#MondayBlogs,  Observation

Top 10 Ways To Equip Myself To Be An Expert Starer by Katharine Grubb, 10 Minute Novelist

Oh, how I love Flannery O’Connor for about ten gazillion reasons.


When one of my literary heroes says it’s okay to stare, you better believe I’m going to do what she says.

But in my staring,  I need to be equipped. I need to have the right tools. I need to know what I’m doing. I need to know why observing people makes me a better writer.

Today I’d like to present Top 10 Ways To Equip Myself To Be An Expert Starer

Top 10 Ways To Equip Yourself To Be An Expert Starer by Katharine Grubb, 10 Minute Novelist

1. I should have something with me at all times on which to take notes. If not the Evernote app on my smart phone, then a real life notebook and paper. Evernote is good for documenting and putting things in the correct file AND I can sync my phone notes with my iPad and my laptop. But then the kinesthetic experience of writing with an actual pen is therapeutic and calming and feels a little more artistic.

2. I should use my camera on my phone (at least if I’m discreet). Once when I was in Chicago O’Hare’s airport, I saw a woman who looked exactly like Michael Jackson. Everything in me wanted to take a photo and put it on Facebook, (oh, you pesky ethics!!!)  but instead I just wrote down detailed notes about her black suit, pointy boots, ghostly pale complexion, blunt black bangs and vibrant lipstick. This took place in 2013 and I can still picture her!

3.  I should have a regular observation time. Part of the mom’s job description is to wait on kids. Since I know I have to be at soccer practice at a certain time every week, I should devote some of that waiting time to observing the people around me. You’ve got waiting time too. Use it to stare!

4. I should tune into my senses. The five senses should be my first step in observation of anything. What do I see? Hear? Smell? Taste? Feel? I should go into as much detail as possible in my notes and if I go off on a tangent, all the better!

5. I should speculate on the story of people based on their appearance. I was dying to know what the Michael Jackson look-alike was up to. In your observation notes, play junior Sherlock Holmes and deduce a little. That scar? Was that a childhood injury or the battering from a spouse? Those shoes? Are they worn because the wearer only has two pair? What story could be told by the lack of a wedding ring? The weight problem? The limp? If I make the most of my staring, I use my speculation to fuel my imagination and even if I never make it into a story, this mental exercise is still a win!

6. I should throw in some metaphor and simile to describe what I see. He was as big as an ox. It’s okay to start with the expected, but I should stretch my mind and compare the people I’m watching to other things or ideas. She was as creepy as a mysteriously androgynous dead pop star. 

7. I should exaggerate. Maybe there was a logical reason why this woman looked so much like MJ. But maybe she suffered from a mental illness and was obsessed with the King of Pop and this flight out of Chicago was the first leg of her journey to Neverland where she would try to reunite with Michael’s chimpanzee and have dinner with Tito. That’s the making of a story! I should totally write any ridiculous ideas down when I stare!

8. I should be honest with myself about what caused me to stare. Sometimes I catch myself being so wrapped up in the voyeur aspect of people watching, that I reduce these people to objects. That’s not cool. I need to treat them with dignity (which is why I never took a photo) and even if I find something in this moment that is story worthy, I need to always remember that the half -naked redneck at Wal-Mart probably has feelings too. It’s one thing to use others as inspiration. It’s quite another to mock them.

9. I should not whisper. If I’m with someone else, then I need to restrain from talking about the weird people around me. Even if they don’t overhear me, it doesn’t help my reputation if I’m known to be critical of others. I should save these observations for the privacy of my own creative time.

10. I should combine my notes with other things. Once I leave the setting and I’ve kept my notes safe, I should go back to my files at home. I should tuck these notes away safely or thumb through other ideas and see if this today’s observation will enhance anything.

Good observers are good writers. With practice, your observation skills can enhance your prose and make your characters and your stories richer.

So go ahead, stare!

Katharine Grubb is an author, poet, homeschooling mother, camping enthusiast, bread-baker, and believer in working in small increments of time. She leads 10 Minute Novelists, an international Facebook group of time-crunched writers. She lives with her family in Massachusetts.