The Observant Writer

by Helen Kenwright

It’s easy to get lost in our own heads, as writers. That’s not a bad thing: sometimes our minds just get full of Stuff and Feelings and Weird Imaginings that are much better off written down. But it’s also helpful to look more closely at the real world around us. Through observation we improve our descriptive skills, which in turn will make it much easier to write down the Stuff, Feelings and Weird Imaginings. 

I have a ‘7 Sources of Inspiration’ list to turn to when I want to brush up my skills and get some new ideas along the way: objects, places, people, sounds, art, seasons and elements. 

Objects

This is the classic writing exercise: choose an object and observe it in all its glory. Look at it from all angles, prod it, sniff it, lick it (if safe!). Look at it in different lighting. Through a magnifying glass. Through dark glasses. As if through the eyes of a child. Just really, really, look. It’s a classic for a reason: the more we look at something the more we forget it’s socially constructed label (‘pebble’) and the more we develop our own language for our observation, whether concrete description (‘gritty’, ‘smooth’, ‘rough’, ‘brown’) or more poetic (‘glittering mica’, ‘ice-smooth’) or delving straight into symbolic meaning (‘guardian of the centuries’, ‘essence of the earth’, ‘building block of creation’). It’s all good. 

It’s amazing how little we do really observe the world around us, especially the familiar parts. Next time you read an amazing description of a milk jug in a novel, don’t think ‘I could never write like that’. Think, ‘Wow, that writer really understood that milk jug’. And then go off, notebook in hand,  and find a milk jug to stare at for a while.

Places

Full disclosure: I used to really struggle when describing places. I would either go on for several pages lavishing loving detail on the real wood floors, the perspex table tops, the soft lighting and the windows that filled one whole wall. Or else I’d talk about the ‘floor’, ‘table’ and ‘window’. My poor readers either drowned in detail (and probably ditched the whole thing) or were left puzzled as to whether they were in a 1950s diner or a medieval banqueting hall. 

As with so many things in life, the sweet spot is between the extremes, where you select the important details. How do you know what’s important? By observing. When you’re in your favourite cafe/diner/banqueting hall/own dining room, look closely at the details of the room. Listen to the sounds. Sniff the air. Taste the delicious coffee, touch the shiny tablecloth. What stands out to you? What has meaning? 

When you’re outside (people reassure me that is still a place, but I’m writing this during lockdown, so I remain skeptical) what is it that naturally catches your eye? What is there about your surroundings that really capture your mood? The peeking of sun through the clouds after a thunderstorm? The smell of summer rain? The crunch of gravel on the drive? The crisp purity of fresh snow? Keep observing, keep noting, and you’ll find when you next take your character for a coffee you’ll realise that all you need to describe is the 1950s Juke Box, the girls in high ponytails and lemon yellow skirts with petticoats, and the fact that the salt shaker has lost its peppery counterpart, reflecting exquisitely the loneliness of your protagonist.

People

Ah, people. People, people, people. People are fascinating. No, trust me, I’m a sociologist. They really are. And being a writer gives you the perfect excuse to people-watch whenever you wish. One of my favourite writers, Ursula K Le Guin, was born to anthropologist parents and made society and human behaviour the subject of most of her work. Her understanding of our societies made her most alien worlds comprehensible. She constructed complex religions that somehow made sense at an instinctive level: the rituals unfamiliar but comprehensible. People the world over do things like this. We all have our routines, our transgressions, our safety nets, our need, to connect and construe meaning. 

You don’t need a degree in a social science to observe people. For one thing, you are a person yourself. So understanding how you tick, noticing how emotions manifest in your body and behaviour is really useful. People aren’t as different from each other as we might think. Most of us feel fear in our bellies and throats; joy in our hearts. Most of us know what it is to be cold, hot, hungry, horny, content. Observe yourself, write yourself. Your journal is your friend.

Within legal and moral restrictions, watch other people too. One mannerism can sum up an aspect of a person: their mental state, their fears and their identity. Note body language, habits, how people influence and are influenced by each other, even over the course of a simple conversation about whether it’s warm enough to turn the heating off. 

You don’t even need to leave your house. Switch on the TV. Use all available senses at all times. Drama is an exaggerated version of human behaviour, usually, but pick something well acted and you’ll see a good representation, highlighted for easy observation. Observe reality shows (the less scripted, the better). Observe documentaries. And don’t forget to notice what people say, too, and how they say it. Which brings me to…

Sounds

We take sounds so much for granted. As I type this I’m playing music, it’s sort of flowing through my mind and it’s lovely, but it’s not my main focus. Sound is often like that, unless it’s screaming ‘Emergency!’ or ‘Interact!’ at us, like fire alarms or a friend who’s irritated, because you drifted off staring at a milk jug while they were asking you how they should get their hair cut.

So, take some time to really listen to what’s around you, whether it’s nature, music, people talking, traffic, clinking coffee cups, cats meowing at the hoover (just me?) – whatever you hear, really listen. Close your eyes, examine the quality of the sound. How it makes you feel. Where it reaches you – does it come to your ears, your heart, or does it vibrate through you? What it reminds you of. All sorts of music and soundscapes are readily available on YouTube, radio and other recording mediums. We can use sounds to inspire the rhythm of a poem, the mood of a short story, the tension of a novel, the question-and-answer of a script. We just need to pay attention.

Art

Author Rachel Hartman is often quoted as saying, “Art is a conversation we are all invited to and are all worthy to participate in.” In fact, it’s a conversation we engage in subconsciously; we respond to every performance, book, song, painting or sculpture we encounter, and it is likely to influence our own art, our own being. But engaging consciously is even better. In our analytic world we are taught to respond to art by deconstructing it, by considering it’s technical qualities, by thinking about it. Which is great, especially if you’re wanting to learn about things. But it’s not the only way to respond. 

I don’t know about you, but if I wrote a story and a reader emailed me to tell me they really liked the way the sentences were constructed, apart from that one dodgy paragraph, and that the use of weather imagery was highly evocative, I’d be pleased they’d thought about it and overall seemed to approve, and my academic brain would preen a bit. But when someone emails me and says my work gave them comfort on a long, dark night; or that they cared so much about whether Steve would ever rediscover his Pepperpot-lover Pete, that hits me in the heart. I feel that person got me. Or, perhaps someone emails to say that Steve is a plank and why should they care what happened to him? Well, okay, they disagreed with my passion for poor Salty Steve. But art is a conversation. We’re communicating, that’s the important thing.

But then again – what if they email me a poem they wrote, about Steve and Pete meeting again in the same diner after a decade, old enough and wise enough to love each other forever, forsaking all other condiments?

That’s art talking without the need for people to intervene, and personally, I think it’s awesome.

So, there’s two ways art can inspire us and teach us our craft. One is by observing what the artist has done, and translating that into our own practice. This is how apprentice artists used to learn from the ‘Old Masters’, by studying and imitating their work. It’s how I learned the fundamentals of writing, by writing fan fiction in a supportive online community.

The other way is to experience the art, and to express that experience through our own art. I love going to art galleries. I’ll find a painting or sculpture that calls to me, and I might try and sound intelligent in a conversation with my friend about what I’m seeing. But then I’ll sit, and take out my notebook, and write about it. I might sketch-note or freewrite or just jot down words. How it makes me feel, what I’m curious about. What I think, perhaps, the artist meant, and what I think about it. 

Make sure you don’t just listen. Take part in the conversation.

Seasons

I didn’t take much notice of the seasons up until 2008, except that I knew I loved Spring and Summer, Autumn was pretty but foreshadowed the Doom that was Winter. But in that year year, in the midst of one of those life events that makes everything seem more real and heightened, I found I really noticed what was going on as the seasons passed. I was suddenly aware of the changes in the colour of leaves; the different qualities of snow; the way precious light can be stopped by something so apparently flimsy as a cloud. As animals we’re naturally tuned to the seasons at some level, even if as a species we’ve done our level best to insulate ourselves from them. 

So, now I keep a note in my journal of the weather (well, I’m British, it’s compulsory) and other seasonal changes. Just little observations. My garden is a bit of a jungle, but it offers a fresh canvas each day, each part of an everlasting, ever-changing cycle of life. And a ton of handy metaphors.

Elements

Okay, I have a thing about rocks. I don’t know why. I just do. I’m fascinated by geology: I have enough pebbles scattered over my desk to qualify as a terminal moraine in miniature. I also love water. I actually enjoy washing up by hand, it’s like when we had water play at primary school, only with more bubbles. I love to swim. I love the rain (except the bitey, chilly sort, ugh). Fire always scared me as a kid, but now I love to look into the heart of a campfire or a candle flame. I bask in the caress of a summer breeze; a gale is a mortal enemy. 

We live in this amazing world of oceans, grains of sand in a million colours, of volcanoes and hurricanes and rivers and shiny, shiny metals and meteorites. We are made of them: bags of water with a few minerals and bits of carbon and what not clustered around fragile human souls. 

But most of the time we talk about the difficulty of getting a delivery slot from our local supermarket.

Every now and then it’s really helpful to stop and look around at the world, and see what it’s really made of. 

I hope this post gives you some ideas for becoming a more observant writer. I find it’s something I come back to again and again: the pull of the imaginary world is strong. But it’s always worth getting out that pebble and putting in a bit of time on a quality first-hand experience. 

Happy Writing!


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