Posts Tagged ‘observation’

I heard the girls’ chirping laughs from across the atrium. They sounded like happy birds, echolocating in the grand space, and when I saw them, I could tell it was “Princess Day.”

They bounced along on their bendy, four-year old legs, dressed in pink and lilac and yellow and green. They wore leotards and leggings and big romantic tutus. On their heads were tiaras, pinned in their ponytailed hair, and on their feet were sneakers, their only concession to practicality.

They squealed and giggled, as only little girls do. Their guardian/pack-mule Dad followed along, dutifully observant, consciously laissez-faire. They buzzed around him like a time-lapse movie, his measured steps surrounded by streaks of pastel hues and tulle.

When they saw the fountain, their cries hit that dog-whistle range at 100dB, making every adult wince and smile at the same time. The fountain was surrounded by a shallow pool with pennies decorating its watered tiles.

One of the girls thumped purposefully down onto her butt and, with her tongue sticking out the side of her mouth and a look of decision on her face, she grabbed one of her shoes in both hands and began to tug. Her friend did likewise.

Dad, divining their intent, started juggling coats and bags so he could move in to stop the inevitable.

I turned and continued on my way, not wanting to know if they made it or not, not wanting to lose that mental picture of pure determination to have fun.

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20120729-075810.jpgFor me, the most powerful tool in a writer’s toolbox is the power of observation. It not only helps me create believable characters, it also gives me the ability to fill my worlds with believable detail. Some examples…

I was in the office when the wind-up clock stopped. It didn’t go tick-tock—tick—-tock, slowing as it reached the end of its wind, but just went tick-tock-tick-tock—-, ending suddenly and abruptly like some metronomic cardiac arrest. Odd.

My stomach growled at me this morning, and it sounded for all the world like it said, “Hello, Chuckles.” My guts have never spoken to me so explicitly before, but I’m glad we’re on such friendly terms; that hasn’t always been the case.

For her 60th birthday, I gave my sister a vintage electric clock from the ’40s. It didn’t tick like a mechanical clock but hummed as it worked the sweep second hand around the dial. My sister liked this especially, as it matched her feeling of time as a continuum. I prefer the mechanical heartbeat of a tick-tock clock, as I like to think of time having a constant, measured passage.

These details of life and character are just the sort of things that inform my writing, providing snippets of description or personality. Observation is such a critical skill that it has actually become a pasttime for us.

We can play this game anywhere–at a restaurant, waiting at a stop light, anywhere–just by looking around at the people around us. (Coffee shops are perfect for this game.) I’ll pick someone or she might pick a couple, and we’ll start building backstories for them, weaving a tale of why they are there, what they’re doing, and what they are feeling. These aren’t just wild imaginings, though; we base our story on the subject’s dress, movement, and behavior. Couple on their third date? Construction worker doing the shopping for a sick wife? Woman contemplating divorce?

The key to the game is that the stories must be believable, and must tie into the person we observe. While my wife enjoys the game simply for the mental exercise, I find that it hones my skills and heightens my awareness. If you aren’t aware, you cannot observe, and if you aren’t observant, then you’re creating characters and descriptions in a vacuum.

Characters have to be believable, consistent, and comprehensible to the reader, even if the setting is as alien as a moon or the 9th century. In all the historical research and reading of memoirs I have done in preparation for my novels, the one thing I have learned is that we, as people, have not changed much. The world surrounding us has transformed, technologies have changed, but human behavior remains remarkably consistent.

So keep your eyes and ears open. Stay frosty. Inspiration may be standing ahead of you in the checkout line.


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