Craft,  Observation

How To Become An Expert Starer

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!

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.