Therese 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.
Photo courtesy Flickr’s JohnGoode