I’m Not Above Spying

PhotobucketTherese here. Today’s guest is WU community member, Julia Munroe Martin. Julia is a writer and editor who blogs from one of the best places in the world–the coast of Maine. She has experience as a business and technical writer as well as a journalist, and she is currently, in her own words, “a novelist-in-progress.” (Love that.) She’s been working on a story for ~7 years, and during that time she’s learned how to gather information about people in an interesting way. We’re so glad she’s here today to tell us more about that. Enjoy!

I’m Not Above Spying

I almost used a pseudonym for this post. I’m not even kidding. I wonder: if anyone in the very-small-town I live in happens to read this post, will they ever stand behind me in the grocery store let alone speak to me again?

Because here’s the thing. I’m not above spying. I’m a snoop. I like to say it’s because my training is in journalism. I know how to ask questions, observe people, gather information.

But which came first, the chicken or the egg? I have a vivid imagination, I’m naturally curious, I like to ask questions, and I’m a people watcher, too. As I considered careers, I always found myself drawn to being a spy or maybe a private investigator—but I’m way too much of a wimp. Instead I became a writer. Turns out these very same skills are a boon to my fiction–and they can be to yours, too.

First the basics. To successfully spy gather information—wherever I am, whatever I’m doing, I always have a way to record what I see and what I hear. A notebook, a shred of paper, more recently my iPhone—tools I always have with me. Fortunately I also have a willing accomplice (my husband) who is equally snoopy.

Here are some techniques that work for me.

Eavesdrop on conversations to help develop realistic dialogue and new story ideas. If you’ve never done this, you might be surprised what you’ll hear. Waiting to get in my car I’ll hear an argument in a parking lot. Lurking by the produce I hear the end of a cell phone call—these days you don’t even have to go out of your way. Once I heard someone at the grocery store ask a friend if she knew any nice guys, then when questioned about her current boyfriend, she said she was about to break up with him!

Take photos of strangers to use as character inspiration. Recently at our Town’s recycling center (dump), I spotted someone who was the spitting image of my MC’s husband. As I sat in my car, I saw him in my rearview mirror (which by the way makes a good spying tool). He was unloading trash, completely oblivious to my crafty spying. I enlisted the help of my husband: “Can you take a pic of that guy?” By now he’s used to it, having watched me take photos of people at places like Trader Joe’s. Caution: only print these photos at home and keep them out of sight—or people may ask: “Hey, why do you have a picture of my Aunt Agnes on your fridge?”

Watch people to help develop realistic, three-dimensional characters. Note the things people do and how they do them. I pay particular attention to nuances, small gestures, movements, and habits. Inside tip: I see a lot of interesting behaviors around trashcans. One rainy day I saw someone carefully fold up an umbrella then throw it away in a trashcan on the way into a grocery store—why? What a character, not to mention a spark for a story.

Follow people to learn more about character motivation. In the grocery store, get ideas for your characters by following and watching what they put in their carts, who they talk to (and avoid talking to), and how they treat grocery clerks. Once, I followed someone because I saw him throw a questionable package away at a public park (trash can again—I’m obsessed, right?). I was convinced he’d disposed of a body part. I gave up the pursuit when he clearly spotted me…which reminds me: don’t do anything that may put yourself in danger!

Ask questions; be interested. Story ideas come from the unlikeliest, even smallest of conversations. People like to talk about themselves. If it’s a friend, I’ll even ask: “Do you mind if I write about this?” I’ve solicited information based on gossip, so develop a network of snitches friends who will feed you interesting information about what’s going on in your community. If you live in a small town like I do, sometimes you just need to go to a school event and you’ll practically have to plug your ears to keep from getting story ideas.

In closing, remember: look, listen, pay attention, take photos, and by all means ask questions. However you conduct your investigations, always carry the essential equipment: a notebook, a recording device, and a camera. If you have a willing accomplice spouse, bring them with you to take photos or create a diversion while you collect information.

And if you get caught? This conversation never happened.

Thanks for a fun post, Julia!

Readers, are you stealth spies while you’re writing? Tell all in comments. Your secrets are safe with us.

You can learn more about Julia by reading her blog, and by following her on Twitter and Facebook. Write on.

Photo courtesy Flickr’s JohnGoode

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About Julia Munroe Martin

Julia Munroe Martin (@wordsxo) is a writer and blogger who lives in an old house in southern coastal Maine. Julia's other passion is photography, and if she's not writing at the dining room table or a local coffeeshop, you'll likely find her on the beach or dock taking photos. Julia writes The Empty Nest Can Be Murder mystery series as J. M. Maison.

Comments

  1. says

    Unfortunately, I have not been as prepared as Julia (great post, Julia!) on many occasions, then have to furiously scribble notes when I finally DO find paper and pen — or, by then, my computer. I think eavesdropping is wonderful, also, for learning dialect — even the way people pause and emphasize certain syllables.

    As for picture taking, I’ve often been too big of a wimp to try it, for fear of someone coming after me and asking, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” I even took a photo of a local store recently for a Twitter friend – *ahem* – and felt like I was doing something wrong by snapping shots of the building from a pull-off across the road. I was sure a cruiser was going to pull up behind me with flashing lights.

    Do tell: how DID your husband get the shot of dump man without him noticing?

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    • says

      Glad you enjoyed the post! Why would you feel uncomfortable taking a photo of a store for a Twitter friend? I wonder if that person had a story in mind that featured the store? ;-)

      What an excellent question: “Do tell: how DID your husband get the shot of dump man without him noticing?” His answer: “I pretended I couldn’t see the screen because of the glare from the sun so I had to move it around, scrunching up my face and squinting.” Pretty good technique, huh?

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  2. says

    Julia, great post, but a little creepy. I’m amazed at the things people will blurt out in public while talking on their cell phone. I don’t carry a notebook but the writer in me tries to imagine what the person on the other end of the call is saying. When I eavesdrop (which I shamelessly admit to) I’m looking for verbal tics and attitude, not so much a verbatim transcript I might use. Thanks for an interesting and highly entertaining post. WU is truly like a box of chocolates.

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    • says

      I suppose you’re right, it is a little creepy — but I assure you it never gets to the truly creepy (I do have my limits). But I agree, it’s very surprising what people will blurt out — and you bring up such an interesting thing that I’ve never thought about… what the person on the other end of the line is saying! Very cool, thank you! I agree, the tics and attitudes are the thing! And the ambiance… very good points!

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  3. says

    Now that I’m writing I sometimes find myself lurking at social events. We live in a small town, too, and often find ourselves at fund raisers and community celebrations. It’s amazing how you can disappear if you just stay quiet. Just sidle up to a group conversation and nonchalantly sip your beverage. Watching and listening at these events can be great fodder for a writer. There’s often beer and wine available, which only adds to the uninhibited flavor.

    Really fun post, Julia! Thanks for sharing, and I wish you great success in your journey as spy, I mean novelist-in-progress!

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    • says

      Glad you enjoyed the post! Lurking at social events — a VERY important addition to the list! Soundsl like you and I have similar towns — and so true: disappear and stay quiet, a writer’s and an introvert’s dream come true! And the addition of beer and wine, a very important point — maybe I should add THOSE to my must-carry items ;-)

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  4. says

    Hi Julia! So great to see you here! And I love this post. It is so, so true. As writers we think research means hitting the books (or in modern days, the internet) but we forget about the research of human behavior. I always struggle with this when writing younger characters because I know how easy it is to write inauthentic younger characters now that I’m, ahem, not one anymore. (Younger, I mean. Most people who know me will assure you I’m still a character.)

    Even the little moments, like you outlined, moments of transition, picking up something from a market shelf, standing in line; seeing how others behave is crucial to making our stories come alive.

    Keep spying. You never know: some people might just be flattered!;)

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    • says

      Thanks for the encouragement, Erika!! You really brought up a good point about younger characters — I’ve found myself really paying attention to different ages, because as I too (double ahem) am older than many of the characters I write about…. *sigh*! Great point, Erika!!

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  5. says

    Julia, you are too funny! I always love reading about your snooping adventures…such a hoot! I’m quite certain that if Lucy Ricardo (from I Love Lucy fame) were a real-life person in this day & age, you two would be friends. ;-)

    I don’t think I could go so far as to take pictures, but certainly eavesdropping has helped me when it comes to realistic dialogue for my WIP.

    Great & candid post. Now I’m totally curious about that questionable package in the garbage can…

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    • says

      Glad you enjoyed the post! And what a huge compliment — to say such a comic & snoop genius might want to be friends with me? You are too kind! And next time I see someone toss a questionable package? I’ll definitely keep you posted ;-)

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  6. says

    I agree with CG, who pointed out the odd and incriminating one-sided conversations that people will have on their cell phones right out in the open.

    My theory is that if you say embarrassing things in public, loudly, where me and everyone else can hear, you’re actually begging to be put into someone’s book. Might as well be mine.

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    • says

      You raised such a good point, and one I’ve thought myself on occasion! I think those cell phone conversations and/or other loud public conversations are held by people who are exhibitionists! As you say, they are begging to be (and maybe LONGING to be) in someone’s book! Good point!! Thanks for the read and the comment!

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  7. says

    I have the same kind of imagination, but I confess I don’t share your fascination with my neighbors’ garbage. Should I re-think that?
    And I agree with prior commenters that anything bellowed in public is fair game.

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    • says

      Actually, I’m a fan of watching public trashcans for stories, and I think there may be some interesting possibilties there…. I’ve never (okay I once, I must admit) checked out my neighbor’s garbage…. I do have limits ;-) Glad there’s another vote for the fair game of public bellowers!

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      • says

        I do believe you’ve given me the idea for another character. One that watches trashcans to see what people throw away…maybe she’s the first one to go shopping there that day and it’s the cleanest. Maybe she’s hoping (hee hee hee) to find someone tossing in a dead body so she can play gumshoe detective. I mean, she is wearing her old tennies, isn’t she?

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  8. says

    I’ve learned to turn the urge to people watch off at church, even if in that very large crowd I spot one of my characters. I once gave someone the wrong impression!

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    • says

      Ooohhh, yes, I can see how in places like church it may be difficult to spy, er… people watch… I agree it may give the wrong impression! I suppose if it’s something really obvious, it would be impossible not to make a note…. But I think you raise a good point of being sensitive to the situation you’re in and not causing anyone embarrassment or discomfort! Great note!

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  9. says

    I once wrote down an entire conversation between two old men while sitting in my doctor’s waiting room. One day I hope to find that notebook and use it for something. They were carrying on two separate conversations at the same time and not listening to a word each other was saying. The bald one was talking about scotch while the other talked about farming.

    I’ve since discovered this is not unique, a lot of older people carry on “conversations” this way.

    Obviously I’m not above spying either! Thanks for a great post and for reminding me to look for that notebook!!

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    • says

      Glad to give you the reminder! And I am SO envious of the overheard conversation — very cool. It sounds like it was hilarious! Hope you find the notebook — let me know!! :-)

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  10. says

    What fun. I once mastered the art of leaning back quietly in restaurant booths to listen to the conversation behind me. My then-husband used to laugh and say, “you’re eavesdropping again.” My current sweetheart/accomplice has too great a sense of honor to condone this. But I’m not writing fiction anymore, so I have less need for it.

    I did wonder about the legality of tape recording someone without the person’s knowledge. Pictures out in public are one thing, recording is another entirely. I used to work in journalism, too, and know there are laws about such things….

    Like you, I live in Maine where people aren’t nearly so public with their every detail as they were when I lived in the South. Though cell phones have made a big dent in that natural reticence.

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    • says

      That’s so funny about the mastering the technique in restaurants…. when we go out to eat, my husband says I get that “certain look on my face,” and he knows I’m listening…. I suppose my code of honor is lower because I do allow myself to listen. (Well, not if it’s so obviously personal beyond decent bounds… I do have limits) As for tape recording — I usually only record my observations into my iphone (not an overheard conversation) but the laws vary from state to state. In Maine, it’s legal to record a conversation if one person knows it’s being recorded and that would be me! I’ve never recorded a conversation I’ve not been involved in — again, over lines of decency, I agree.

      Nice to see another Mainer, glad to “meet you.” :)

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  11. says

    Entertaining post, Julia. I’ve heard interesting conversations in public restrooms while, er, resting, and I found The Guy in my ms at O’Hare.
    (I hope he didn’t notice my deer-in-headlights reaction!)

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    • says

      Public restrooms!! Never thought of it! I admit, I’m usually so intent on rushing my “resting” that I forget to pay too much attention! But the deer-in-headlights reaction — I know exactly what you mean! I found my MC’s love interest at a Trader Joe’s and it was a startling moment! Glad you enjoyed the post!

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  12. says

    Julia! Loved seeing you here today and what a great post. I often hear the advice to listen to conversations, but I’ve never heard someone suggest paying attention to things like gestures and specific actions (like what’s going into the garbage!) Seriously, what a great idea! I definitely struggle with what gestures to include in scenes with dialogue. This will help! Thank you!

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    • says

      I’m so glad to give some ideas about paying attention to gestures, actions, and trash. It’s just amazing, once you start watching what you’ll see — make sure you tell me if it’s something surprising or interesting, can’t wait! Glad you enjoyed the post!

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  13. says

    This was hilarious. I have actually observed people all my life, but just recently became a writer. So I have been able to draw from the past, but now am even more vigilant in my spying- observing. My spouse is in law enforcement, so I get all kinds of juicy stories from him. He also gets interrogated by me for all the little details that he didn’t know he knew. He’s learning now, so he can satisfy my questions. People are so interesting! The lady next to me in my exercise class will never know that she inspired a whole scene in my novel-to-be.

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    • says

      Okay, you are possibly the luckiest…. to be an observer AND have a husband in law enforcement. The stories!!! And I know exactly what you mean about honing your husband’s skills to give details! Although my husband is about the furthest from law enforcement (software engineering) I’ve also interrogated him about all kinds of work experiences to help me mine story ideas! As for the lady in your exercise class, sounds perfect as a place to gather info! Glad you enjoyed!

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  14. says

    Great post! I admit I usually tune people out when I’m out and about. If I’m stuck waiting somewhere, however, I will study them. But clearly I’m missing some golden opportunities!

    I don’t live in a small town (San Diego) but we have lots of tourists for me to spy…er study ;).

    Thanks for an informative and funny start to my day :)

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    • says

      You bring up such an excellent point! Whenever I’m stuck in line or waiting somewhere, I am never bored! It’s when I can rely on my observation, er… spying, as a way to pass the time! San Diego is a PERFECT spy town. So much going on (and also the weather gives lots of outside time for people watching!!). Glad you enjoyed!

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  15. says

    Fun post. I try to give people their privacy if they’re trying to be discrete but if they’re yapping it up in public I let my writer mind wander. As long as it doesn’t forget where I’m parked.

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  16. says

    I think things happen with me in an “Osmosis” kind of way – I’m not conscious of “spying” but I’m “hyper-aware” of my surroundings – often to the point of discomfort — too much stimuli! — as if I am turned inside out and all my nerve endings are opened to the world.

    So, whatever I ‘gather’ is from some kind of spongy parasitic ability *laugh*

    Love the humor in this post!

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    • says

      So interesting; I sometimes also feel that “osmosis” thing, so I know what you mean. Especially when I just want to turn it off and (for instance) have a romantic dinner out — but all I can do is hear the unhappy couple at the next table. *sigh* As you say, inside out…. a blessing and a curse… right?

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  17. says

    Busted! I’m a fellow spy, though I’ve always thought of it as being a fly on peoples’ walls. I’ll linger in public places just to overhear conversations after hearing an initial snippet. I’ll socialize with anyone — and I mean ANYONE — just for the sake of listening and observing. My husband gets annoyed at me for asking questions he thinks are none of my business, or sometimes provoking people just to see their reactions. I wonder how he’d feel if I started going through their trash?

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    • says

      Ok, you and I are potentially twins on this — I too have lurked longer in a public place to hear the end of a conversation after just a snippet — and I also socialize with anyone for the sake of listening and observing. And I do the provoking thing too! (Maybe you could get your husband to help like mine does, instead of feeling annoyed?! I mean, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, right?) And remember — the trash? It’s only PUBLIC trashcans I go through. Neighbors/people I know? I only did that once… ;-)

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  18. says

    Ehh, aside from #2, I’d just classify you as a keen observer, not a spy. It has a more polite ring that way.

    Observing people is a great way to come up with realistic dialogue and action, at least if your story takes place in a comparable time and setting. Sure, we can get inspiration from books and film as well, but those things are scripted, and as such, not always the most accurate at portraying real people. Real people have lots of weird unconscious quirks, tiny movements they make when feeling a certain emotion, etc., and incorporating those into a story makes it feel more authentic.

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    • says

      You are too kind….but I’m afraid I’d say I’m somewhere between a keen observer and a nosey-parker ;-) And you are so right about realistic dialogue and action coming from watchign people. As you say, books and movies are scripted, but real people have so many wonderful quirks and layers! Authenticity, exactly what we’re after through all this!!

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  19. says

    Great Post! Good to know I’m not alone:). I know my tendency for observation came first. In my younger days I could overhear and track several conversations in a restaurant, including the one I was taking part in, without anyone be any the wiser. I could also remember it all for quite a while and never felt the need to write it down. Now days neither my hearing or my memory is what it used to be but I continue to be more observant than the average person. This was really useful as a private investigator and has been a huge help in my development of fictional characters.

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    • says

      Yay, nice to meet another spy! :) I’m glad you mention the multi-listening talent, I love that!! You sound like you have an incredible memory, which is such a valuable ability — I’m envious! And really? You were a private investigator? Now writer? You’re my new hero!!

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  20. says

    Fantastic post, Julia, and great to see you on one of my favourite writing sites! I am the same as you; I can’t help people-watching or listening to conversations on trains and buses and in public places. I’ve never been brave enough to take a photo of someone who looks like one of my characters, though (yet!). It’s so important, as a writer, to have your eyes and ears open all the time. You never know where (or who) the next spark of inspiration might come from!

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    • says

      Glad you enjoyed the post, Emma!! I wish you courage in photo taking — once you start it gets easier to fake making it look like fidgeting with your phone :) I completely agree, you just never know where the next spark will come from!

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  21. says

    Funny- when I was little I was obsessed with spying on people: my parents, family members, people in restaurants, neighbors. Coffee shops were my favorite places to go because of the people watching (and because I thought that grown-ups spent all their time in coffee shops and so going to them let me pretend I was an adult!)

    I think the most interesting thing I ever heard anyone say was a woman practically yelling into her phone, “It’s not about the sandwich!”

    Thanks for a very entertaining post, and it’s good to know I’m not alone!

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    • says

      That is HILARIOUS about the sandwich comment — once we were at a zoo we heard a woman say to her son: “Did you touch it? Want a cookie? Go ‘head.” It has become a family saying…. I love that you, too, were obsessed wtih spying (I was too as a child)… maybe THAT’S the true roots of writing!? And I pretended to be an adult, as well! Nice to meet another spy!

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  22. says

    Julia,
    I’m catching up on blogs and just read this, a bit late. I love it!! So many good ideas. (Can I use my kiddos as mini-spies too?) Oh, and walking the dog is a great excuse for people watching (spying!)

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    • says

      Lisa, I’m so glad you enjoyed the post and found some good ideas! I think using the kids as mini-spies is a FABULOUS idea, so unexpected. And I am so glad you mentioned the dog walk — because like you, I often use that as an excuse to “check things out” (okay, snoop) on interesting neighborhood goings-ons…. no doubt my dog is one of the most-walked out there :)

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