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Keep Your Eyes Open!

One of a writer’s most effective tools is the skill of observation. What a writer observes is potential fodder for his or her story mill, the basis of plots or the details that lend authenticity to the tales.

A young, aspiring writer once asked author Jesse Stuart about the secret to his writing success. Stuart–author of Beyond Dark Hills, Man with a Bull-Tongue Plow, and numerous other novels, poems, collections of short stories, and children’s books–told him there was no secret; he just had to keep his eyes open. To demonstrate his point, Stuart took the student to a local general store. “What do you see?” he asked the young man. (I’m just making up the dialogue because I can’t put my hands on the book that contains this illustration, but the gist of the conversation is accurate.)

The student replied by naming some of the things that he saw: “Canned goods, hardware, candy, work gloves, . . .”

Stuart interrupted him. “You can’t see the forest for the trees!” He then began pointing out the details that the student was missing: The contrasting smells of the leather gloves in the bin beside him and the bags of fertilizer piled on the floor, the creak of the wooden floor as they walked across it, the different sounds of the bell on the old cash register as the cash drawer flew open and of the bell above the door as a new customer entered the store.

“This is what makes your writing come alive,” he explained. “Keep your eyes and ears and nose open for such details.”

The same is true when one is trying to describe people. Make people-watching a habit. Hone your skill of observation.

A few weeks ago, I sat in the car trying to read while my wife was in the doctor’s office for her annual physical. But I was distracted by the people coming and going through the parking lot. Patients entering and exiting the office. Nurses, janitors, and security guards from the adjacent hospital as they ended or began their shifts. And I found myself asking questions about them.

Did that elderly man entering the doctor’s office have a worried look on his face? Why was he worried? What ailment might be his concern? What if the doctor had a disturbing diagnosis for him? How would that affect the rest of his day? His life? The lives of his family members?

Was the look on the face of the middle-aged woman leaving the office one of anxiety or of relief? What story did the furrows across her brow and the crow’s feet at the corners of her eyes tell?

What about the frazzled-looking young mother with two toddlers in tow and an as-yet-unborn child obvious in her womb? What did the future hold for her? For each of those kids?

And the gaggle of nurses and technicians who were coming off their shift and heading home, cigarettes trailing a cloud of white smoke? What did their uniforms, gaits, and facial expressions tell about them, the work day they were finishing, the homes they were heading toward?

I’ve noticed myself making similar observations of people while I’m sitting at a traffic light. The next time you’re in a similar situation, rather than fuming at the driver ahead of you who is paying closer attention to the cell phone in his hand or her hair in mirror than to the just-turned-green traffic light, observe the faces of the drivers turning past your lane. What do they tell you? Is the driver dreading his arrival at work? Does the next driver’s face express anger, worry, distress, laughter? How many drivers are alone? Why? How many have companions? How many are on their cell phones. What stories can such details tell?

Every writer should develop the habit of close observation. See what others miss. Those are the things that give your stories life.

As that great philosopher Yogi Berra famously quipped, “You can observe a lot just by watching.”

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

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