashier at the grocery store.
And all I want to do is buy a bottle of milk before the sun sets. The glass of the container sweating, getting slick in my hand. My blood pressure rising. My teeth gritting. I look back over my shoulder at the bug-eyed, overall-clad guy behind me who’s shaking his head. But neither of us say anything. Because this is the country. Small town friendly. Where this kind of thing is supposed to be quaint.
Instead of infuriating.
I take a deep breath. And go into writer mode. I can use this is a book someday, I tell myself. Or maybe a blog. What are the details? Study these people. Who are they? Why does this old lady not want to go home? Why does this cashier not notice the line of red-faced people backing up at her station? Why does the fact that Neil Diamond’s Heartlight playing over the supermarket speakers make this entire situation seem that much more surreal?
And why are all of us in the line being so damn polite?
But it saves me. This shift. Saves the cashier, too, if I’m being honest. Not that she has any idea she’s been spared a nasty scowl. A sarcastic word or two. Some passive aggressive bill counting and coin slamming.
It’s these kind of situations—the ridiculous ones, the insane ones, the ludicrous ones—that make some of the best writing fodder. Even if you don’t have the wherewithal to recognize it at the time. These are the gems that stick.
Call the Shots is the story of three teenagers who are trying to film a low-budget horror film and so I brainstormed any and all of my personal escapades—and humiliation
s—that I might foist onto these kids.
There was the time I was hired as a videographer for a sixtieth birthday party where the guest of honor was universally despised by everyone in the room.
There was the time in high school where I agreed to go out with a slightly unhinged girl who liked me—but who I had no interest in—simply because I was the only one of my friends who didn’t have a girlfriend.
And then, of course, there was a bird soiling incident.
All of which I mined for their respective revealing details and then fictionalized for the purposes of the story. It’s the easiest way I know how to make a scene come alive. To feel true. Even if it’s just one small thing. Like a knitting needle in the hair. Or an interminable conversation about pets.
It’s all usable grist.
Things you might use in a book some day.
Watch Don's video trailer for Call the Shots