Powers of Observation

Well, hello there, peeps!

I hope your holidays were wonderful and that you had some fun and got some rest. As you know, I was outta control over at Women and Words with our giant 12-day giveaway we call the Hootenanny. And things get CRAY CRAY over there. This year we also did a concurrent Rafflecopter giveaway that included a couple of Kindle Fires and…well, it was insane and fun but kind of exhausting.

At any rate, let’s get back to work!

Today I wanted to talk about observation. I bring this up because a huge part of writing is (or should be) observation. Think about it. How your characters speak and act. The quirks they have. Their surroundings. The settings of your stories. And, going a bit meta, the things your characters actually observe during the course of your plot, how they filter it, how they relate it to others.

So let’s chat further about this.

The other day I watched a documentary on Netflix on Camp X, the spy-training school in Toronto started by Churchill and Roosevelt because the U.S. basically had no spy service. This was the origin of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services; the precursor to the CIA). Camp X was the first spy school in North America.

I bring this up because one of the guys who was trained there who is still alive (or at least he was when this was filmed) talked about his first day of classes. The reenactment had him and a bunch of guys (all guys then) sitting in the classroom getting ready for what they thought was going to be a lecture when the door of the classroom burst open and a guy ran in pursued by two other men brandishing pistols. All three ran out the back. The students sat at their desks, stunned. Then the instructor handed out an exam and the questions asked had to do with what the men had observed about the three other men who had flung through their classroom, taking all of 5 seconds to do so.

It’s the kind of exercise that law enforcement goes through, and it speaks to how unreliable eyewitnesses can be when it comes to recounting what they saw with regard to crimes or accidents or similar situations. Don’t worry! You can learn to be a better eyewitness, like those guys in spy school did.

Why would you, a writer, want to do that?

Well, being a better (and more accurate) observer can enrich your descriptions in your work and help you create accurate settings. It can help you develop better instincts for what works in terms of characters’ reactions and actions in the situations you create and what doesn’t.

Screen Shot 2016-01-08 at 8.53.29 PM

Cris Freese did a piece at Writer’s Digest last July about how improving your powers of observation can help with your writing. The key, according to writer Barbara Baig (who Freese bases his piece on), is TURNING OUTWARD.

What exactly does that mean?

Basically, it means get out of your head and focus on things OUTSIDE yourself: that dude in the car next to you is singing along to something. What song do you think it is? Oh, look. There’s a business with a really interesting name. That would be kind of cool for a short story. OH, that woman just got splashed by a passing car. Good thing she’s wearing black. It’s not as obvious…

People are all kinds of interesting. Watching them and how they do things can provide fodder for characters and stories for your books. So make it a point to observe all kinds of different people in all kinds of different settings.

That article also says SLOW DOWN. Take a few minutes out of your day and really watch something or someone. Note the brick pattern on that building. And how the windows look. Are they dirty? Broken? New? What part of town is the building in? Does it blend into its surroundings or not? Structures, too, have quirks. Including those in your writing here and there can enhance a reader’s experience of your story.

So while you’re out observing, COLLECT. Get your ol’ skool notebook out and jot down cool things you see or overhear. Take photos. Tap something out on your notes app. As an aside, the physical act of writing, however, helps you remember things better. So go ol’ skool and get yourself a little notepad or journal and carry a pen, like ye olde writers of yesteryear, and make a note of something that catches your eye. Pay attention to how things make you feel or what memories are stirred when you observe things.

Da Vinci's notebook. source
Da Vinci’s notebook. source

This kind of “collecting,” as the Writer’s Digest piece notes, does two things for your writing: improves your powers of observation and provides ideas for projects. These are ESSENTIAL writing practices, observing and collecting. So if you’re not doing them now, crank up the ol’ observation muscles and start giving ’em a workout.

With that in mind, some tips to enhance your observation skills:
Alexandra Levit’s tips
Wikihow has some good ones, too.
Observation and memory

And for funsies, do some exercises.
Here, here, and here (that last one is really cool — PBS Sherlock Holmes observation game)

So go on out there and have a look. You never know what you might see.

Happy writing!

11 thoughts on “Powers of Observation

  1. Pingback: Powers of Observation | Reblog

  2. Wonderful blog and great advice. I need to pay attention a lot more since I tend to be more of the absent minded professor type – in my head a lot! My wife tells me I never pay attention…she’s probably pretty accurate about that.

  3. Interesting post Andi, thank you. The games are really informative and I learned I’m not very observant!! Sure improving that will help my storytelling…

  4. T says I really need to read this. When I am focused on work, I am oblivious to everything around me. I didn’t even notice our dog was trying to snuggle against my legs. That’s pretty bad.

  5. I wish that, as I writer, I could experience everything I was writing about. Well, not terrible stuff, of course. It makes the writing so genuine, not just for the reader but for the writer herself. I know that I am so much more confident writing about stuff I’ve actually experience. But, alas, we all live in the real world and it’s not always possible.

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