The Art of Creative Listening

Inspiration for a new novel can come from the most unusual, and often mundane, places. The art of spotting it is simply a matter of listening with a creative ear.As a member in good standing of the Working Class Writers League (i.e., every writer who needs a day job to pay the bills), I am often riding on a bus, sitting on a ferry, or occasionally stuffed in the cabin of a Twin Otter seaplane. These moments of solitude are often the best times to get some writing done—as was the case with my breakout novel, Switch, written during my daily commute on a ferry from a small fishing village to the big city where I was a graphic designer, editor, and feature writer for a large daily newspaper. However, as I soon discovered, remaining isolated in my writer’s nook made me oblivious to the wonderful future stories happening all around me.As the ferry only ran every two hours, with the last ferry of the day leaving the dock a short time after my shift at the paper ended, I often arrived in the waiting room sweaty and short of breath only to discover that something had gone wrong in the engine room, or summer traffic had been particularly heavy, and the ferry wouldn’t be leaving for another hour. At first, I automatically took this opportunity to pull out my laptop and get back to writing, but because the group of locals who took that last ferry home each night was quite small, the regulars soon became curious about what the heck I was doing.Deciding that I wasn’t producing my best work after a full day anyway, I started to interact with the group, listening to their stories and making friends. One of the commuters was a bus driver named Paul who often had me in stitches with his stories of wacky passengers and the crazy yarns they would tell as to why they couldn’t pay the fare. Paul became the inspiration for the protagonist of my second novel, No Cry For Help, published by Random House UK. I wanted my hero to be a blue-collar everyman, and a bus driver fit the bill to a tee. At first, I wanted to capture some of those funny stories and anecdotes that Paul shared, but the scenario I created for No Cry For Help ended up being so intense that there was little room for humor. Paul’s love for his family and his loyalty to his friends, however, served my character well.

Another commuter I met was a man named Bruce who would often join Paul and me on the open top deck of the ferry. At first, Bruce kept to himself, but once he warmed up to us, he began to share. It turned out that Bruce worked for a child protection agency, and his main job was overseeing court-ordered parental visits. Often the need for an escorted visit was because the parent had a violent or abusive background, or the court felt he or she had the potential to kidnap the child and flee the area.

Naturally, some of these visits could become quite intense, especially in the middle of an ugly divorce.

One evening as we were gathered on the top deck of the ferry to sail home, Bruce told me a disturbing story about a threatening phone call he had received that morning. As a veteran journalist, I’ve received a few nasty calls myself—including one land developer who threatened to tie me to the back of his pickup and drag me down Main Street after I exposed that his new subdivision was built on top of an old landfill, which caused cracks to develop on the foundations of the houses. Bruce’s call sparked my imagination and I instantly memorized every word of the conversation. Having an ear for real language, and putting that on the page rather than perfect prose, gives a shot of realism to your story that too much polishing or overthinking can ruin. Angry people don’t always speak in complete sentences.

Naturally, I took Bruce’s story and used it as a seed to grow into an intense, fast-moving thriller that has just been published by Polis Books. The book is titled The Fear In Her Eyes, and I believe it is one of the best stories I’ve written. The character Bruce inspired is called Ian Quinn, but the story is unlike anything you’ve read before. It may have been inspired by a threatening phone call, but as the opening sentence shows, “The death threat wasn’t the worst part of Ian Quinn’s day”; it pales in comparison to the terrible secret that’s about to be revealed.

The moral of the story is simple: writers need to write any chance they get, but sometimes we also have to look up from the screen and join the world around us. You never know what inspiration will be revealed.


ferryGrant McKenzie is the author of five thrillers, including Switch, No Cry For Help, K.A.R.M.A., Port of Sorrow, and The Fear In Her Eyes. Under the pen name M.C. Grant, he also writes a mystery series for Midnight Ink, which includes Angel With A Bullet, Devil With A Gun, and the forthcoming Beauty With A Bomb. He can be reached via his website at: