By Heather Justesen
So you're walking down the street and overhear someone say the most unbelievably perfect thing. When I say perfect, what I mean is ridiculous, but completely real. Perfect for one of your books. Or maybe you are at a social event or family party and overhear a piece of gossip and think 'Wow, that would make a great book! But what if they read it and realized where I got the plot idea?'
Where do you draw the line?
I once warned my coworkers that nothing they said would be completely sacred, that if it worked, I could easily put it in a book some day. Then I had to reassure them that if I did, I would twist the circumstances enough that no one would figure out that it had originally come from them. This was after I heard someone in a store talking about not wanting to move to California because of the gun control laws. It seemed to me like one of those odd small-town, backwater things, though the guy speaking wasn't a redneck—just a lover of firearms. It only took about five seconds for me to know exactly where and how I was going to use the quote, I doubt he would ever realize I was using a variation of his two-dozen-word sentence, even if he did read LDS women's fiction. Which he certainly wouldn't.
Listening in on conversations may seem like bad manners, regardless of whether you have a choice or not in overhearing them, but it can also be a fountain of information of story ideas and plot twists. Real life is stranger than fiction, after all, and using it to your advantage is one thing a good writer does.
I have a file on my computer that I call my cookie jar. In it are little snippets of scenes that I came up with after seeing something downtown, things my nieces or nephews said or did, characters I run into on the street. These could be fodder for great scenes later on, or maybe they will spark an idea for a story down the road. If not, at least I had a good writing exercise.
On the other hand, if you're going to use a circumstance you overheard in your small-town grocery store line, it wouldn't hurt to make sure you twisted the situation enough that no one would recognize themselves when you publish your book. Especially if you haven't warned them in advance.
I know a man whom I want to use as a general outline for one of my characters someday. His life is completely mixed up and would work perfectly in the right situation. I doubt he would ever read my book, and if he did, he would certainly not recognize his behavior. If I ever use him in a story, I plan to twist the circumstances around him enough that very few people would realize who my inspiration was—if anyone.
That's what good fiction is about; it's why characters and events seem real, because writers take what they hear or see, give them a twist and breathe life into the story. When a reader opens a story and sees bits of themselves, they are more likely to keep reading.