On being observant…

You’ll often see in books on the creative writing process to write what you know about. This is good advice – it’s how you can make feelings, actions, settings and thoughts real. But it’s limited … like if your character is not your own age doing things you might be doing.

How do you write about someone living in another time frame? Or harder still, writing from the viewpoint of a child living hundreds of years ago?

Lots of authors do it successfully – like Michael Bauer in his recent adventure novel, Dinosaur Knights where three children face a terrifying ‘dragon’ (really a dinosaur dropped accidentally into their time by scientists in the future). Michael has captured the children’s interaction with each other because he knows a lot about human behaviour, especially boys of a certain age. So he can place them in whatever time and place he chooses.

Another example is Felicity Pulman‘s Janna Mysteries set in Medieval England where Janna’s quest to find her father after her mother is murdered sets her on a dangerous, treacherous path. We empathise with Janna because she has human qualities that any young girl might have when facing extreme challenges … fear, grief, loyalty, courage, love, … whatever the era.

These books (and many others) work because their authors can feel and sense human reactions, both emotionally and physically. They’re probably very observant people, watching human behaviour with innocent but eagle eyes, listening with careful nonchalance to the conversations of strangers. Combine this practise with their creative imaginations and you have great stories we can all relate to.

It’s like having what’s called an ‘artist’s eye’ – that ability to see the negative spaces, the hues and tones of colour, recognising a perfect composition or design (even if it takes months to ‘get it right’ on canvas.) Like everything the more you practise the skill of observation, the better you get. It’s the same with writing. And you get to use your ears as well.

Have you ever deliberately eavesdropped in a cafe? Or at a party? It’s especially worthwhile if you are amongst strangers – then you know no back-stories.

Here’re some lines from conversations I’ve listened in on (surreptitiously) – a story in the waiting for each of them?

‘I’d rather go a size bigger than give up chocolate!’

‘I kid you not, Jackie reckoned they did it behind the bar – and nobody knew.’ (Unfortunately, the three girls  left then, so I missed the end of this conversation.)

‘You’ll never guess what was in the freezer – a pig’s head was staring out at me!’

‘Why was the gun in the ceiling?’

This last quote was the impetus behind my short story, The Gun.

If you want to read it it’s over in the Works-in-Progress page…..

PS I remember a gaggle of Aunties once telling me off with the words, ‘Little piggies have big ears!’  I must’ve been eavesdropping back then too.

12 thoughts on “On being observant…

  1. I love eavesdropping. Once I had a crossed line while talking to a relative, we both went quiet and listened to the conversation, then I recognised the voice. It was another relative that lived next door to the person I was speaking to. I didn’t realise that can happen on hands free phones. We never did reveal that we’d eavesdropped on that person, but it’s made me wary of using a hands free phone. You never know whose listening.

    I write children’s stories so I love to hear kids arguing so I can use their dialogue.


  2. Sometimes it’s just lovely to observe, when on a train, in a waiting room, or whatever and then see what they read, flick through, or just what they do with that time, lost. You can begin to imagine all sorts! Yes, even better when you can call it research, I agree. 🙂


  3. Now, that could be a male thing, Michael. I might have to agree with your wife – Ross never notices I’ve had a haircut even though it’s gone from ‘wild man of Borneo’ style to a Mia Farrow look.
    On the other hand, I do think you’re incredibly observant in human behaviour so keep doing it and we’ll read all about it.
    Btw, my eyes are blue-grey. 🙂


  4. The strange thing is Sheryl that my wife would probably fall down laughing if someone actually suggested that I was observant. She would probably opt for’vague’ as a more accurate description. She is constantly amazed at the things I don’t notice such as the colour of people eyes that I’ve known for years. Personally I think I’m ‘selectively observant’. Certain things interest me and stay with me, others don’t. Maybe that’s a writer’s trait? (Just don’t ask me the colour of your eyes!)


  5. Janeen, now that I’ve been to your beach I can see the image of you wandering along it as a little girl, drawn by those sights and sounds. 🙂


  6. I read this post a few days ago and I was going to say that eavesdropping has never helped my writing. Then I was on the train and this boy was chatting up a high school girl. It was so cute I couldn’t help but listen in 😉


  7. I can also remember when I was very little being chastised by Mum because I wandered off down the beach. I was entranced by the wonderful, incomprehensible musical sounds of a group of people. They were post-war Italians, newly arrived in Australia. Ah, the observers and listeners that we are!


  8. Great post! I’ve always had a natural inquisitiveness, which some over the years have had the nerve to name ‘nosey’ 🙂 I love to people watch and waggle my ears in the direction of random conversations. And as a writer I can now call it research!


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