You Can’t Use That. It’s Mine.

ID-100167176Remember the movie VANILLA SKY? OK, I don’t really either. The only thing I remember in that movie is one scene. Tom Cruise’s character has a friend who is a writer and they’re in a coffee shop or a bar and his writer friend is giving him some profound wisdom. Then the writer friends turns around and points to the guy sitting at the table behind him who is obviously eavesdropping and scribbling away and says, “You can’t use that. It’s mine.” (Or something close to that.)

Writers eavesdrop. We takes notes at funerals. We’re nosey. We say to people, “Tell me more about that.” We’re worse than therapists. Yes, we’re trying to get ideas for what we write, but we’re also trying to make our fiction be true. They say that truth is stranger than fiction. But sometimes there’s more truth in fiction than in the facts. So this is why we eavesdrop, take notes, and ask probing questions. We’re trying to understand life more.

There’s something in each character I’ve ever written that comes from bit of truth in someone I’ve known. That doesn’t mean that character IS that person. It just means there’s something interesting about that person that gets me thinking. It’s the sourdough starter that makes the bread.

I got the idea for my character Jason from a kid who worked in a video store (remember those?) I frequented years ago. Hugo emerged from a bookstore owner I met in San Francisco 20 years ago. The Dragonfly itself is based (loosely) on a used bookstore in downtown Mountain View, CA. I got the idea for Maggie’s mother after meeting the mother of a friend of mine. The model for the SVWEABC actually exists in the world. And though Maggie isn’t me, she sounds a lot like me.

As writers, we’re cooks in the kitchen. We pull from this recipe and borrow an idea from that one to create something totally our own. It’s been fun since the book came out hearing from friends about the small things in my book that they recognize, almost like easter eggs in a video game. A reference to a restaurant we love or an inside joke about someone we know. It’s all there adding flavor to the dish.

And I really wish I could find the video from that scene in VANILLA SKY. Turns out no one really wants to see that movie again.

Image courtesy of Apolonia at

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Shelly is the author of THE MOMENT OF EVERYTHING, story of love and books in Silicon Valley. She lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains with her husband, two big dogs, and a disapproving cat.

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