Hello, Stranger

Some of us remember phone books—a collection of the names, addresses, and phone numbers of every household in the area, delivered once a year. A terrible waste of paper, but there was something compelling about having information on everyone in your city or town right there in one place, often a very thick binding of paper.

When I was a kid, I remember coming to New York City and looking for the phone numbers of celebrities. They probably weren’t listed, but I did find their identical names and wondered if it was really them. Should I call and find out?

You could also have fun opening to a random page and pointing to a random name—let’s say Sue Schermerhorn. You didn’t know anything about Sue except she lived at 1421 Waterview Avenue. Was her name really Susan? If so, why was she listed as Sue? Did she live alone? Family, pets, roommate? She sounds like she wouldn’t be too young, but maybe she was. She probably got annoyed by how often she had to spell her name for people. Did she take life by the tail and swing it around or was she too retiring for that?

A big part of telling stories is just wondering about people. Often we use folks we know, but it’s also nice to wonder about people we’ve never met—a woman in a café, a teenager walking through a parking lot, a name in a phonebook. If you put that person in a story, you will eventually draw characteristics from people you know, maybe even yourself, but there’s something intoxicating about starting off with a total stranger, which gives you a seemingly god-like power to create.

Sure enough, the characters can come to life before your eyes. Sue Schermerhorn is 34 and lives alone in a house that she rents, a bit timid at life ever since her fiancé canceled the wedding, which happened to be exactly eight years ago today. She bought herself a fancy espresso machine this afternoon to counter the memory. She’s content, for the most part, but can’t remember a morning when she woke up brimming with anticipation. Maybe the espresso will help.

What does she want, really want? She wants to shake off her trepidation and take a chance, do something daring.

So…maybe she tracks down an old school friend on social media, a girl who was somewhat on the wild side, and she rekindles the relationship. The friend, who still seems kind of wild, proposes they go on a trip together.

Or maybe, she gets mistaken for another Sue Schermerhorn, an international spy, causing Sue to run for her life.

Or maybe…

Alex Steele

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