Collecting Strangers

Every now and then I’ll hear a snatch of conversation in passing, and if it’s interesting enough, or makes me smile, I’ll write it down in my phone (yes, hello, I’m a millennial) and jot a few notes about the speaker. It’s a fun, if admittedly kind of creepy hobby and it’s a great way of teaching yourself how to write natural dialogue and how to describe real people – not just idealised or stereotyped characters you’ve pulled from your head.

For example, here are the notes I took on my trip to the United Kingdom and Paris last year, exactly as I wrote them at the time (I won’t even fix the grammar or formatting in a very painful act of commitment to authenticity):

In Hay book shop, skinny white guy with skull tattoos peeping out the back of his t-shirt ‘have you got anything on skeletons, skulls… the head? Like, the anatomy of the face?’ Barely concealing amusement, conservative looking worker with round specs ‘let me show you to our biology section.’

Edinburgh: ‘Nerd alert, I used to have a character in Everquest who was a dwarf cleric healer…’ A large ginger American woman. At that age where she could have been 29 or 45.

London: a tall, skinny man in business shirt and slacks, on the phone: ‘…when I was a boy you used to be able to get a naughty pen…’

London, Euston: three little girls, two brown, one white, running out of Accessorize brandishing socks at their parents. ‘Only eight pound!’ says one. ‘Now we have matching socks!’ says another.

London, Covent Garden: a late twenties brunette in a shop on the phone, flipping through cards without seeing any of them. Stressed, breathless, talking quickly. ‘I’m one-hundred per cent sure, in that way you can never be one hundred percent sure of anything in these situations, that it wasn’t my fault.’ Tears welling, work related.

Observed: Disneyland Paris, food court. Little girl in full cinderella costume on the floor trying to do the worm with her Buzz Lightyear brother(?). Neither succeeds. Both giggling.

Observed: outside Disneyland Paris, the toilets. An early teen boy (French) visibly uncomfortable with having to hold his sister’s Elsa doll. He proceeds to smash his brother repeatedly in the head with it. Sister (6sih, brunette, dressed as Elsa) is upset on returning to find her now bedraggled doll. Snatches it back. Brother looks sheepish.

Five of these make me smile, two make me sad. All of them teach me something – about people, about the world, and about the way I think and write.

It also gives you something to do when you have to take public transport and you’ve forgotten your headphones. Give it a go! And feel free to leave any of your own favourite strangers in the comments.



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