Lots of people don’t realise that although you may see work by a certain author on the bookshelves in your favourite shop, many writers still hold down a day job in addition to penning their next novel. In this series, we’ll talk to writers about how their current – or previous – day jobs have inspired and informed their writing.
My friend Jackie McLean is here to tell us how her previous day job has helped her write compelling characters. Thanks to Jackie and her partner Allison for always being such fun to be around – can’t wait to see you again soon!
Being able to create believable characters, and knowing which subtle touches to add that will help readers know and empathise with them, is probably the greatest skill in writing. For honing that skill, there’s nothing better than a spot of people-watching. Fortunately for me, my day jobs past and present have given me plenty of opportunity to study people in a range of habitats…
Around ten years ago, my partner and I decided to throw in our comfortable public sector jobs and open a pet shop. It was one of those “we don’t want to look back in twenty years’ time” moments, and for the next six years we had great fun running our shop.
While the routine of running a pet shop revolves around caring for the animals, keeping the place clean and fresh, placing orders and unpacking deliveries, dealing with the customers provided me with some priceless insights into the human character. I also found that, dealing with around 100 different people every day, I soon learned how to read body language and – crucially – to become very good at spotting when a person is fibbing. This, in addition to the many humorous anecdotes, meant my notebook was never far away.
There was the man who came in with his young son, concerned that his hamster was ill. It had developed a swelling under its tail, he told us. No amount of hinting to him that his boy hamster was now a man hamster made the penny drop, and eventually (having described in my notebook the many facial expressions), we sent him to seek the vet’s advice.
It was surprisingly common for people to mistakenly think that eggs laid by solo birds or reptiles would hatch, but generally they’d realise as soon as we explained the whole thing about unfertilised eggs. Except for the woman with the solo turtle.
But what will I do with the babies?
There won’t be any babies, the eggs aren’t fertilised.
Will you take them in when they hatch?
They won’t hatch, there’s no daddy turtle to fertilise the eggs.
And so on, to no avail, until we gave up and said, “Sure, bring them in when they hatch.” Good for describing the frustrations of a pointless discussion.
Then there was the large gang of yelling schoolchildren who rushed into the shop one morning, concerned about a seagull that had been hit by a car. The gull was alive and distressed, but couldn’t fly far. The vet promised to treat it if we could catch it, which led to a mass chasing along a very long street, armed with boxes and nets. The chase led through gardens and finally into someone’s shed, where we captured the gull. There were tears and cheers, and the notebook recorded all the details.
I often wondered if it was because we were animal lovers, but customers would confide the most personal details of their lives with us. Many were the times we’d laugh and cry with complete strangers, and this (not to be mercenary about it), provided me with great studies in emotional behaviour.
We sold the business a number of years ago, but the notes I took during that time still provide me with plenty of material for developing a rich variety of characters in my writing.
Jackie’s debut novel, Toxic – which was shortlisted for the Yeovil Literary Prize in 2013 – and the sequel Shadows are both available now.