The Sport of People Watching

(c) hotblack

(c) hotblack

Characters abound in everyday reality outside of the realm of fiction. One just has to know how to find them.  Human interaction floods everyday senses, and for most people, the experience passes without a thought. But not writers. Not writers. We feed off the essence of other humans, absorbing personalities, quirks, facial reactions, likes / dislikes, features, looks, clothing. Every day human beings taking shape and form in a writer’s mind to influence characters that reside in poems, stories, novels.

All authors should partake in the event of “people watching”. It’s a rather addicting sport once you start, and one that can be done at any time, anywhere in public.

There is very little equipment needed to partake in people watching. All one needs is their favorite writing tools:  Pen & notebook, tablet, laptop, smart phone, blood on your t-shirt… well maybe not that last one. Best to remain inconspicuous whilst people watching. The goal is NOT to draw attention.

How to people watch:

Essentially you have to become a wee bit “stalker-ish”.

  • Find a nice comfy place to sit,
  • Arrange yourself with your favorite writing tool,
  • Don’t draw attention to yourself,
  • Hone in on a subject,

And then take it all in:

  • Observe interactions with one another.
    • How are two people communicating? Are they laughing, arguing, staring romantically into each other’s eyes?
    • How does a large crowd of people act? Are they boisterous, jovial, fighting, or singing their hearts out?
    • How does a person on their own act? Is she tucked away in the corner, is he confidently out in the open, is she reading a book, is he staring at his smartphone?
  • Watch facial expressions.
    • What kind of look is the subject making?
    • What is causing them to react in such a way?
  • Pay attention to little movements, like brushing hair behind an ear or fiddling with a ring.
    • What is motivating those actions?
    • What kind of emotion does the person emit when they make these motions?
  • Listen to conversations.
    • What kind of conversation is it? Friendly chatter, romantic sayings, heated arguments?
    • How is each person handling their side?
    • What kind of reactions or little movements are the subjects making during the conversation?
  • Inhale and take in the scent of the atmosphere around you.
    • Is the smell of the location influencing your subjects, like in a coffee shop or bakery?
  • Feel the temperature of the location.
    • Is it too hot because there are too many people around?
    • Is it too cold because there are only a few?

What are the benefits?

There are too many benefits from people watching than I could possibly list, however, for the context of today, the main benefit is that people watching helps to develop characters and build scenes. It provides a catalyst of inspiration to those who may be struggling to get a character formed, or it provides enhancement for others who are trying to write a wider of characters. Scenery can also be fleshed out whilst observing people. Since an environment has an impact on how one is acting, pull some of that influence from the scene in reality to enhance a scene in your fiction, connecting that with how your character exists within that scene.

How often should this be done?

As often as need be. The thing is, once you become obsessed with the sport of people watching, you sometimes struggle to turn off the channel. You will soon catch yourself observing everything and anything around you. And it will all become embedded in your brain. Not only is people watching going to help you grow as an author, it is also going to help you grow as a person. You will learn to better analyze those around you.

So go forth and take in all that people watching has to offer.

Where are some of your favorite places to people watch? What are some of the most bizarre things that you have observed that influenced a character in your fiction?


Get Away From The Desk

Get Away From The Desk

Now just where did I leave my inspiration?

Writing’s a solitary profession. Writing’s an indoor sport. We’ve all heard this before and while it holds a grain of truth, there’s always two sides to a story.

Anyone serious about writing should be able to knock out a few words wherever they are and make use of all that dead time we find ourselves in on a daily basis. There are times when getting away from the desk is the best thing that can happen to us, the thing that gets those blocked noggins working again.

1. Coffee anyone?

NaNo may be over but that doesn’t mean you have to stop speaking to or meeting with your local NaNo group. Get your laptop/tablet/pen and paper and get yourself down to a local write in. Drink coffee (too much coffee) and watch that pen burn holes in the paper. Those new friends you made in November could be the ones that give your rear the necessary boot when you’re ready to throw in the towel.

2. Talking to oneself in the great outdoors

As I mentioned last week, you don’t need to be chained to a desk to write (“But I can’t write unless I’m surrounded by my collection of surgical samples stored in formaldehyde.” Quiet you!) or even have the use of your arms (“Guess where the samples come from?” I said quiet!). There are so many smart phone applications for voice memos around these days or you could always invest in a standalone device. Many of them even transcribe for you with pretty good results.

3. Take the notebook somewhere new

I’ve lost track of the number of times a simple change of scenery has helped me knock the words loose. So I urge you, grab your notebook or your laptop and explore your city/town. Go somewhere you’ve never been before, find a spot, and just start writing.

Where’s the strangest place you’ve ever written and how did you fare? Please share.

On Margaret Atwood and Writing Advice

We Have the Powah!In May of last year, I went to hear Margaret Atwood speak at a literary festival in Tallinn. As I stood in a line stretching far into the streets of Old Town and watched her settle into the spotlight via an outdoor screen set up for those who wouldn’t fit into the building, I clutched the book I’d brought for her to sign and waited, barely daring to hope I’d be fortunate enough to make the cut. Each time they opened the door, a few lucky ones managed to creep past the door wardens — and each time, I would count the people in front of me.

In the end, I was one of the lucky ones. I rushed up the steps with another girl and entered the room, my heart pounding, and though I was stationed somewhere in the back and could hardly see her, I could at least say I was there, in the same room. Probably the only time in my life I’ve been starstruck.

This past weekend I checked out an unauthorized biography on Margaret Atwood (the biographer had communicated with Atwood a couple times in the process of writing it, so it wasn’t necessarily unapproved). The biography humanized her, brought her down to the writer level I’m familiar with — an author who had to start somewhere, trying to balance the academic and creative writing life, confronting the challenges of taking an unconventional career path. An author who never gave up.

Ultimately, we can learn a lot by listening to successful writers. Or by watching them at work. So what I gleaned from my brief encounter with Margaret Atwood and her writing wisdom was this:

Place is powerful

One of the things that stood out to me — in both the talk she gave and the biography — was the discussion of place. And though I feel this is perhaps a topic for another day, I started thinking about why we write what we write and how place, being such an integral part of our identities — whether consciously or otherwise — constructs our narrative identities. And not just place as space, but place as culture and society and home. Margaret Atwood began writing and studying literature at a time when Canada didn’t have a national literature. She was pivotal in the movement to establish the Canadian literary landscape. It was and still is intrinsic to her writer identity, and you can feel it in her novels and the characters and their movement through these literary places. What, then, can we say about how places affect our own work and identities?

Writing what you know is good advice

From her biography, I learned that Atwood has based many of her stories on places she’s worked and people she’s known and, ultimately, on herself: her emotions and fears, her interpretation of social issues, her surroundings. Though characters inevitably take on their own lives and personalities and stories move in their own directions, Atwood’s literature is born from personal experience. For instance, her arguably feminist literary stance sprouted from difficulties she faced in a much more narrow-minded, sexist era. The places she has written about are places she has lived. (She herself has said it is essential to her that she know the setting.) Her own interests also prevail, time and time again: biology, environmentalism, bugs. Margaret Atwood has lived her experiences and written about them, and people pay her to read about them.

Having a good network of friends is essential

Atwood faced very different circumstances than I do now, but much of her success and creative drive was influenced, in part, by surrounding herself with creative people and maintaining her relationships with them. Many of her unique projects (which sell for quite the money these days) were collaborations with other creative types, and she went on to exercise her own creativity through the experiences — literary and otherwise — she shared with them. Additionally, she corresponded via letters with several friends who went on to give her genuine and fantastic feedback (detailed, honest, and ultimately essential to her work). I read some of the reviews she received regarding her novel drafts, and I was astounded by the intelligent attention they paid her work. It’s something we should all aim for in our writing groups.

In the end . . .

“If I waited for perfection… I would never write a word.”
—Margaret Atwood

After her talk, which focused on a range of topics from her latest work to modern feminism to the story she’s hidden away in Norway for the next 100 years, we got in line for the book signing. As I waited my turn, I wondered what I should say to her, if anything. What can you say to someone who has influenced you profoundly in a few mere seconds?

Writers meeting our favorite authors is often a dream come true. They have written words that have touched us, signed their names upon books that have spoken our own. Sometimes, we get lucky enough to listen to the exceptionally talented, as they sit gracefully in front of a huge crowd, and talk about their process, their ideas, their writing.

So when I did finally reach the small table and met her (very blue) gaze, I decided that perhaps my presence there spoke for itself. That her work, which I’ve read at various times in my life and for various reasons, had already spoken.

It still speaks to me.

And through me, even now, it’s reaching you.

Which authors have taught you something valuable or inspired your writing life? Let me know in the comments below!


Maximising Your Word Count

Maximising Your Word Count

There’s old school, then there’s old school.

It’s the start of another year and the Muses have already started asking me about my ‘resolutions’ (same as last year really, make it to 2017 with everything intact) but it did get me to thinking. Over the festive period, I’d seen an article or two making the rounds with the daily word counts of famous (and infamous) authors and there are some pretty phenomenal numbers on those list. Whilst I acknowledge that most, if not all, were full-time writers, it made me consider my own productivity and how to maximise my writing time.

Technology has come in leaps and bounds over the last decade. We’ve never been more connected than we are now and I’m sure many of us received a welcome gift of a tablet, smartphone, or something else with flashing lights and buttons. All this technology provides us writers with so much more than the ability to stream funny cat memes directly to our armchairs and, to paraphrase the Webbed Wonder, with great tech comes great opportunities.

So, I hear you cry, how will my phone/tablet/smart TV make me a better writer?

1. Dead Time

There’s nothing worse than waiting. All that dead time lost standing in line, sitting in waiting rooms, waiting for your significant other to just try on one last item of clothing. Use that dead time to boost your word count. Write using your phone or tablet’s built-in keyboard, write on the back of your hand if you have to. At worse, you’ll look like everyone else playing Candy Crush.

2. Commutes and Car Rides

A tablet/phone and a word processing/note taking application are perfect for jotting down all your thoughts on those long, dreary commutes. Throw in a Bluetooth keyboard and you’re typing at your normal pace. Most of these keyboards are small enough to fit in your bag and many integrate into the tablet/phone’s case.

3. Go Hands Free

Audio recorders and voice reminder applications are exceptionally useful when your hands are being kept busy by other things. Many of them come bundled with transcription software which, while not 100%, is pretty accurate on the fly.

4. Old School

For the technologically-challenged among us or those who simply prefer to kick it up old school, you too can maximise productivity by keeping a pocket notebook and pen secreted about your person for just such an occasion.

P.S. I lied about the Smart TV. The only way that’ll help is by switching off Netflix.

How do you sneak in those extra few words? Answers in the comments.