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Using Observation And The Senses To Enhance Your Writing, by Lia Weston

Observation is one of the most useful skills a writer can possess. Some people are born with the ability to extract information from their environment and translate it to the page in a way that can make a reader weep. The rest of us have to learn how to do that. The good news is that it’s a skill that is very easy to develop. The bad news is that you’re going to have to put down your smart phone to do it.

If you’re lucky, you have five senses, right? (Six, if you believe in a pulsing underbelly of supernatural activity or have a thing for M Night Shyamalan films.) I’m about to tell you a secret: writers have an extra sense. The sense of what’s underneath.

Firstly, let’s start with the physical senses. The best writing immerses you completely, and that’s usually done by engaging you in an environment you can almost literally feel. (For the YA readers among you, see All I Ever Wanted by Vikki Wakefield for an excellent study in evoking a hot, harsh South Australian summer.) This doesn’t mean you need to overload your readers with pages of description – in fact, please avoid this unless your goal is to induce somnolence. What you do need to do is pick out the best and most immediate signifiers that will bring your world to life.

You can hone this skill though a very simple exercise, and you can do it anywhere. Take a few deep breaths, and start to become fully aware of what’s around you. Examine your physical environment in every aspect. What can you see? What can you hear, feel, smell, taste? A receipt on the floor, the whirr of your dishwasher, the irritating label on your t-shirt, that person who keeps wearing the perfume which smells like roses soaked in detergent, the lingering tannins of your last cup of tea. Take notes. Keep them short.

Now for the fun part: start looking for the things you would ordinarily miss. Is there some kind of electronic pulse in the air? Is one of your shoes rubbing on a spot on your foot? Is your chair actually really damned uncomfortable? Has the song in the background played five times already but no-one’s noticed?

Next, turn your radar on to the people around you, or go and sit somewhere and just observe. Remember – you’re looking for the things that you wouldn’t usually notice. Channel Sherlock, if you will. Why does that person have a beautifully tailored suit but a very cheap and dirty briefcase? Why is that teenager walking with a limp? Why does that woman keep looking behind her – is she hoping to see someone, or hoping to see no-one? What’s that person with the notebook doing? (Ten bucks it’s another writer, doing the same thing as you. Go and say ‘hi’.) Look for the unconscious cues, the things that people may not even be aware that they’re doing. Watch the way people walk, how they hold themselves, what they’re paying attention to.

In addition (and in particular), watch how people’s behaviour changes around others. Study the way they talk to each other. What’s the history there? What if… what if… what if? (Sing it to the tune of Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps.)  The discord between people’s actions and their words is a goldmine for writers, because this is where stories lie: in what is not being said out loud. Unconscious physicalities are the things you can use to flesh out your characters, but why they do the things they do is where your material is. The more keenly you can observe the discrepancies of human nature, the more resonant your writing can become.

So there’s your homework for today. Go, sit, watch, tune your radar to the undercurrent and ask yourself: what are people hiding? Find their secrets… and then the stories will find you.

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Lia Weston’s author website: www.liaweston.com

Lia Weston’s bio page

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The Fortunes of Ruby WhiteThe Fortunes of Ruby White     A Distant LandHouse for all Seasons by Jenn J McLeodHalf Moon BayThe Book of Love

Writing Novels in Australia
www.writingnovelsinaustralia.com

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8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Hi Lia,
    Great post on observation- I need to do this more. I also found Vikki Wakerfield’s novel to be amazing in atmosphere and place – her novel and narrator flowed really well.
    Cheers,
    Claire

    September 13, 2013
  2. Spot on post, Lia. I’ve done this and I teach my students to ask, “What if…” too.

    September 14, 2013
    • Thanks, Susanne! ‘What if…’ really does fuel everything, doesn’t it? Even outside fiction – businesses, projects, plans, adventures… 🙂

      September 20, 2013
  3. kerriepaterson #

    Thanks for the post, Lia. This is something I need to do more of, so that I get into the habit of including those details.

    September 18, 2013
    • Thanks, Kerrie! I think of this exercise like stretching or yoga; you know it’s good for you, you’ve just got to get in the habit of doing it. (Mind-stretching, I guess! 🙂 )

      September 20, 2013

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