Authors don’t watch people the same way normal people do

I just spent a weekend on the Texas Gulf Coast enjoying my first-ever “girlfriends’ getaway.” On Saturday night, we ate a lovely dinner then decided to find someplace to enjoy music and a couple of cocktails. After a few stops worthy of a Buster Keaton movie we stumbled on Dean, a Jimmy Buffet-style singer at Rusty’s Tropical Bar & Grill. Both Dean and Rusty, the owner, spent a good part of the evening chatting with us. I still have some of their funnier lines running through my head.

A couple hours later my friends and I piled in the truck ready to head home when the sound of rock music floated our way. We followed it and found ourselves at a decidedly non-upscale bar, but it was hopping and free to enter. Curiosity won out, especially when the gate-guard let us in the back way instead of making us circle the block to the front door.

I’d agreed to be the designated driver, so while the other women ordered drinks, I asked for a club soda. I perched on a table and people-watched while everyone else enjoyed dancing. (Figured my knee wouldn’t take it anyway, and I was happy with the people-watching experience.) The place was an amazing mishmash of humanity: members of a biker gang, gay men, cowboys, computer nerds, barely-legal twerkers, new moms out on a rare break, a very wealthy-looking woman, elderly men and women, and, of course, us four all decked out in our fancy restaurant clothes and high heels.

My friends were worried that I was bored, but that couldn’t have been further from the truth. As a writer, I was fascinated. I’d have made notes if I thought I could get away with it. Non-writers might have laughed at some things and shrugged at others, but I was mesmerized and constantly thinking, “That outfit/comment/dance move/behavior/jargon would work great in a novel.”

Based on my non-official survey, every writer does this. It doesn’t just happen in a bar, either. Everywhere is fair game. Most of the best character-inspiration opportunities are places where people gather for more than a few minutes: coffee shops, shopping malls, sporting events, and especially, bars. Take a healthy slice of humanity in all its flavors, mix in alcohol and loud beat-filled music, and you have created a writer’s dream. It certainly was mine.

Just a few of the snippets I observed and which you’ll likely see in a future novel.

• A quite large, middle-aged woman leaned against a table. Every time a male (no matter the age) walked up, she hiked her dress to her hoohah. Some men leaned in while others scurried away. I never heard her speak to any of them.

• A self-proclaimed oncologist who smoked and told anyone within earshot that he was taking a weekend break to work on his thirty-eight foot “fixer upper” yacht.

• A young woman whose full-body-contact twerking (while wearing a cropped top and tiny shorts) probably caused more than one young man to experience too much “joy” on the dance floor.

• An elderly couple in tailored clothes who were doing their best to bounce and bop to music they couldn’t have imagined even calling music in their youth.

• A middle-aged couple who danced the fox trot to the ear-splitting, throbbing sounds of the rock band.

• A snuggling gay couple sitting at a table next to a group of a dozen or so large, furry men in leather pants and vests, with their particular gang affiliation emblazoned on more than one article of clothing. They seemed to co-exist in a detente of mutually ignoring each other.

• A bored Constable with an impressive beer belly doing his best to keep an eye on everyone. He finally escorted two underage girls off the premises, after he overheard them trying to get drinks with no ID because they “left it in the car.”

• A computer geek, complete with baggy khaki shorts, button down short sleeve shirt, sandals with socks, and black-framed glasses complete with safety strap around the back of his neck.

• A solitary woman in a designer dress walking around carrying an actual glass martini glass, instead of a little plastic cup like everyone else.

MeerkatsI could go on – the evening was a visual feast for a writer. I probably had a better time watching than I’d have had dancing along with everyone else. I’m not sure I could go someplace like that and NOT spend my time in observation mode. Of course, everyone looks at other people; it’s human nature. I believe what makes it so different for writers is that we elevate it to a religious experience. We’re like meerkats – we notice everything. We run it through our minds. We analyze and dissect. We imagine how we’d word it in a novel. We wonder what we’d name the character, or if we should change an existing character to have that trait or behavior. We create a whole life story for why the person is doing or saying what we are observing. All of this happens instantaneously, and it happens every time something new catches our eye. And we end up using almost all of it, at some point, in our writing.

As I said in last week’s blog (Why characters’ lives don’t imitate real life), Mariana Morgan, my private investigator in The Case of a Cold Trail and a Hot Musket, memorizes license plates by creating clever phrases from their letters. This was actually a personal habit I gleaned from a co-worker in her early twenties, so she always knew which bosses were at work earlier than her by checking for their license plates in the parking lot. (It was such a successful trait in real life I started doing it myself.) Other characters in my novels have included aspects I’ve observed from family, friends, additional co-workers, and most definitely from random strangers.

Good writers know that, for characters to really come to life in a novel, they have to feel real to the reader. One successful way to do this is to weave real-life people’s quirks into our characters. It isn’t always easy to make it seamless and appropriate in the story and plot, but it’s usually rewarding and fun to do. So if you see me staring at you in public don’t worry, I’m just deciding whether that funky habit you have will become part of a good guy or a bad guy!

What’s the funniest or quirkiest trait you’ve ever observed from someone you’ve watched in a public place? Please share!


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