People Watching – another valuable resource for writers

Okay, we need to get this straight before we go any further, this is not about voyeurism, stalking, intrusive surveillance or anything like that. It is about watching people doing everyday things and how this can help you in your writing.

Now that is out of the way, let us get down to business.

People watching is one of my favourite past-times. Whatever the situation, there will be people about and observing how the act and interact around one another is very insightful.

For example, in the UK version of Dragons Den, I can tell when one of the Dragons is going to make an offer to the innovator. She sits very quietly, listening to others and their questions for the innovator and puts her left elbow on her chair, raising her hand to head height. She then rotates her hand with one finger raised. She does this very slowly, but when the time is right, she says “okay, I am going to make you an offer…..”

It is an unmistakeable trait about her and shows an action is about to occur.

When in public places, say restaurants, it is fascinating to watch people. When I met my wife and we had the famous date/non date is this a date? date, (and that is a tale worth hearing I can tell you) there was a retired couple opposite us and it was incredible. The woman was sat at an angle to the chair and just kept on talking. She talked and talked and talked, not paying any attention to her husband, anyone nearby, anything or anyone. All she was doing was talking about her day. The husband, now he was turned facing a different direction, looking over the balcony at anything and everything that was not the woman in front of him.

It was blatantly apparent that the spark had left their marriage decades ago. This is a fantastic example of a good resource for a writer, watching how these people acted, or not, in the presence of their spouses.

When walking down the street, I watch how couple walk together. Are they a new couple? Have they been together for a while, a long time, what is it? They give away tell-tale signs that as a writer can be used to bring life and reality to your characters and their actions. If they have just met and were in a new physical relationship, there would be a spring go their step, they would probably be holding hands, always turning to look at each other, touching and hugging, laughing a lot at silly things that had some meaning to them only.

If, like the couple at the restaurant their spark had gone, they were obviously behaving in a different way. I am not saying that all couples who have been together for a long time have no spark, but watching them told me a great deal about their particular relationship.

A person may behave completely differently in the presence of their parents than they do with their children. Their “status” is different and they may have different values between the older and younger generations. Again, watching how these interactions work can be used to bring reality and creativity to your writing.

I spent a lot of time in my former career as a geologist dealing with people from as varied backgrounds as the man with the pick and shovel, to the director or client who wants to know the answers to big, significant questions about the project. By being able to understand how they think and what they want (i.e. what is their agenda, which will be different) you can gauge how to respond. How these different people act, what drives them and so on is all given away in their mannerisms and the way as well as the word they use.

So, when out and about, and lets face it, even writers have to leave the comfort of the computer, desk or chair sometimes, keep an open mind and pay attention to people, it will pay dividends when writing and describing people, settings and particularly, conflict.

My last example is one that you may wish to put me in the “he is being cruel” category. Let me explain. Often, in my former job, I would have to go to construction sites and check things out. Make sure work is being done how I want it and so on. So, I always had a notebook with me to record things in. I may well need to write reports and letters based on my observations later on, so I had to record the facts correctly. Occasionally, I would be watching someone do some work, whether manual work or using machines etc (excavators, piling rigs, whatever). I would stand and watch the work being done and with a slight shake of the head, I would get my notebook out and write something down, making sure the operator or workman saw me do it.

You will be amazed at the change in attitude of the workers when they saw this. Most of the time I was just making a shopping list or notes on what to have for dinner, but the reaction that the workers had was very different. Like I said, you may think me cruel, but it is great material for your writing.

Always have that notebook with you, and make sure that pen is loaded and you are ready to use it at a moment s notice.

Keep writing, for you know you have to………

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About purpleandrew

Andrew, recently diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome is a 53 year old former geologist always had short hair, suited & booted for work. That all changed when the credit crunch hit. Now a complimentary therapist, hospital radio presenter, and writer. Andrew writes crime thrillers, Young Adult, and fantasy books as well as blogging about writing and other stuff that he feels strongly about.
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4 Responses to People Watching – another valuable resource for writers

  1. people-watching can be extremely interesting. like you said, it’s not stalking. it’s just watching passersby from a cafe table as they walk by the front window. You can turn them into characters and assign them personalities based upon how they’re dressed and how they move and what they’re carrying. Superficial? Sure. But you’re not judging the actual person or saying the person is this way. You’re FICTIONALIZING the person.
    Fantastic post!

  2. When I was studying Dramatic Arts people watching was a regular assignment. Characterization is a process, and I feel my training as an actor – seeking out the motivation for acts and the details in behavior – has been hugely valuable to me when developing my characters. I even witnessed a live drug bust one day: I was sitting in MacArthur Park (between 6th Street and Wiltshire Blvd) I was living in downtown LA at the time and there was a plethora of colorful individuals to watch. I was sitting on a picnic table, sketch pad in hand, when suddenly two patrol cars came driving over the grass from opposite directions. What was far more fascinating than the main event was the reactions of all the other onlookers in the park. It would have been impossible to dream up such an oddball assortment of detail in a scene like that had I not scene it with my own eyes. Truth IS stranger than fiction!

  3. purpleandrew says:

    an amazing experience, that you for sharing it and liking my blog!

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