Confessions of an Undercover Writer


Writers are a funny breed. We can’t work a salaried job without apologizing for it. You’ll never hear a writer say she’s a grocery clerk, or a paralegal. No, she’s working undercover to research her next novel. The job is just a front to get her where she needs to be, shoulder to shoulder with her characters. Take me, for instance. Every word you say, every nuance of tone, every twitch of the eyebrow will end up in my next book, because it’s about you. Maybe I’ll change your name and hair color, but the reason readers say my characters are lifelike is because I lifted them right off the bus, where I sat next to you yesterday.
You can recognize an undercover writer if you know what to look for. That disheveled woman hauling a backpack who caught the rail just as the bus door started to close? The one who didn’t have a Metrocard, so you swiped yours because she seemed so helpless and vulnerable? Don’t be fooled. That was me. I just wanted to find a kind soul to help my protagonist out of a jam, and you won.
But there were other people in that scene too, and I arrived home that night with enough material to populate a whole busload of characters. Pun intended.
After you did your Good Samaritan thing, I turned my attention to the other passengers: a dreary, saggy-faced assemblage lulled to a comatose state by the rumbling and rocking of the old, wheezing bus. There were still a few empty seats, and I swung into the one next to you as the bus rumbled down Main Street with its cargo of the dead. Two blocks later a crowd of school kids piled in, and the atmosphere transformed.
Passengers tensed visibly, eyebrows raised, knuckles white as they clutched their bags tighter. The kids were 11 or 12 years old, full of hunger and hormones, bursting with suppressed energy. Within a few minutes, I knew all about the gross personal habits of their teachers, who had a boyfriend, who was too ugly to ever have a boyfriend, and who wanted to dump her boyfriend. Pleasantly surprised, I stared straight ahead and feigned disinterest while I memorized every word and inflection. It’s a writers’ thing—good dialogue is rarely created; it’s more often transcribed.
I was so intent on sorting out the varied threads of their conversation I almost missed the grumbled monologue of the lady in the seat in front of me. Although her sparse red hair was teased into a turret, it did little to hide her shiny scalp. She was half turned around toward the aisle to glare at the offenders in the back of the bus, so I could see the red lipstick tracks in the furrows around her mouth, and the little drop of spittle that bubbled at one side as she spewed caustic remarks directed at the kids.

Read the entire article in the November 2021 issue of InD'Tale magazine.

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