Writers find ideas by observation

Have you ever found yourself in a position where you could overhear things that were supposedly private?

Check out counterYou might have been standing in a check-out line while a mother and her young son had a long, heated argument about buying a certain kind of candy. The mother may have been embarrassed, but so were you.

Or maybe you were alone at a table in a coffee shop, a shopping mall food court, or a restaurant when you discovered that the conversation at a nearby table was impossible to ignore. Maybe it was someone’s birthday and they were celebrating. Even opening gifts. Maybe they were discussing where they had been, what they had bought, what they were going to do next, other people they knew…. And you felt guilty for overhearing things that were none of your business.

Well, actually, those were moments for you to grab your notebook and start jotting things down, or at least take mental notes and write them down later. What made the mother angry? How did she react? How did she look? What was the child doing to get his way? I can think of all kinds of things you might have seen and heard that could one day be useful in your writing.

Writers frequently use the technique of Observation to discover new ideas.

Let me give you an example.

woman in hospital bedWhen my third son was born in 1980, I had a Cesarean section. Back then, hospital stays were way longer than they are today, and I was in a semi-private room. The other occupant of the room turned out to be a sixteen-year-old girl. We were together for about two days, but in the course of those two days only a thin curtain separated us, and that wasn’t always closed.I had little choice but to overhear many of her conversations with her parents, her sister, and her boyfriend, as well as nurses, doctors, etc.

Now I could have discreetly left the room, I suppose, but I had just had a C-section and while I did get up to walk in the hall for short periods, most of the time I had nowhere to go except my bed. So I overheard a lot. Okay, maybe I eavesdropped. But you have to admit it was a one-time opportunity to gain valuable information.

And I’m sure you’ve realized by now that I made copious notes.

I never saw the girl or anyone connected with that moment again. But years later, I wrote a short story from the point of view of a young teenage mother. It’s called “Conversations in Baby Blue.” I changed a number of things, and no one would ever recognize the actual people involved, but the emotion I tried to put into the story was the same emotion I’d felt in that hospital room years before.

Writing Exercise:

1. How do you feel about making notes so you don’t forget the things you see and hear as you go through your day-to-day life?

2. Do you have any such notes? If so, get them out and see what ideas they give you. Write down the ideas, one to a page.

If not, make a list of 10 things you’ve observed in the past that come to mind easily. Don’t think about whether the ideas are useful or not. Brainstorming involves grabbing any idea you can and not thinking about how good it is. If coming up with 10 ideas was easy, go for another 10. Keep going until you run out.

3. Put each idea in the appropriate file folder, either physical or online. (See my post on filing if necessary)

4. Now, what is your plan for keeping track of future observations without being too obvious? I’d suggest you start with a small notebook and a pen or use Notes, Evernote, or another program on your cell phone, i-Pad, android, etc., to jot down things you notice. Then, when you get home, write out as much as you can, one new page for each idea.

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