WRITING AND PEOPLE-WATCHING

Hi SEers! Denise here, and I’m going to talk about an exercise I did in a writing class and how it inspired new ideas.

The assignment was to sit out in public, observe, and take notes. I was to include all the senses and impressions. It was an opportunity to find a new story idea along with being immersed in a setting.

I sat at our local park above the public swimming pool. Armed with a water bottle, notebook, and pen, I took in the tall pines and oaks surrounding me and the area. The damp, warm grass under my bare feet was uniformly cut. Its musky aroma was mixing with the sweet scent of the patch of purple and yellow wildflowers off to my side.

Pink quill pen and rolled paper

The hot sun was almost overhead, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Voices echoed up from the pool in a loud rumble mixed in with laughter, while the lifeguards were perched in their wooden towers with white noses and a whistle around their necks. I spotted a kid who wasn’t interacting with anyone. He seemed more interested in the flowering plants that lined the pool.

A gentle warm breeze brought the smell of chlorine and suntan lotion to me. Over to my right, children played on the swing set while their parents huddled together, talking with a watchful eye on their children. A red four-door vehicle caught my eyes as it drove slowly by the pool with classic rock floating out its open driver’s window.

A lot was going on around me, and my senses were full of this summer moment. I had a setting with so many possibilities. Here are a few story ideas I came up with doing this exercise:

Shows words Idea and Story
  1. Why was that kid sitting alone and not swimming? What did he really see in the flowers?
  2. The car driving by, was it a parent picking up their child, or was someone planning to kidnap one of the swimmers?
  3. What is the history of this place? Are there any legends or stories? How did they keep cool 100 years ago?
  4. Would a lifeguard have to save a child’s life today? What if the child didn’t make it?
  5. Were two of the talking parents at the playground having an affair?
  6. Who just cut the grass? Was it a widowed vet whose child was sick?
  7. Was one of the laughing teens being abused at home?
  8. The potent smell of chemicals—had someone added poison to the water?
  9. What if a tree came crashing down? Who would be the heroes?
  10. Will the young man in the blue swim trunks talk to the girl he’s been staring at the entire time?
Man writing in notepad sitting on grass

Just people-watching for a half-hour opened my mind to things I would have passed by in my busy life. Plus, it gave me an impressive setting to use.

Next time you get stuck writing or are suffering from writer’s block, try people-watching. Perhaps the ideas will flow for you as they did for me!

Have you ever people-watched before? Did any stories or ideas come from it?

99 thoughts on “WRITING AND PEOPLE-WATCHING

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  2. Very very useful! You are absolutely right! There are millions of things going on around us, we just don’t pay attention to them. Given today’s Smartphone Addiction, every human seems to fully occupied by their own personal world thing that caused opportunities miss-out.

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    • Thank you 🙂 You make a wonderful observation about people looking at their phones and missing what is going on right next to them. It would be a missed opportunity not to pay attention!

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  3. I love to people watch. You see so many interesting things and get tons of ideas. One of my favorite places to people watch is at the casino when I went with my dad. Some of the things that I saw made me take a second, third, and fourth look. And the way they behave. Interesting to say the least. Restaurants are another place I people watch. I can’t believe how little manners some people have. Great post, Denise.

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    • Thanks, Michele 🙂 Casinos would be a fantastic place to people-watch! I’m so taken in with all the flashing colors and noise, I rarely play attention to people. I will have to next time. Yes, restaurants would be another great place, and I think the manners of the past have long gone.

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  4. I love this exercise, Denise. You have a beautiful imagination. Thanks for sharing what you did with the exercise. A few minor characters in my books were inspired by brief encounters with people who were so quirky (good or bad) that the memory stuck with me in a big way. But what you did takes it to a greater level. Love it. Hugs on the wing.

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    • Thank you, Teagan 🙂 This was a fun exercise that stuck with me because I became so immersed in it. Yes, sometimes people we run into stay with us and end up joining our world of words. I want to get out there and do this again soon. Hugs on the wing right back to you xo

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    • It was! Thank you, Sandra 🙂 That makes me happy to hear! Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to drop by and visit some of the settings in books?

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  6. Your descriptions were so wonderfully vivid, Denise, that you transported me to the pool. I could see it, hear it, smell it. And even from your description. stories started sneaking into my head. I’m usually not a people watcher, but I can see how useful it is in coming up with story ideas. I think it also enriches a sense of unique place in our writing. Great tip!

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    • Yes, the pandemic certainly slowed any people-watching opportunities down. I’d like to just sit and enjoy a moment like that day, usually I’m rushing around. I hope we can get back to it soon. Thanks, Eden 🙂

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    • Thank you, Alex 🙂 It was a great experiement and I need to do it more often. It’s amazing at the ideas that come up when we slow down and take in our surroundings.

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  8. “Hey, central. A strange lady is sitting on a bench recording everything that’s going on. Do you think she is a Russian agent?” “Ten to one, she’s a writer. Just keep her observed.” “Copy that.” Well done, Denise. I love to get inspiration from watching others. Terrific post.

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  9. Excellent post, Denise.
    I had to sit outside in the dandelions with my dog last spring, waiting for his appointment with the vet. I ended up watching the goings on of a couple and their cats. I definitely could have written a story about them!

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  10. Makes me think about my other career. I have investigated hundreds of incidents and interviewed countless people. The trick is to keep asking questions until you’re satisfied with the answers. This has in return given me tools to write the kinds of characters I wanted to produce.

    Excellent post. I’ve enjoyed it immensely.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can see how that helps you immensely in writing. I’m always asking questions and how you kept asking until satisfied with the answers, not only was good for your job, but would make for great characters and storylines. How wonderful you have this experience to tap into!
      Thank you, Ben 🙂

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  11. This post is a perfect example of a writer’s mind, Denise. So many possibilities and so many different sensory stimuli. I love people-watching. Their body language will often tell more than their words. Thank you for sharing!

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    • Thank you, Jan 🙂 There are so many possibilities just in one setting, and each of us will see something different to focus on and through our own perspective. I agree body language does tell a story, as well as the eyes.

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    • Thank you, Staci 🙂 Yes, it’s been harder to people-watch with the pandemic and masks. Harder to read an expression. Although, I rarely sit and watch like I used to, unless at an airport and usually the phone wants attention. Nice to go out with pad and pen.

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    • Thank you, Gwen 🙂 I think we all have our own set of questions to answer in these situations. It is fun to do and I don’t do it often enough.

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    • It is a helpful tool to generate those ideas for sure. I feel like any question that is come up with is the right one at least for the person asking it. Thanks, Dan 🙂

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    • It’s hard not to watch, even at the gas station and that shows in your characters. Yes, it always amazes me how the mind will take a situation and carry into a new place, that is very much nerfarious like you said!

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  12. If you ever have a routine that takes you out into public, then you probably see a lot of the same people with their own routines. After a month of running at the same time every day, I decided to write this poem:

    Again Today

    I saw that guy again on my walk today
    We are at the point when we pass
    That a pursed lip smile
    Will suffice
    Or a nod
    When, I wonder, will the relationship progress
    To where I have to say hello

    I saw that woman with the cart today
    Wearing all that she owns (clothes that is)
    Tattered coat, even though it’s warm outside
    Worn out shoes
    On tired feet
    When will I feel obliged
    To offer…anything

    I saw that child with the others today
    With matching daycare vests
    Tugging dandelions off to the side
    With a smile
    Only he knows
    Why he is
    The center of his own attention

    I saw that girl with the dog today
    We often pass each other
    Today I was running
    When I passed her she was crying
    Only I kept going
    Was none of my business I told myself
    Though I wonder…

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    • You are very right if we go and out at the same time every day to do the same thing there are others doing it too and we pass by each other. I love your poem and the insights it offered. How we observe but perhaps don’t interact, yet still our wondering is carried over after. I appreciate you sharing this, thank you Leon 🙂

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  13. I admit I don’t do much people watching, but I have benefited from it when I do. I remember being in a mountainous wooded area with a lake. I was swimming in the lake when I saw a park ranger making his rounds, and the thought struck me—what if he found a dead body among the trees? I wrote my novel, Eclipse Lake, based on that thought and location, so I agree people watching really does pay off.

    I loved your observations and the ideas you spun from them, Denise. Great post!

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    • I would love to do more than I do, but I guess I am doing it, even in the grocery store, and don’t have it planned. How cool you got the idea for Eclipse Lake from swimming at the lake. It makes sense the setting was so real and of course what else would a ranger be looking for… lol? Yes, it does pay off.

      Glad you liked the observations, I had fun with them. Thank you, Mae 🙂

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  14. I’m an introvert and don’t particularly like to BE with people, but I sure do like to people watch! Before Covid, I liked to sit at a café and watch the comings and goings, the people, how they related to each other, how they treated the barista, and each other. Yes, I got some great characters as well as stories from this. I like your idea now to stay in the fresh air and watch from a park bench. And your questions are wonderful.

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    • I’m the same way, Pam, and a fellow introvert. That sounds fun sitting at a cafe and watching. I would imagine there would be people in a hurry, or there to visit others along with families and maybe other fellow writers. It would make for some good stories and characters. The park bench was perfect for me at the time, not only because I got to enjoy nature, but I was only writing for children then and it was the perfect spot to be. I’m glad you like my questions that came from that time. I need to get out and do that again soon! Thank you 🙂 Happy people-watching!

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  15. I love people watching! I had to do a similar exercise in a writing class and it is a great way to generate ideas. Not only story ideas but also how characters might interact with one another.

    Great post, Denise.

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  16. I love people watching, and luckily, so does hubby. We often sit quietly together just taking it all in. Hubby is also great with coming up with fab ‘what if’ questions that fire my imagination. Great post. Thanks for sharing 🙂

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    • That’s wonderful your hubby does it with you and has great what-if questions! I love taking it all in with a quiet moment and then processing all that goes on around me. We see the same thing so differently which makes it all the more fun. Thanks, Harmony 🙂

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    • I like to be the quiet person at a party who is observing, but usually, I’m hosting and have to attend to my guests. 🙂 I do like the questions that pop up when we watch people go about their day yet wonder if there is more than what we see. Thanks, Jill, happy people-watching!

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  17. Hi, Denise! Very detective observation, and a great deduction for one or more stories. Now comes the professionalism of the writer to make something great out of it. Unfortunately, this ability is not given to me. It would end in plagiarism. Lol Thank you, and best wishes, Michael

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  19. I love all the ideas you came up with! So many potential storylines.
    I did the same thing a couple of years ago, and watched a young mother tugging her child along the pavement. You could see she was in a mad rush, very concerned about getting to their destination, but trying to be gentle with the child at the same time. Every time he met her eyes she smiled down at him, then went back to being worried when he wasn’t looking. I wrote a short story about what she might be going through, and it’s one of my favourites.
    I need to do some more people-watching – thanks for reminding me!

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    • Thank you, Jo 🙂 We can come up with so much observing and letting our imagination take over.
      It’s great you got a short story from watching a mother and child. You would have a setting and the realism of characters. I can see why it would be one of your favorites. Happy people watching!

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