Cathy and I were in Home Depot on Black Friday, looking at items for our front porch Christmas display, when an elderly woman with an empty shopping cart said to me, “I used to play Santa Claus.”

It was a dreary night, cold and damp, but there in Home Depot surrounded by the artificial trees with their bright white lights and the animated Santa that delighted children when it moved its head and spoke to them, and the good cheer beginning the holiday season, it was almost cozy.

Cathy and I were frustrated, though, because we’d spent the day decorating, only to discover that the small artificial tree we put on our front porch just wasn’t going to work this year which called into question the entire display. Don’t even ask me about the time I spent unwinding lights from the old pre-lit tree—trust me, it got personal—only to decide the best display spot for that particular tree was our trash can. We were out on Black Friday just looking, trying to get ideas.

Then that woman started telling us her story. She told us how she used to put on a Santa suit and visit hospitals handing out candy. “Oh, I loved doing that,” she said.

Cathy asked her why she stopped. “I got too skinny,” she said, “and I had to stuff pillows into my suit, and, well, now I’m eighty years-old, and. . . .” Her voice trailed off, and she looked into the distance, either recalling a past or staring into an uncertain future, or both, and she said, “I used to make my voice deep.” Then she demonstrated. “Ho, Ho, Ho,” she said.

We told her that was wonderful. We said, “Good for you.” Somewhere in our conversation there came a point where we wished her a happy holiday and went on with our browsing. A few minutes later, as we rounded the corner of an aisle, we found her telling another couple her story. “I used to play Santa,” she said.

We all have our stories. We carry with them with us wherever we go. Sometimes the pressure gets so great—the loneliness, the fear, the overwhelming love—that we can’t help ourselves; we have to tell someone.

The lesson for the writer is a simple one. What do your characters want to say, but can’t? How could you use that to either set a narrative into motion (what might happen if a character told their most secret story to someone?) or to form an ending moment of illumination (what plot pressures might bring someone to this point?).

So much of writing fiction is a game of what if. Trial and error. What if this happened? What if this character said this or did this? What if a lonely elderly woman told a story to strangers in Home Depot on Black Friday night? How might that story resonate through each character’s life? The old wounds, the memories, the parts of ourselves we leave behind, the uncertain futures we all face—they’re all the stuff of stories. I, for one, am thankful that this woman who used to play Santa Claus reminded me of that on a cold, damp night.