When Real Life Hands You Storybits

Sometimes real life hands you stories, almost fully-formed, and all you have to do is write them down. It’s like taking dictation. This happens, but it doesn’t happen very often, at least not for me. That’s kind of par for the course, when your genres are space opera and fantasy. Real life can’t give me too many stories about space wars or lost princesses. At least not yet, anyway.

But real life does give me a lot of storybits. What are storybits? They’re simply that: bits that can either be the basis for stories, or can serve as parts of stories. You never know where you might end up using a storybit, which is why you, as a writer, simply MUST make it part of your daily routine to recognize storybits and file them away for future reference. You don’t have to use all of your storybits, but the more you have, the easier it will be to do cool stuff in your stories!

Here are some times when I’ve used storybits.

ONE: Years ago, I worked in restaurant management, and one place I worked was a Bob Evans in Jamestown, NY. We had a regular customer named Karl, who was an older gentleman, probably in his late 60s or early 70s. (This was in 1998 or so.) Karl drove a nicely used pickup truck, but he was always very well-dressed when he came in to eat, always by himself. He had a handsome smile, but he was always quiet and always showed up, read the paper while he waited and while he ate, and then he would quietly leave, paying his bill and bidding us all goodbye with a genial nod of his head.

Then one day one of my servers informed me of the headcanon that she and the other servers had cooked up for Karl. I asked what his story was, and if anyone knew anything about him. No one did, so they had all concluded that Karl was one of the Nazi genius scientists that we brought over to the United States after World War II and gave a new identity in exchange for his research on nuclear power or rocketry or whatever.

Karl went on to feature as the creepy antiques dealer in my story “In Longhand” (available on Wattpad!). It’s one of very few times I ever put someone I knew from real life directly into a story, but even there it wasn’t much of a roman a clef. I didn’t know Karl at all other than his visits to Bob Evans, and I never even learned his last name. But he lives in a little in that story.

TWO: This happened in the last year! I thought I took photos, but I can’t find them, so I’m not sure when exactly it happened. My day job is in a large grocery store in a Buffalo suburb, and the Store is located on a heavily-traveled street. Near the front corner of our building, by the street, there is a large steel grate, through which water runs into the storm drainage system for the town. I never thought much about this grate (it’s big, about three feet square), until one day when I saw a bunch of cops standing around it. There were three or four squad cars all in our parking lot, clustered right by that corner near the grate, and then a big police van pulled up on the street, with two other squad cars pulling up in front and behind, to block off the right lane. I naturally wondered what was going on, but I couldn’t get close enough to see. However, I have access to my building’s roof, so up I went!

Looking down on this scene, I was able to clearly see that the cops had lifted the grate, exposing the drop into the sewer system below. I couldn’t see from that vantage point how far down it went, but there was a cop in a wet suit standing nearby, and they were lowering a ladder into the drain. Soon, the wet-suit cop went down. I didn’t stick around for him coming back up, but he soon did, and the cops put the grate back in place and then they dispersed.

I later learned that some people had called the police from the neighborhood of The Store, reporting voices in the sewers. The idea was that some kids had got in there, and were making their way through the sewers of the town. Thus search-and-rescue was deployed. I don’t know if anything ever turned up (well, I do know that they didn’t find bodies or anything so horrible), but that stuck in my mind. This incident has just this week found its way into the second John Lazarus novel.

THREE: Storybits don’t even have to be pieces of story. They can be the tiny details you notice as you go through life. It’s details like these that can make your story seem especially real.

One day, I was out driving, running errands. It was a summer day, and there was a sudden thunderstorm that fired up quickly, dumped its rain, and then moved on just as quickly as it had come. When it was gone, the sun came out again, just as bright and brilliant as before, but now everything was wet, including the road.

That was when I noticed that the car in front of me was kicking up spray from its back tires, and the sunlight was making tiny rainbows in the spray. I had never seen that before, and I’ve never seen it since. I think it’s really one of those “right place at the right time” sorts of phenomena that probably happens a lot but no one notices, and it doesn’t happen often to each individual one of us because while there’s always someone out driving in the post-storm sunshine, how often is it us, and how often are we looking down at the tires of the car in front of us, and how often are we driving at the right angle to the sun to see those tiny spray-bows?

Storybits are everywhere. Look for them!

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