A writer's life means never being off duty. We're always gathering our raw material. The first trick is to make sure to have a life rich in material to write about.
Writing is such a solitary endeavour - you need to make sure to get out into theworld often. Not only is this better for you as a person, but you’ll be gathering the images and speech cadences and so on that you need for your writing.
So go out and do interesting things. Deliberately do things that you mightn’t otherwise do. Go to a sports match even if you have no interest in sports. Indeed, go especially if you have no interest - if you had an interest, you’d already have gone, and this wouldn’t be different for you.
Go and explore different places. Read different newspapers and magazines. Socialise in different venues.
You don’t have to have a plot or character in mind to try something different. It all goes into the pot, and you’ll never know what you might use; or what inspiration might come from the experience.
Talk to people about their interests and beliefs. Listen with no agenda, and certainly without thoughts of discussion or argument. Listen just to find out how and what such-a-person thinks. What brings sports fans to the matches? What’s it like being the mother of a handicapped child? What’s it like being old? What’s the life of a nun like? What’s it like being the opposite sex? (That’s a really broad question, and perhaps hard for them to answer as they don’t know what it’s not like being that sex. So ask leading questions: what’s the best bit about being a man/woman? The worst bit?)
People love talking about their lives and their passions, and so few people are actually listened to, so you should have no trouble finding willing candidates.
Another suggestion is to go to a busy place, such as an airport or café. Sit with a notebook and pen, and just listen to the conversations around you. Write down snippets of ideas, dialogue and so on which attract your attention. The notebook is good for remembering stuff, but also it stops you attracting attention as it looks so natural. Obviously the wider the experiences you have, the more widely you can write, the more complex characters you can create, and the more ideas for plots you’ll have.
The other way of mining life is to live life almost on two levels. The first level is the normal one, where we’re just living.
But the other level is the work of the writer. Stand back a little and observe what you’re seeing, hearing, smelling and experiencing. Describe it to yourself, in words using detail - detail is very powerful in good writing.
Another way of saying all this is: cultivate awareness, and analyse.
We all know that grief exists - we’ve experienced it for sure. Likewise, we’ve experienced joy, and gratitude, and frustration - and all the other human emotions.
However, possibly the most important rule in fiction-writing is: Show, Don't Tell. So it’s not enough to say, “She felt grief”, or “He was angry.” That’s telling.
Instead, we have to show the grief, or anger, or whatever.
Therefore, we have to know how these emotions manifest themselves. Where in your body does grief reside? How does it feel? Is it sharp, or dull? What is the facial expression of grief?
So, if you’re serious about your writing, you’re always on duty. Even in the midst of your strongest emotions, let part of you stand back and analyse what you’re feeling, so that you can write convincingly about it in due course.
At heart writers are vultures. That’s not very nice to acknowledge, but it’s true. Perhaps the kindest thing we can do is to feed off our own emotions and dramas and crises, rather than those of other people. So even as I’m weeping or laughing a part of me is taking mental notes about the experience.
I observe other people too. I’m not proud of this - but even as the Tracy part of me, so to speak, is genuinely empathising with a friend in need, the Writer part of me is observing her, and how she reacts, and her facial expressions. I work on those two levels.
And I often finding myself thinking, as somebody shares something with me, “This’d make a terrific novel”. Indeed, my third novel, More Than Friends, was based specifically on something a friend shared with me. With her permission, I wrote the novel. Now, none of her specific story is in the novel - just the basic premise. But I certainly got it from mining life.