When I was a little girl and my Minnesota grandparents came to visit, we shared them around for sleeping purposes. One night I would share my double bed with Grandma, and the next night my brother and I would switch places, and I’d sleep on his top bunk while Grandpa settled into the bottom bunk.
Grandma was a bit of a night owl like I am, so it was never hard to keep her talking. Grandpa was raised a farm boy, and in his mind nighttime was for sleeping. But I devised a clever system: if he paid the ransom of telling me one story from his boyhood, after that I’d stay quiet and let him drift off.
His stories—about bottle-feeding the little black lamb, or the fight with his brother Henry that ended with Grandpa dumping an entire bucket of cow-fresh milk over Henry’s head—are the earliest tales in what has now become my extensive personal collection: I’ve been stockpiling stories from my “peeps” ever since.
One of the “ask the author” questions kids present me with over and over again is, “Where do you get ideas for your stories?” For me, a big part of the answer is, “through other people.” I love hearing other people’s stories—and what I find is that the more I’m willing to listen, the more people will tell me. I’ve apparently cultivated my listening skills to such a degree that even strangers share deeply personal accounts. In the interests of preserving friendships, I’ve taken to inserting a warning label into my conversations: “I’m a writer, you know. This is really good stuff. Unless you swear me to secrecy, I will use this.” Surprisingly few people take me up on that offer; the truth, I think, is that most people want their stories to find a life outside themselves. If they don’t plan to write them out on their own, they’re delighted at the idea of someone else writing them down.
So I use their stories, but I do maintain some sense of discretion: They are often heavily disguised, and the names have been changed to protect the innocent.
Encourage your young writers to imagine they’re riding though life while tuned into talk radio. For younger writers, helping them to develop strong listening skills may be the key. For slightly older writers, you might want to also discuss issues around respecting privacy. And encourage them to explore how real-life stories work great as seed material, but don’t always translate directly into good fiction: Sometimes the writer’s art is not in finding good material, but in knowing how much of it, and how best, to use it to tell a story that the world wants to hear.