I’m afraid I’m going to contradict the wisdom of our wonderful grandmothers.
Like you, I grew up with the mantra, don’t speak to strangers. I understand the warning, and I suppose that it’s one our children need to hear. But at some point in our development, if we are to grow in our understanding of our fellow human beings, if we are to evolve emotionally and intellectually, if we are going to engage or imaginations in lives other from our own, we’re going to need to leave that mantra behind.
I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I often find strangers easier to talk to than friends and family and colleagues. There’s a freedom in the anonymity of our conversation. A beautiful purity in its untrammelled immediacy. Our words aren’t tainted by the baggage of prior knowledge, of hidden motivations, or by fear of consequences.
With strangers, I can be bold, authentically myself – the version of myself I sometimes wish friends and family and colleagues would see. And I can ask questions that matter.
Interactions with strangers have a special energy absent from our conversations with those familiar to us. We listen better. The information our minds and hearts receive is fresh and original. We don’t anticipate and filter answers. And so, our imaginations are more readily engaged.
Countless strangers have given me writing gifts: words and images and anecdotes that have filtered into my novels.
I’ve previously mentioned the old man in the yellow corduroy hat whom I met on a bus from Shinfield to Reading when I was writing What Milo Saw – he turned into Petros, Gran’s late-in-life-love. A chance conversation with a reporter who went undercover in a funeral parlour inspired me for the way in which Milo and Tripi reveal the goings-on in Forget Me Not Nursing Home. Meeting a woman with a beauty parlour in the shed of her back garden gave me the idea for Milo’s Mum’s job. The list goes on.
Sometimes it’s a tiny detail – a haircut, a habit, a word. But it all gets fed into the cauldron of my imagination and comes out transubstantiated in the lives of my characters – sometimes it happens without me even noticing.
Challenge: speak to a stranger today.
Speak to the person sitting next to you on the tube or at the bus stop or in the queue at the supermarket; ask the window cleaner a question about his job; ask the man walking his dog about his life; pop into a shop you’ve never been in before and talk to the person at the till.
Switch off your phone and switch on your senses.
Take in every detail. Think about how this encounter can enrich your writing project. Then, as soon as you can, make a note of it and later, when you’re doing your Just Five Minutes, turn it into a scene or description or plot point.
My artist friend, Ginny Baker, pointed out that our characters start out as strangers too, that we take a leap of courage in making contact with them but when we do, they come alive and shape our stories.
Of course, the occasional stranger might tell you to mind your own business, but in my experience, that’s rare – and even those responses can be interesting.
So, seize the day: talk to a stranger and then scribble away.
Happy writing! x