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The art of people-watching for writers

The art of people-watching for writers

The art of people-watching for writers

I take researching the settings of my novels seriously (why not, when it allows me to travel to amazing places!), and by far my favourite aspect of the research is people-watching. I think all writers are observers of life, and truthfully few are happier than when ensconced in a café with a favourite beverage and a notebook, quietly watching the world around. There, in the café, the writer finds a new voice or behaviour or motive or look for a character; a new plot twist or direction; a means by which to navigate around or obliterate a block. Writing is a solitary pursuit, but people-watching offers solace.

In The Echoes of Love, my hero, Paolo, lives in Tuscany a few miles from the town of Porto San Stefano. I spent the most wonderful day there while researching the book, and that evening I wrote this description:

The coastline as she approached Porto Santo Stefano afforded a most breathtaking view, though less dramatic than the one coming up to Miraggio. Here, wrought-iron gates led down to private coves and large millionaires’ villas; and beyond them, the coastal road led on to stuccoed houses covered with flowering creepers that perched precariously on the bank, and to quaintly painted cottages whose stone steps were lapped by the blue water of the Tyrrhenian Sea.

When she reached the port, Venetia left her car in the main car park. The town was modern with bright, clean shops and charming cafés, and with luxury hotels, their terraced walls festooned with climbing roses. There was not much to do in this pretty port but shop, laze in the sun, swim or take a boat on the azure-blue ocean.

The market, its stalls piled high with gaily coloured fruit, sausages and cheeses, and souvenirs appealed to her artist’s eye. She found an outdoor cafeteria with a cheerfully striped awning, and sat under a red umbrella sipping a caffèshakerato that had been poured into a wide-mouth, martini-type glass.

Women in the market, mostly wearing sombre black shawls over their shoulders, were clearly the housewives of Porto Santo Stefano. As they shopped, they prodded and poked, chaffered and bargained, in the manner of housewives all over the world, and their dark clothes only served to enhance the effect of bright sunlight and deep shadow, the colour in the fruit, vegetables and flowers. Venetia was so enjoying the scene before her that she wished she had brought her sketch book. Undeterred, she asked the waiter for a pen and paper and was soon at work.

People of every age and nationality passed by on the pavement in front of her, and Venetia’s ears picked up snatches of at least a dozen languages. But what struck her most was the laughter that rang in the clear atmosphere, the expression of happiness on old faces as well as young. Evidently, people from all over the world came to Porto Santo Stefano to enjoy themselves, and did so in a way that was simple, healthy, and joyous; so very different from the hectic holiday schedules in Venice and the world’s other great cities she had seen.

The afternoon flew by. The church clock chimed five o’clock; the sun would be setting soon. The market stalls had long put away their goods. Boats were discharging their last passengers, and the beach was all at once peaceful. The last of the strollers were heading back to their hotels.

It was time to go.

Venetia is inspired to draw by what she experiences; I was inspired to write!

Here, for fun, are my golden rules of people-watching:

  1. Choose a spot near but out of the thick of the hubbub from which you can watch unobtrusively. Try bus stop benches, park benches, art galleries, eateries, shopping centres (the upstairs balcony works well), public transport and the beach.
  2. If eavesdropping, be discreet. Try not to look at the people who are talking unless they’re facing away.
  3. If someone notices you watching, just smile briefly and then look away.
  4. Make notes, but be sure no one near can read them (and don’t supplement them with photos unless you have permission to take them!).
  5. Look at appearances, body language, expressions, interactions between people and interactions with the setting, and listen to background noise and speech – accents, pitches, idiosyncrasies.
  6. If people-watching makes you uncomfortable, think of it as naturalistic observation used by scientists to observe a person without influencing him or her.
  7. Suspend judgement of what you see, just notice and note.Let your mind drift – all sorts of ideas can form when you just take in all the information from your surroundings and don’t try to process it.

Afterwards, you can look at your notes and see what inspiration you can draw from them. Think about the people who most interested you – why? What about them was compelling?

The beauty of people-watching is that over time you build up a great understanding of people and you have an ever-growing resource from which to draw as you write. Films and books and plays and photographs and painted portraits are wonderful sources of inspiration, but ultimately you want the characters in your story to feel real, and to achieve that you need to shape them with first-hand knowledge of real people.

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