One of my literary heroes, Flannery O’Connor said, “The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that does not require his attention.” I know that this is true. Observing, really paying attention to others, makes me a better writer.
How do I do this? These eight ways
- Be prepared. I should carry with me a notebook and pen at all times. Okay, my phone works too. If I’m going to do this write, I don’t want to miss anything.
- Practice. Last summer, I spent a lot of time hiking and writing alone in the woods. Now that winter is here, that’s harder to do, but I try to get out at least once a week for an Artist Date. At the very least, I sit for a half-hour and write about everything I see.
- Use my downtime. Back when waiting on my kids was a habit, I used it to watch people, focus on details of my surroundings, and wonder what that couple over there was really up to.
- 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!
- Speculate on the story of people based on their appearance. It’s fun to play 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 about the lack of a wedding ring? The weight problem? The limp? Even if I never make these ideas into a story, this mental exercise is still a win!
- Stretch a metaphor. While I am writing, I could choose a metaphor or 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.
- Exaggerate. Flannery O’Connor was a writer of many exaggerations. What if I could make what I see more grotesque? More pointed? More dramatic? More horrific? When I do that, perhaps the seeds of a story will start!
- Combine my notes with other things. Once I leave the setting and I should go back to my files at home and tuck these notes away safely. I can also revisit my files to see if they could enhance what I already have written.
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!