Thursday, April 17, 2014

Observation: A Writer’s Tool

Writers have many tools at their disposal: computers, pens, notepads, the internet, reference books, and our imagination. One of the less spoken about tools is observation. As writers, we need to rely heavily on our ability to observe the world around us. This is so we’re able to inject realism into our writing. If we don’t, then we fall into the easy yet flat clichés, or we miss the mark entirely and lose the reader.

Nurturing our observational skills will open up our world, sharpen our minds, and inject honesty into our writing. When we start to pay attention to the details, our work begins to shine. For example, it becomes easier to show rather than tell our characters’ emotions when we have a clear understanding of the way those emotions can manifest.

I love this quote from Sean Patrick, the author of a short biography on Nikola Tesla: “The more material you’re exposed to in the world, the more grist you’ll have for your imagination mill.”

Observation feeds imagination. Imagination fires up our stories.

Observation is a skill like any other. It needs to be practiced. It requires slowing down, putting away distractions for a while, turning your focus outward. Hone in to all your senses, not just sight. Pay attention to random sounds, the scent on a breeze, the body language of a person walking by. Learn to listen to not only what is said, but everything that’s left unsaid.

While daydreaming is important to a writer, observation is crucial.

How do you practice observation?

Here at the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, we are taking part in the April A-Z Challenge. We are posting short writing tips Mondays to Saturdays corresponding to the letter of the alphabet. If you’d like to see the list of participants, click HERE.

The IWSG Facebook Group during the A-Z: If you are taking part in the A-Z Challenge and are a member of the IWSG Facebook group, then we'd love you to share your A-Z post for that day in the provided thread. We just ask you don’t link any A-Z posts outside the threads provided. Looking forward to seeing you there.

Lynda R Young


Nana Prah said...

It's one of the things I started doing when I became a writer. I'd pay closer attention to people and how they did things or reacted to situations. Wonderful and important post.
Nana Prah

Unknown said...

I'm not sure it's something I've ever done on purpose. When I was young, I was very shy but always found myself in social situations. It's easy to observe when you're too shy to speak. As I outgrew my shyness, I've always watched, listened, and studied more than I've interacted.

Unknown said...

I am trying to be more aware of the strangers around me when I am out and about. I now carry a little notebook in my bag to jot down tidbits of conversation, odd outfits, and intriguing mannerisms. Sometimes my notes don't make sense to me later, but some may be useful at some point.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Those more you are exposed to - that is a powerful statement. That's why I'm thankful I've lived and traveled to so many places.

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

Nana, it's a great habit to get into. Thanks heaps.

Frank, sounds like we were similar when we were young. I did the same.

Elizabeth, I'm never far from my notebook.

Alex, traveling is a great way to broaden experiences. I'm grateful I did the same.

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

This is a great post and a great reminder! Awhile back, I observed a child wearing a pig mask waving out the window of a car in the next lane. I made a note of the scene…and turned it into the story for my M post. :)

Madeline @ The Shellshank Redemption
Minion, Capt. Alex's Ninja Minion Army
The 2014 Blogging from A-Z Challenge

Anonymous said...

Hi Lynda!

One of my favorite places to hang out is the beach. Thankfully, it's a great place to people watch. Everything from kids playing to moms yelling. Birds flying and waves washing ashore. It's a treasure trove of observation.

Second to that - the mall. Except at Christmas time. Then, it's just a nightmare of people being at their worst…which I suppose could be good for observation but not something I enjoy seeing. Especially during that time of year.

Be well!

AJ's wHooligan in the A-Z Challenge

Christine Rains said...

I've always been a big people watcher. I love sitting back and watching the world, people or not!

Luanne G. Smith said...

I'm a people watcher too. I used to write up sketches of what I observed, taking note of their movements, what I thought was on their mind, etc.. I think most writers are deeply interested in psychology and the things that motivate people to do what they do.

Robin said...

This is an excellent reminder to get out there and try something new. Pick something that interests you and do it. Writers tend to bond like glue to their computers. If they aren't writing they are on social media or spending time with the family. And that is all good, BUT you are probably throwing your character into a NEW and UNCOMFORTABLE situation. It's a good idea to put yourself there so you can remember what it feels like.

Last night I went to a dance class all by myself for the first time. It was strange. So many of the people knew each other and any time ANYONE said anything to me I felt like I was being handed a life raft. And that is what NEW things feel like. I hadn't done anything new in so long I forgot.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I'm better at observing setting than observing people. Great post.

Fundy Blue said...

Great suggestions on observation as an important skill in the post and in the comments! Thanks everyone! I love people watching in an airport and at bars and restaurants. I always have my camera with me, and my photographs really jog my memory about so many things. I'm going to try the suggestion of a notebook too.

Nicki Elson said...

That is a great quote. Hmm, I've never really paid attention to how I observe. Whenever I realize that I'm doing it, I start feeling all weird about it, but now that I see it as grist...

J.L. Campbell said...

True that we learn much by observation. In public, wherever I sit, I tend to read, so I have to focus on what's happening around me.

Chrys Fey said...

The power of observation is great for writers. We have to be able to look at the world around us and see (as well as feel) everything, because not only do we need to write like that but also because there are limitless sources of inspiration out there in the world. :)

Michelle Wallace said...

People watching is wonderful... entertaining AND educational... what more could you ask for?
Remember - no stalking...
No gaping either... LOL

Donna Smith said...

In reading comments, Frank's and L.G.'s struck a note with me.
-Frank: "It's easy to observe when you're too shy to speak. As I outgrew my shyness, I've always watched, listened, and studied more than I've interacted."
-L.G.Smith: "I think most writers are deeply interested in psychology and the things that motivate people"

I have always watched and wondered instead of interacting. I didn't realize it until someone in high school asked me why I never said anything! Studied psychology in college, then teaching.
I could sit at an airport, train station, mall, or in a quiet spot for hours.
Donna Smith
The A-to-Z Challenge
Mainely Write

Michael Di Gesu said...

Hi, Lynda,

Observation is a SUPER IMPORTANT part of being a writer!

It is a skill we ALL most hone in order to create REALISTIC AND BELIEVABLE works for our readers!

Suze said...

'How do you practice observation?'

With my ears. When I overhear someone, typically a stranger, having a colorful conversation, my ears automatically perk up. I record cadence and humor liked a mixed tape. I'd do that even if I weren't a writer. It's a source of tremendous amusement. :)

Unknown said...

I love to people watch. It gives me hours of enjoyment.

Anonymous said...

Happy to find your blog on the 17th day of the #challenge. The deep satisfaction of writing, rewriting, finding a better word, seeing the snowflake drifting to the ground in the light of the street light, showing that moment, this is what I LOVE about being a writer. If you have time or interest, this month it is all about gardening and related topics. This too calls for observation.

Pat Hatt said...

I see many walks of life at work, one of the only good things about it, mostly

Victoria Marie Lees said...

Wonderful post, Lynda, as always. Observing the details around us is crucial to writing and creating realistic characters and a sense of place. I love to watch people while sitting on a park bench and observe nature all around me. Thanks again for a wonderful post. ~Victoria Marie Lees

L. Diane Wolfe said...

My favorite place to observe people is at baseball games. You get the oddest mix of humanity there. I spend more time people watching than I do game watching.

Joylene Nowell Butler said...

I love airports, mostly because I've spent a lot of time in them this winter. I still find coming up with original ways of showing who my characters are, by far the hardest part of the story. You know, the kind glare that can cement you to your seat. How to describe that look to a reader is still very tough for me. Great post, Lynda. So important.

SK Anthony said...

I've always been shy and quiet so being aware of my surroundings and other people comes naturally. I'm more into studying the smaller details now as opposed to the general view I might have. As you said, observation is crucial and I'm learning to focus on certain aspects I know would help me as a writer. Great post :D

Birgit said...

I observe people in the mall and when I am shopping. Any time I am out I find it fascinating how people walk, talk and go about their day

Unknown said...

Sea Patrick's quote is perfect. I often believe that it's better if writers sometimes don't get published until later in life. You need a lot of life experiences to deepen your work - and part of those comes from observing others. Great post!

G. B. Miller said...

I simply keep my eyes and ears open, which for me has led to having to having a couple short stories published as well as a novel.

A-Z Challenge at Father Nature's Corner

Unknown said...

Say, I did 'observations', too! :)

Staying quiet is the best way to observe.

Folks who talk a lot let a lot of things slip by without ever noticing them.

When you're quiet, you're able to watch.

I always notice the things no one else does. It takes practice-- like a meditation-- but I do believe we can learn to be more attentive.

Julie Flanders said...

I've always been quiet and more of an observer than a participant so I'm glad to have found something where this is beneficial. Another reason to love writing. :)

Bevimus said...

I love writer's exercises that challenge you describe a person without using their most obvious characteristics. Like describing a doctor without talking about the white coat and stethoscope. I think uses the other senses- smell, sound, touch, taste- gives a much richer experience.

Carol Riggs said...

Great points. I just realized recently that people in real life are often more interesting than the characters in my book. And that if I get stuck describing someone, I can think of someone in real life. People are SO varied! Fun. :)

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

Madeline, Ideas come from the strangest places, and if we're observant, then we'll never be short of ideas.

Elsie, Ha, the beach and the mall are my favourite places for people watching.

Christine, it shows in your writing :)

Luanne, yep, me too. It's why I'm never far from a notepad.

Robin, exactly right--and well said. And yes, it's so easy to forget.

Susan, interesting. It's good to know your strengths.

Fundy, I'm never far from my camera as well. With a notebook, you can capture what a photo can't too eg smell, sound, feel etc

Nicki, embrace the weird! :)

Joy, sometime it takes a conscious effort. But it's worth it.

Chrys, exactly right.

Michelle, hehe, no stalking or gaping... check. ;)

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

Donna, the quiet people are often gifted with the natural ability to observe.

Michael, and like anything, it takes practice.

Suze, it's why you are able to capture characters so skillfully.

Melanie, it is fun.

Stepheny, you captured the love of being a writer well.

Pat, gotta love the variety

Victoria, thanks so much

Diane, I've never been to a baseball game. I can imagine it would be awesome for people watching.

Joylene, airports are fascinating places.

SK, those small details make a world of difference.

Birgit, great places for people watching.

Lexa, I totally agree

GB, it really does make a difference.

Raquel, great minds :)

Julie, it might even be a part of why you're a writer

Beverly, exercises like those push us to go deeper

Carol, exactly, and there's nothing simple about anyone. We're all so complex.

Blue Grumpster said...

That's the first thing I teach my students, Lynda: to be aware of the difference between telling and showing characters’ emotions. Somehow it's always an eye-opener.

PK HREZO said...

So well said! I think that's why I spent my 20s traveling. I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I also felt like i needed to see and experience the world.
Funny tho, I find inspiration now in the oddest places--the everyday ones where all walks of life can be spotted. That's what gets my writer brain cranking!

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

Blue, it's funny how something so seemingly simple can be so difficult to grasp.

PK, ha, I did the same. I traveled to so many places just to broaden my experiences. And I totally agree. Inspiration can come from anywhere.

Tyrean Martinson said...

Observation is a great tool, and it can stir the imagination in new ways too.