An Observation on Observation


There is an image that makes the rounds on Facebook, specifically in groups geared towards writers. The wording may vary, but the general message is this: Warning: Anything You Say or Do May End Up in My Next Novel.

How true.

As writers, we understand that Our Next Novel is all around us. Every action we notice, every conversation we overhear, it’s all inspiration. It’s our duty as writers to pay attention to the world, to pick out the bits and pieces of our next story.

Observation is the writer’s most powerful tool. A college degree won’t teach you the truth of the human condition. The best laptop money can buy won’t create a compelling story for you.  At the root of it all, beyond the ability to formulate a coherent sentence, beyond the punctuation, the grammar, the outlines, the conferences, the classes, the most important weapons in your writing arsenal are your five senses.

As neurotic as I am, as critical of my own writing as I can be, I know my greatest strength: I observe. I make mental notes. Every conversation I have is automatically scoured for useful material. If you utter a funny comment within earshot of me, you will become a random notation in my “For Future Use” notes. The way you toss hair or push your glasses higher on your nose is logged somewhere in the recesses of my mind.

There is something fulfilling about the opportunity to turn observation into inspiration. When writing my first novel, I struggled a bit with the image I held of my main character, an ordinary schlub named Drew. I knew who I intended him to be, but I didn’t feel connected. Being a bit of a nomad who will hop in my car and drive when I need to clear my brain, I once ended up in Mystic, Connecticut. I sat on a dock and watched the boats for a while, and zeroed in on a man in a flannel shirt, working on a small vessel. He was cleaning and organizing, completely oblivious to the fact that, after about fifteen minutes, I decided he was Drew.

I have no real idea what made this man attractive to my writer’s mind. My Drew wouldn’t know what to do with a boat if he saw one. But these two people, one real, one fictional, are the same person in my mind now. When I refocused on the character development, everything I needed Drew to be fell into place, all because of a stranger in a small town.

So much of my life invades my writing. My father’s coin collection exists in Daddy’s Girl. If you ever find a quirky old woman in my novels, chances are good they will say something weird my mother has blurted out at one time or another.

In my random observational notes, I have an entry I simply must address someday. I will not rest until I find a way to insert the situation into a novel.  It says, “Man at gym today working out on treadmill in a business suit. Why??”

The world presents the writer with stories every day, every second. Our job is capture those amazing stories before they disappear into the ether.

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One Response to An Observation on Observation

  1. It amazes how much is stored in the recesses of my mind. I love it when something surfaces from that storage when I need it. I, also, take notes. When my mother was in the nursing home, I started writing down things the residents would say. Some are hilarious, and I’m sure they will appear in a story some day.

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