I'm a chronic observer, and an eavesdropper. For several years when I was living in NYC I kept a "street diary" in which I jotted down conversations I heard on the subway or in the street, and sketched people and scenes I saw. I don't think I've ever directly transferred any conversation, or any person, word for word, but it does help give the flow of everyday conversation, as well as the trivial and tragic bits and pieces that make up life. And when I get stuck in a scene I often look to the outside world for a way around and through the problem.
Yesterday I was back at the WIP, and I was revising a scene in which Gertrude, the main figure in the novel, is talking to a panhandler, a one-legged man begging in front of a department store entrance. My idea for the scene is that the man says something to her -- something that, intended or not, has great meaning to her. The sentence had to be something ambiguous, so that Gertrude could read a meaning into it, but it also had to be something a homeless person might actually say -- no flight of fantasy here.
I turned this over in my head awhile and I remembered something from the night before, when I had gone to a Open House for writers at the local library. It sounds like the worst kind of Las Vegas joke, but there was a man there dressed up as Elvis. The reason for this was that one of the writers featured had written a semi-mystical book about "the real Elvis." ("You have to read the book to get the blessing," the flyer said.) A gaunt woman with purplish hair tottered around the room on high heels giving out the flyer. She approached me three times in the course of the evening, though I politely waved her away after I took one the first time. Her air was not so much that of a pushy writer marketing her book as of a divine messenger, working away around the room, too busy to talk, determined to bring the gospel to a suffering world. She hadn't written anything on her nametag, just drawn a large heart.
So it came about that, after a brief detour towards and mild flirtation with hobo nickels, in the scene the panhandler outside the department store digs in his pocket and hands Gertrude a large wooden token with a heart inked on it.
This may or may not make it through further revision. Already I'm thinking, perhaps a little obvious...perhaps a little sentimental... But this is a huge part of writing for me. When in doubt, look at the world around you.