Sunday, July 22, 2012

Watch Me Work

            Any writer I’ve ever known loves to watch people.  I love to talk to people, engage with them and discover their story.  Sometimes as writers we look for the stories.  Other times, they fall into our laps. 
            My husband and I were the only two people in a bar last night.  I spoke to a 22 year-old bartender, whose father died of cancer five years before.  She told me she was leaving our small town to move to a nearby state. She remained very upbeat throughout the conversation, looking me in the eye as we talked.  But when she started talking about her father, who I knew as well, I noticed something.  She started stocking the fridge even though it was just before closing and she could hardly fit another bottle of beer on the shelf.  When our bartender finished that, she started scrubbing the counter around me even though there wasn’t a mark on it. 
            I tried to change the conversation since it seemed to upset her but she brought it back to him.  She stopped what she was doing and leaned in.  A friend of her father’s had visited the bar one night and cried while talking about him.  She told me this was what she couldn’t take and why she couldn’t stay.
            Everything reminded her of him.  Everyone telling her how much they loved her father, how much they missed him, how much she looks like him, and what a great guy he was.   She stopped for a moment and looked off into the distance. 
            “I just can’t take it any more,” she said in a half-whisper. 
            Though she didn’t say and may not even know it, I realized that she needed to get away to heal.  Her father’s death was a constant open wound.  She didn’t tell me this.  But this is what I understood from her words and body language.
            The same thing happens to us in our writing. Or, at least it should.  We as writers should be able to convey this through writer observation.  If I were writing this scene, the bartender shouldn't tell the patron, “See, I have to get away because I need to psychically heal in order to return to the world I’ve always known.”  The subtext should come to the reader naturally and not be spoon-fed to them, the same way this information comes to us in our daily lives.
            I keep thinking about our conversation.   It affected me.  I hope it turns out well for her.  If she were a book, I would keep turning the pages to find out how it all turns out.  This is the type of book I want to write. 
            Let me know how what you observe plays into your writing.  What kinds of things have you observed that have helped you in your writing?


  1. Superb post, Lisa!

    In high school, I had a teacher that required we turn in five "observations" per week. We had to observe a stranger and write a paragraph describing her, but most importantly, one that described her body language and what it said.

    Lately, I've been thinking I ought to get back to that, especially since all my minor charactersron my latest WIP read like cardboard.

    Thanks for reminding me how powerful this technique can be!

    And as an aside, I hope your young friend does find the healing she needs.

  2. In college I took a theater course and one of the teachers described how you can create a character on stage with how that person walks. Think Columbo - who was a quirky detective and made every movement start from his head. He walked leaning forward, he had that hat, he always made gestures from his forehead out. Signaled he was a brainy kind of guy.

    Since that class, I've always watched how people walk and tried to guess what the person's underlying essence is. Do they lead with the chest, the belly, the groin, the knees? Is their stride loose? Their posture upright? Do their clothes fit? Are they putting this best for forward or are they trying to disappear in plain sight?

    Fascinating stuff.

  3. Thank you, Nichole! That's a great thing for a teacher to have their students do. Not just for writing but for life as well. Might be a good exercise to do - pretend you're watching your character at a coffee shop, making dinner, etc. Let me ponder that... :)

    PS - I hope she does, too.

  4. Yes, it really is fascinating. I've always been really interested in body language. It's amazing how a person can be saying one thing but their body can be saying just the opposite.

    I like the exercise about how people walk. I'm fascinated by what people's movements reveal about them. We were at the pool the other night and my husband, who is in the medical field, told me that one of the men there had had a stroke or some sort of neuro damage. He said that the man picked one leg up high because he couldn't flex his foot when he took a step. He does this a lot - observe someone doing something and then tell me later what physical issue they have. His brother and he were having a conversation one time and he asked him "How long has your neck been stiff?" His brother was really taken back and said "How do you know that?" He said "Because you turn your shoulders to look to the side."

    What you're describing is like another version of this. I like how you said that Columbo leads with his head, touches his forehead, etc. Thanks for your comment!

  5. Hi Lisa,

    Thanks for the really thoughtful and very moving post. Back when I worked in DC, I rode the metro every day and often I'd see the same people a few times a week.

    Being observant (or nosey) I noted who was always chipper, who looked down, who looked angry. I used to play the "what if" game and spin off thrillers and mysteries where there was none. Later I mined these moments for their gold and, like you so wisely pointed out, made them a part of my writer's tool box.

    Thanks for reminding me of how satisfying and important it is to my craft to observe and play "what if."


  6. Oh, this is all great stuff for showing instead of telling in our fiction, Lisa. Loved what you said about subtext coming to the reader naturally and not being spoon fed.

    Keely, loved your Columbo example!

  7. Thanks for sharing this story with us, Lisa. What a great visual of the stories all around us every day. I find myself constantly inspired by the real people and events all around me. I get bits and pieces from here and there and find I cobble them together to craft a tale I'd want to experience. Almost always with the required HEA.

  8. Shellie, thank you for your comment. The metro is a great place to watch people. It's such a microcosm of the world in general. I know what you mean about seeing the same people every day. It's funny that you can travel the same paths each day and get to know someone even without being introduced.

  9. Evie, thank you for your comment. I love that Columbo example, too! Might be something fun The Eight could spend some time on one meeting - coming up with TV characters and how they manifest who they are through their body language.

  10. Candy, thank you for your comment. That's a good point about cobbling together pieces of your life experience. This definitely makes a richer book.

    Have a great time at the RWA conference! We all miss you. :)