Steal from your life—and from the guy parked next to you.
Most Friday mornings I take advantage of living in paradise to walk down on the beach with a friend. We catch up on one another's lives, we scan the horizon for dolphins. This morning I parked my car next to a surfer who flipped his wetsuit inside out and was pulling it on in reverse from the ankle upwards. I stopped to ask him why the unique approach. "I don't have to yank the wetsuit up from the outside and it will last much longer." He told me other surfers love Target shopping bags because the plastic is thin and slippery. You put the bag over your foot and it slides straight down through the neoprine without getting stuck. I love that! True, authentic details from a world that might not be mine but which runs parallel.
I filed the information away. One day I might have a heroine, a hero—or a villain—about to go out surfing and I will be able to steal this moment and give it to my character.
Lew Hunter, a beloved teacher of screenwriting at UCLA, used to encourage us to tell stories "ripped from the steaming asphalt of your soul." He meant use your own experience to make your characters ring true, to make them not just dance but salsa right off the page. I blame my tendency to chat to strangers on a surfeit of friendliness as well as a surfeit of curiosity. I'm a thief of details.
I have so much that I can steal from my own life. Stealing from the guy parked next to me, metaphorically speaking, adds to the haul. Now, excuse me while I send my heroine out surfing. She has a plastic bag to pull over her foot before she can hit those waves.