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From the Notebook of a Spying Writer

Photo by Matteo77 [1]
Photo by Matteo77

Like a lot of writers, I’m a people watcher. I’m an observer by nature. Truth be told, at times I’ve spied to get a good story, to create a good character (see the first post I ever wrote for Writer Unboxed for more about this [2]). I’ve even taken photos without people knowing it, to use in my character dossiers. I’ve justified that it’s okay because I’m a writer—but maybe part of the reason I’m a writer is that it justifies my tendency to snoop. It’s a chicken and egg thing.

But lately I’m reconsidering my spying ways. It all started with the library.

As stepped up to the circulation desk fumbling for my library card, the librarian said, “Nice to see you, Julia! I’m so sorry I don’t remember your last name. How did you like that book…” She went on to name the last book I read. I stopped in my tracks. I have seen this woman perhaps five times in as many years. I couldn’t tell you her name if you held an acetylene torch to my hand (I may have watched too many episodes of the spy show Alias lately).

She finished checking out my books and I started to walk away, but I turned back. I wanted to ask her for her name, it only seemed fair. Mary.

I got back to my car and made some notes in my notebook. First I wrote down Mary’s name. Then I wrote:

Writer who goes about town gathering stories by watching people, believes she is unknown, unwatched, maybe even a spy. Suddenly she realizes she’s not unknown at all. And may actually be the object of observation by others!

A True Story

It unnerved me. I’m the one who’s supposed to be observing them. I’m following their breadcrumbs. When did they start following mine? I tried not to get too concerned. It was, after all, just one librarian.

Until I went to the bank.

“Oh, hi, Julia,” the teller greeted me.

“Hi,” I answered tentatively. On the inside, I was freaking out. (Have I mentioned I’m an introvert?) Another person, who I remember seeing only a handful of times, yet she knows my name.

“Wow, you have a really good memory,” I said as she typed my name into the computer—without having to ask my last name.

“I try,” Tori answered, smiling.

My eyes flickered to the sign next to her window, committing her name to memory. “I’m here to make a deposit,” I said. “I got an email from Amazon that I couldn’t order a book because of a low balance in my account—it’s my book account,” I was quick to add. “Do I have zero dollars in my account?” I asked, laughing, a little.

“Three dollars,” Tori said, her smile fading.

True story.

I wrote Tori’s name next to Mary’s when I got back to my car.

More Breadcrumbs

Next stop, the coffee shop for writing. First I put my computer on my favorite table. Then I went to the counter to order and pay for my coffee. Same routine every day for the last month. After, the barista gave me my change—which I put into the tip cup like I do every day—she gestured to a cup of coffee that was already sitting on the counter when I walked up.

“Is this mine?” I asked.

“Tall dark for here, right?” The barista said.

I nodded, swallowing hard. They know what kind of coffee I drink?

I whipped around to see who else might be watching me because I was beginning to feel like I wasn’t the observer at all. In fact, I was beginning to feel empathy for the people I watch.

Back at the table, I notice the two coffee shop workers, their heads together. I jot in my notebook:

The writer wonders—is everyone watching her? Who’s spying on whom? Find out barista’s name. 

Fast forward three days. I’m looking at Instagram, and someone I follow has posted a picture of a young man working in a coffee shop. He’s staring intently at a laptop and he looks miserable. The caption stated he was someone the photographer had merely passed by in a coffee shop. I made a comment on the photo that I hoped no one would ever post a picture of me writing in a coffee shop—not without my knowledge. It frankly terrified me, I added.[pullquote]Eavesdropping or at least hearing peoples’ stories is the lifeblood of a writer. But this experience has made me a kinder, gentler spy, one perhaps that will put herself into her characters’ shoes. [/pullquote]

And it also gave me pause. First my experience of feeling watched in the coffee shop, then my light bulb moment of seeing that other writer’s face on Instagram—for all the world to see without him even knowing it—was it observing or was it invading personal space? Was I not doing the same thing by jotting down notes about strangers? By taking pictures of them?

I felt a vague sense of guilt colored with a tinge of remorse. In my defense I’ve only actually taken three pictures of strangers—two at the grocery store and one at the town dump—and I’ve never ever posted on social media (nor would I) a photo of someone I didn’t know—unless it was from a great distance and they were unrecognizable. Similarly when I write things based on what I’ve heard people say or when create characters, I change so much about the incident (or person) that they are not recognizable. Even the stories are very different.

Who Am I Kidding?

Where does this leave me as a writing spy or a spying writer—or whichever egg did come first? It’s a dilemma. I’d like to say I’ll never do it again. But who am I kidding? Eavesdropping or at least hearing peoples’ stories is the lifeblood of a writer. But this experience has made me a kinder, gentler spy, one perhaps that will put herself into her characters’ shoes. Because here’s the thing. I can look at myself as a character, too. Because whether I like it or not, I am being observed by others in ways I cannot know. Mary, Tori, the barista (and no doubt many more) each sees and knows a small part of me. Perhaps each part of what they know about me, what they see, adds up to the whole of who I am.

Like we put together characters from pieces that come from disparate places, we are all seen in bits and pieces by one another. In super simple terms, we may be an account number to Tori, a book to Mary, a cup of coffee to our neighborhood barista. To others we see every day, still other things. Each person in each place sees a little bit of a different part—all totaling the complete person of who we are. The character of who we are.

Just the same, I take bits and pieces of other people—perhaps I use Mary’s smile, Tori’s good humor, the barista’s quickness, maybe the good looks of the guy at the gym, and I toss them all together to create a whole fictional character. With a complete personality and—yes—with empathy.

What about you? Do you spy? If you do, do you feel guilty? Have you ever wondered who might be watching you, too?

About Julia Munroe Martin [3]

Julia Munroe Martin [4] (@jmunroemartin [5]) 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.