Chilean writer Isabel Allende, when asked how she came up with ideas or her books said (and I paraphrase), “When I meet people, I should give them the Miranda warning. Everything they say may be used in my work.”
It’s every writer’s not-so-guilty secret.
Most of us travel with a notebook or just a good memory, recording the astounding things people say on buses, in the street, in the halls of our workplaces. We pick up phrases, plot ideas, images, anything we could use later when we sit down at our desks.
Once in my twenties, when I was living in Mexico City, I was in a bathroom stall when I overheard two maintenance women. Sparing no lurid details, they discussed a friend who’d chosen to walk on the wild side. I delightedly took notes behind my closed door, until I heard the conversation focus on me. “What is the gringa doing all this time?” one asked the other, not realizing I spoke fluent Spanish. (The gringa quickly left the stall, washed her hands and silently thanked the women for the great dialogue they’d just handed her.)
I have sat in city buses and written down word for word heated arguments, deep discussions or just bizarre turns of phrase.
My work in the criminal justice system, now as a county attorney, formerly as a public defender, has opened a treasure trove of memorable phrases. And I do not mean confidential client information, but rather things overheard in the courtrooms and the hallways.
During a homicide trial many years ago I was questioning a witness who had just described how the victim died of a stab wound. “And then what happened?” I asked him.
“His soul flew up and sat in the tree,” he said.
I sat transfixed for a couple of seconds. “No further questions,” I said.