What? Talking to people? Talking to strangers? Leaving the safety of my keyboard and monitor and actually going outside to approach a flesh-and-blood human being? No way!
There was a time when the prospect of my doing exactly that gave me chills. As long as my wellspring of imagination was flowing freely, I believed I could dodge talking to others. Now I know better. There is value in staying connected with people of all types, of seeing real human nature and not just what other fiction writers present as human nature.
Not all writers are introverts, but I suppose a hefty percentage of them fall into that group. I’m introverted with a capital I. It took me a number of years and a lot of practice to get used to chatting with people, especially strangers. I had the notion–as hard to eradicate as crab grass–that as a writer I should remain detached from other people and just observe them.
Sure, you’re observing all the time, but you need to get acquainted with all sorts of people, from a variety of backgrounds, and different ages.
Do you only hang out with other writers? Other writers your age?
What are you going to learn from them? (Okay, maybe they give you honest feedback when you read a scene aloud for critiquing, but are they feeding your muse?)
Writers need a wide range of information. We need different perspectives, different angles. We need to see the oddities among people as well as the similarities. Personalities, mannerisms, intensity of focus versus ditz-brain, domineering and meek–the combinations go on endlessly.
Probably the easiest gambit is to ask questions about what someone does. Not: “Do you make a decent living?” But: “How long have you been a parking monitor? How many tickets a day do you write? Does that gizmo you’re holding really run a check on a car’s license tag?”
Most folks are flattered when you start asking them questions about what they do or something they know. If your interest is genuine, they’ll usually open right up. Suddenly you may find yourself receiving insider perspective and your fiction will benefit from it.
So if you’re going to write about a character that’s a psychiatrist, talk to a doctor informally away from the office. If you’re going to write about a skydiver, drive out to an airfield where people throw themselves out of airplanes for fun. Watch what they do and talk to them about it. Unless you’re researching for very specific information, you don’t need a list of regimented questions. You’re just showing interest.
I find it the most fun to get to know elderly people who are still vibrant and active. They have perspective, insight, wisdom, experience, and forceful opinions. They may be raconteurs who tell terrific stories. They may be still running a business with little time to spare. But if you get to know them, you’ll come away with copious amounts of story inspiration.
For me, the most difficult people to talk to can be children. After a while, I figured out that the key is not to ask dorky grownup questions, but instead to use patience and demonstrate real interest in whatever the kids happen to be doing. If you don’t rush them, pretty soon they’re climbing on you, eager to tell you all kinds of things.
Even more importantly, once you have someone talking, keep your mouth shut and LISTEN. Once people start sharing with you, it’s their show, not yours. The better you listen, the more they’ll say.
I know this is all basic advice for good conversation of any kind, but as a writer I had to learn how vital it is to touch reality from time to time. The more I connect with people, the more gold I have from which to spin my webs of dreams.