Saturday, September 27, 2008


John Ramsey Miller

Writers are thieves, always on the lookout for something to steal and store away until we can use it later. That which we take from others we will use to our own ends. The theft can be as small as a word or it may be the way a phrase is spun and may well pass the ears of others nearby without notice. Or we may hear a story somewhere, or a piece of a story that goes to some larger picture of less interest to but fits into something we have been working on like a single screw that completes a motor we’ve been tinkering with over time, but can’t get to run because of that missing piece. The talent of the thief is in using the pilfered article to make a story work like a well-tuned engine.

Once I was looking for something a character could say to another character that would completely negate their recent history, and allow one character to trust the other with his and the lives of others after she had seemingly betrayed him and he thought she would get them killed due to an alliance with the bad guys the he character was well aware of. I wracked my brain for hours looking for that one thing, and came up blank. When I told my wife what the problem was she gave me (without any effort at all) a single line that made it all fall into place, and broke through to him. It was all I could do not to cry as I typed the line, and it worked and made the scene make perfect sense immediately.

We steal descriptions of people for our characters. We steal the words from living people’s mouths. We steal feelings that others have. We steal the names of pets, the pets themselves. We steal experiences others have, we steal their lives piecemeal, picking through their histories to give to others we are creating from scratch. We build puzzles using pieces that we alter to fit people and situations, to make imagined lives real to our readers.

We steal for the greater good. We are constantly weaving the experiences and lives of the innocent into fictional stories, and we alter things so the authors of the true experiences they’ve lived or words they have spoken may not be recognizable to them as their own. If they do, they are almost always flattered to see their words or lives on a printed page, even after you’ve twisted them into shape to suit your purpose.

We write what we know, and we know what we experience and that which we don’t experience is ours as soon as we hear it or see it. I learned more that became useful in my writing from traveling around the country meeting people from all walks of life than I ever did in school, and every day I’m looking around and talking to people and absorbing small parts that I will steal and slip into the engines I am building that hopefully will purr to life.


  1. Writers are certainly like magpies. Or maybe sponges, soaking up just the right bit of detail when it's needed. I do have friends and family who sometimes recognize pieces of family history in my work. They always seem slightly bemused by the whole thing.

  2. If we didn't steal from life, we would have nothing to write about and no way for others to relate to our words. Nice post, John.