Do You Observe Like A Writer?

people watch

If you are a writer, you are most likely a people watcher. You absorb everything going on around you whenever you interact with others. If you go out with friends or family they are constantly swatting you upside the head telling you to stop staring at the quarrelling couple two tables over. If you are by yourself, you don’t care who knows you are watching. You might set yourself up in the back corner of a cafe with a writing pad and make notes on everyone who comes in. Sometimes people get curious and try and speak to you, and it is all you can do not to jab your pen or pencil through the back of their hand. Don’t worry, this is normal behaviour.

I don’t go out a lot because of my arthritis. It takes a lot of preparation, it’s painful, and it wears me out physically and mentally. However, my GP asked me to participate in a Rheumatoid Arthritis training group with some 1st year med students this morning and it sounded like a good thing. I was to sit with them in a room and talk about what it’s like to live with RA, how I was first diagnosed back in 2001, medication, aids and adaptations, and associated illnesses. No worries.


4th Century  BCE Apulian Red-figure bell krater showing comic actors. Source:

I am an introvert, but when duty calls I can be as outgoing and bubbly as the task requires. I used to give study tours of the archaeology museum at my university to high school kids when I was a post-grad. It brought in a few extra pennies and I got to gross the kids out describing mummification, or horrify their teachers by discussing why some characters in ancient Greek comedy had giant phalloi dangling around their knees…and if they looked closely at this pot, they could see it. But, history.


I figured I could handle a few med students. I did, and it was fun, especially when I made my bone on bone knees grind like ball bearings in a blender. They had read about crepitus but never heard it, and I have some serious crepitus. Their expressions were added to my writer’s repertoire of shock, horror, and disgust. Med students 0 – RA 1.

While they were learning from me, I was observing them. How did they sit? Were their handshakes firm or limp? They were all limp, no-one shakes hands properly anymore. Some of their palms were sweaty. Were they nervous, or was the room too warm? Why didn’t one of them take their coat off? Why did one have scuff marks on the toe of one shoe but not the other? Was the fidgeting young woman annoyed by the flickering fluorescent light or did she need to pee? And on it went. As I talked, I racked up masses of covert information.

It didn’t stop there. Since I was out and about, I decided to kill a couple more birds. My medication was ready for collection at the chemist across the way, so I figured I would pick it up. I had to pass a small supermarket to get to the chemist and I needed a couple of things so I popped in there too. My legs weren’t feeling too bad. I took my time, I paced myself, I had a brief sit down on the railings outside the store and watched as people bustled by completely oblivious.

One woman caught my eye. She was elderly, stooped, with a cardigan that rode partly up her back in a wide, inverted U. She also had a neck wattle. She was a very thin old lady, and when the skin stretching from her chin down to her neck caught the late winter light, it glowed a translucent peachy orange, like a sunset. She had a see-through double chin. Awesome! She’d be great at shadow puppetry, and that detail would fit one of the characters in a story I am writing perfectly. Glowing wattled necks are not something you think about unless you have seen one, and now I had.

Inside the supermarket I watched a couple of employees restocking shelves, not by handing each other the boxes of goods, but by setting them sliding across the floor like they were practising their curling release.

There was the woman who prodded at a pack of jam doughnuts a little too hard and her finger pierced the wrapper. She looked around, moved the packet to the back of the shelf and licked her finger.

Tweet image from Very British Problems states The impossibility of saying excuse me without saying sorry immediately afterwardsI crutch-walked by a man in a narrow space in the aisle. I accidentally knocked him on the leg with my crutch as I moved it forward and he apologised. Yes, I am in England, these things really do happen.

A middle-aged man bought six packets of tobacco and had to return some of the food in his trolley because he didn’t have enough money for both. The tobacco would have cost around £78 (USD109). I wondered if he was stocking up or if he was a chain smoker? I wondered what made his tobacco more important than feeding himself? Did he not really need the food he’d returned so it was no big deal, or would he be going hungry because to him the tobacco was more important than a full stomach? Depending on the answer to that, his two possible lives would be vastly different.

BW cartoon of a post office interior. There is no-one waiting to be served. British couple walk out saying - We'll have to come back later, there's no queueAt the chemist, a woman just ahead of me opened the door for me, which was nice. After I thanked her and entered, I pretended to be interested in something on one of the shelves so she could get back in front of me for the queue without looking like she was pushing in. She had been ahead of me after all, and the English have strict unspoken rules on queuing. However, she didn’t join the queue. My subtle nod to the rules was thwarted, especially when the pharmacist recognised me and called me over.

All these observations are natural things for me to collect. The most banal task, grabbing a few items from the store or picking up medication, becomes an adventure in character development. If I can’t use the information now, it may prove useful later. I might never use it my writing, but it is there if I need it.

Do you observe like a writer? Is every human interaction an opportunity to gather information? Share with us in the comments below.


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