Monday, September 19, 2011

Monkey see, Monkey hear, Monkey write

How much attention do you pay to your surroundings?

I know a lot of writers who confess to stalking/eavesdropping on random people in public so they can listen to their conversations or jot down notes on body language, voice tone, etc.

I rarely do this. Well, I pay close attention when I'm interacting with people, but on my own in public, I'm pretty unaware. When I used to take the bus/skytrain for school, I would put headphones on to prevent people from talking to me, and when I shop, I never loiter. I get in and out as quickly as possible. I hate crowds, I hate having others push into my personal space and I especially can't stand breathing someone else's air (elevators are the worst).

If I'm thinking about something, I will totally walk right by someone I know while they are calling my name.

Rather than people, I notice other things... smells, the taste of the air, the cut and texture of shadows, plants, buildings and random signs/advertisements I find amusing. Quirky things, like several streets in Victoria have stone/brick and I will wonder how old the bricks are and check to see how many are broken or how badly the mortar is worn away. I look at old iron trim on building facades, at the designs, if there are words, if it's symmetrical across the building or if it's obvious that some store fronts have had their original trim stripped/updated. I like the shape of windows, if they have shutters or stone that protrudes. If there are different colour/shapes/patterns in the stone or brickwork.

I don't pay attention to people unless I'm actually talking to them, and then I'm not only listening/responding to what they are saying, I'm paying attention to body language like, how close they stand to me, how much eye contact they give if I'm the only one there, or if there is a group, if they are unequal in who they look at and for how long. I watch for ticks, like pushing back hair, fiddling with their hands, clothes, etc. In groups, I also watch the people who aren't talking... because it's interesting how you know some people want to break into a conversation, but just can't seem to interrupt, while others have no problem taking over.

I also notice odd things like whether people just talk, or if they are actually *interacting* with the others around them by asking questions, turning the conversation over to someone they know has something to say, or suggest another person tells a story that they have already heard. There is a lot of subtext in there that tells what the person is like on the inside, not just their social facade.

...but even after a half-hour conversation, if you asked me what they was wearing 5 minutes later, well, I might be able to guess the colour of their shirt, if that...

Things we notice or don't notice impact our writing... how aware or unaware, what senses we use to filter the information of the world around us and are the building blocks we use to recreate characters, scenes, settings, etc, and most certainly, the voice our writing/characters.

Because of what I do/do not notice, I'll describe characters interacting (and their body language), streets, buildings, etc, but rarely more than a brief sentence or two to describe what the surrounding people are like. Crowds of people may be mentioned, but nothing more than a few vague details. I'm also bad at describing clothes/shoes/accessories/hairstyles and things like that.

So, what are the things you notice? When the wind changes speed, is your attention snagged by the change in the sound, or the movement of the branches in the corner of your eye? Maybe a new scent always whips your head around? Or maybe you're a people watcher and can recognize someone you've only met once, or perhaps you notice things like designer bags, scuffed shoes or if someone is wearing clothes that have been tailored well to flatter their body type.

Are there things you know you need to pay more attention to? Are there certain areas of your writing where your CP's are always asking for *more*?


  1. I need to pay more attention to setting and transitioning from one scene to another. Sometimes we just need to slow down, and I'm in too much of a hurry. As far as evesdropping goes, I think I've trained my ears to do it for me. :)

  2. Hahaha! Good for you, Laila!

    Yeah, scene transitions can sometimes be difficult 'cause you want to clarify the passage of time, yet you also don't want to bore the reader by telling them what happened *off-screen*.

  3. Oh man, I can totally relate to everything you said about shopping and public transportation and crowds. I'm not a people person by any means...I prefer to be away from crowded, noisy places. As a result, I'm more like you and notice smells and sounds and natural elements more than I notice people. Great post! :)

  4. Funny, I don't tend to listen too much to people, but I do notice settings, atmosphere such as you've described. And I definitely don't remember what they have been wearing!

    On a slightly different note, I have nominated your lovely blog for the Versatile Blogger award. If you'd like to, you can stop by my blog and pick it up. :)

  5. About a year ago a friend on my space did a blog about auditory voyeurism. I also blogged on the subject recently. My humour writing teacher suggested this method to hear funny lines, but that’s never worked for me. Once when I was working on a character study and a problem came up with description, the solution was found when I observed someone waiting for the bus.

    When I’m out I notice people and these days with the leaves everywhere I notice their patterns and colours. I might make a mental note to return to a specific spot if I think it would make a good photo.

    I do that too. Walk right by someone I know because I’m lost in my own little world

    You notice the taste of the air. And then you write about it. Wow. The way you observe the world is what makes you such a detailed writer. I should send you my trilogy - it describes in minute detail 2 rooms and 2 characters, right down to their clothing


Type me out a line of Shakespeare or a line of nonsense. Dumb-blonde-jokes & Irish jokes will make me laugh myself silly :)