When my daughter was little, I'd amuse her on car journeys by discussing other drivers. I suspect I was probably giving her a mountain of prejudice to overcome in later life, as I happily stereotyped every car and driver we saw. There goes Humphrey and his wife Fenella in their huge 4x4 towing a horsebox, with little Penelope in the back, on their way to a gymkhana, where Penelope will probably win all the pony club races, and her best friend Araminta will cry and it will be weeks before they make friends again. Can you tell I grew up reading Enid Blyton? Or there'd be uncle Arthur and aunty Elsie driving at 20 miles per hour in their little Ford on their annual Sunday trip to the garden centre to buy some roses for the garden, only aunty Elsie doesn't have her reading glasses and uncle Arthur doesn't know all the different Latin names of the roses ... As she got older, my daughter would be joining in and we'd imagine the extended lives of all these complete strangers.
It clearly had an effect. I recall driving home from the day nursery (a half-hour trip on a good day) when my amazing daughter, aged three, managed to tell me about a dream she'd had - for the entire journey without stopping or repeating herself. I'm not even sure she paused for breath. I was impressed.
But I still do it all the time. I amuse myself in cars, in queues, wherever, by looking at people, eavesdropping on their conversations and creating lives for them. From two carrots, a lemon and a bedsheet, to today in the supermarket where a middle-aged man - probably called Chris or John - dressed in smart jeans and a sensible shirt, is buying mountains of fruit and vegetables. Pears, cherries and raspberries. Gourds - Gourds? What on earth do you do with a gourd? - and carrots and leeks. At first I think he's making a special meal to impress a lady friend. Maybe a second or third date? Then I spot the wedding ring and I'm thinking, no - he's a chef, isn't he? Normal men don't shop like that. And off I go again, stereotyping the poor bloke until I've got him neatly pigeonholed where I want him. And I store it away and maybe he'll emerge some day as a part of a character in a story.
[...Talking of characters, does anybody else think that the BBC's new D'Artagnan is the hottest thing on tv this year? And yes, I'm old enough to be his mother. And no, I don't care....]
But does anybody else imagine other peoples' lives in this way? I have a habit of listening to conversations and find it so hard to resist the temptation to add my own opinion to the mix. Sometimes it gets the better of me - when I see a woman standing in front of a mirror and holding a dress up to herself, sometimes I just have to tell her the colour really suits her. I've not been told to mind my own business yet, but I'm sure it will happen some day. My husband and daughter despair of me when I can't help chatting to the checkout girl or the store assistants. I like to think I'm brightening up their day, but I'm probably not, am I?
That's where my characters probably come from, I think. People I've met throughout my life, stored in character soup in my subconscious - stirred and blended with other people, real and imaginary - seasoned with a healthy dose of irony, until they emerge near-fully-formed at the other end of the machine.
Or am I just weird?