Monday, February 13, 2012

People Watching

I recently traveled, via train.  It was a 5 1/2 train ride, sitting in the window seat with little space to get up and move unless I wanted to make the lady next to me stand up and let me pass.  Needless to say, I spent the large majority of that time in my seat.

When napping was done, writing impossible (motion sickness, who knew?), and reading the only temptation on the horizon, I decided to try something I hadn't done in some time: People watch.

Don't close the window and run away.  I am not a stalker.  I swear.

People watching is actually a very affective way to improve on your writing.  One of the biggest trials of a writer is to create characters that actually seem real.  Three dimensional.  We can only pull so much out of our own brains.  And where do we get the rest to create that fully rounded, jumping off the page character?  From the people around us, of course.

Whether it is stealing character traits from friends and family, or literally sitting on a train observing your fellow passengers for hours, people watching gives you that final oomph to write with.  You can learn different kinds of lingo.  Conversations.  Nervous twitches and facial expressions.  It is a great exercise, and great information gathering technique, that everyone should try.

Here are a few of my so far learned People Watching tips:
  • Never, never stare.  Oh goodness no.  Unless you truly do want to be labeled as the strange stalker one seat over and have security called on your unblinking eyes, never stare.  It is like watching a chimp in the wild: be incognito.  Practice that peripheal vision, quick glances, and sharpen those ears.  But never, never stare.
  • Don't be picky.  You can't wander from seat to seat, bench to bench, trying in vain to find the perfect watchee.  That isn't the point of this exercise.  Stop at the first person, and "watch."  Even if all they are doing is picking food from their teeth, you have something there!
  • Move on.  Don't stay in one place for too long.  Get your snippets, your observations, your unfinished stories.  Then find a new one.  You are collecting your arsenal, not writing War and Peace.  Besides, staying for too long may place you right back into that stalker situation you want to avoid.
  • Have I mentioned to never stare?
  • Note it all.  Have along a notebook, laptop, cell phone... something.  Don't worry about writing every thought word per word.  Just jot down the key observations and you can fill in the rest when you are out of stalker range.  Don't fool yourself into thinking you will just remember it all.  Jot that watching down!
  • Pick a new place every time.  Different people, different stories, revolve around all different kinds of places.  Don't go to the exact same spot every time.  Train, library, Starbucks, park, family gathering, wedding... the choices abound!
  • Enjoy it.  Come on, you are people watching.  Don't take this too serious.  It is just an exercise, an information gathering experience, a writer showing off their true stalking colors.  Above all, remember that. (And don't stare...)

Here are two of my people watches from my recent train ride:
A woman, with her husband and son.  Sitting with them is some other man, another passenger.  The husband and son don't talk much.  But the woman... she and the man passenger talk away nonstop about Jesus.  They swap their stories of redemption.  Woes of sin.  They wonder how a 17 year old can dare give a promise ring when they don't even know themself yet, or Jesus for that matter.  The woman remembers a past relationship where she cannot recall the name of her beau, but can remember his little girl Anna and how she was the one to teach Anna about Jesus.  After some time, the conversation peters out.  They sigh.  Chuckle uncomfortably.  Shift in seats and cough.  Before long, they are silent.  Did they share too many God experiences in one sitting?  Maybe those were the only experiences they had to share?

She doesn't talk.  Doesn't even stand to pace the train or get food.  Just sits there, ear bugs in, Kindle out, reading the entire ride.  Sometimes she sighs.  Bored?  Tired?  Hours pass and I finally hear her mutter "Well, this isn't very exciting."  Is she talking about the book?  The train ride?  Some song playing in her ear?  Another sigh, and she puts away the Kindle.  Out comes a worn paperback, a title I know and love well.  And she is gone once again, reading in her silence.

And here is my challenge to you: 
This week, at some point, people watch.  Even if it is just a sentence you jot down in passing, do it.  You never know what you might get.  And don't forget to share!

Happy Writing!


Trisha said...

People watching is so fun (yes, I'm a stalker too! hehehe). I've started a fair few stories because of watched people. Or even watched objects (a car that had clearly been stolen in the carpark where I park each day became a murder mystery novella).

Live, Love, Laugh, Write! said...

I love people watching! I didn't have a chance to write down some of my most recent though :( My fingers were itching but I didn't have a notebook, and then I just got busy and never jotted it down. Hmmm...I might make some notes on that today...


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