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The People-Watcher’s Guide to Writing

Observing the world around us can inspire new characters, authentic dialogue, and detailed world-building. Here, author Freya Sampson shares 5 tips on people-watching to help you with your writing.

A recent report found that the average American spends seven hours and four minutes a day staring at a screen (and I’m sure it’s double that if they’re a writer on deadline). We’re all guilty of it: Checking emails as we sit on the bus, scrolling through social media while we wait for our coffee order to arrive; for many of us, even reading a book involves staring at a screen.

And yet, by doing this we’re missing out on one of life’s great pleasures, and an essential tool for any writer: people-watching. Here’s why I think all writers should spend less time looking down and more time watching the people around them.

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1. Watch for inspiration

The ideas for both of my novels have come from people-watching. With my debut, The Last Chance Library, I was working in the library one day when I looked up from my computer and saw a sweet interaction between an elderly man and a library worker. Straightaway, I knew I wanted to write a novel about an older man and a shy young librarian working together to try and save their library from closure.

And with my new book, The Lost Ticket, I was sitting on the bus watching a man trying to strike up conversations with the strangers siting around him, which made me wonder what his story might be. From that I came up with the idea of one man’s 60-year search on the bus, and the strangers who try to help him. With both of these, I definitely wouldn’t have had the idea if I’d not looked up from the screen and been nosey.

2. Eavesdrop with abandon

For me, one of the hardest parts of writing is creating natural-sounding dialogue that flows like real conversation while also working on the page. Whenever I’m stuck with this, I go to a local café or other busy place and listen to the conversations around me. I’m not so much interested in what they’re saying but how they’re saying it—although there has been more than one occasion when a brilliant expression or funny line someone has said has ended up in my novel!

The People-Watcher’s Guide to Writing

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3. Capture a character

This sounds slightly sinister but is a brilliant people-watching exercise that can help you come up with interesting characters. When I was studying on the novel writing course at the Faber Academy, one of the things they had us do was to go out into central London and spot someone who we thought looked interesting.

We were then told to follow them at a distance for a short while, just observing the way they walked and what they did, but not interacting with them in any way. We then came back to the classroom and wrote a short piece of fiction based on the person we’d watched—who we thought they were, where they might be going, what drama they might be involved in. It’s a great way of getting you to really observe people and can fire up some brilliant ideas for new characters.

4. Talk to strangers

Once you start to look up from your screen and watch the people around you, you often find that someone will start a conversation with you. Like a true Brit, I find it a bit uncomfortable if a stranger starts chatting to me, but you can often learn wonderful details from talking as well as watching. So, open yourself up to new connections, and you never know what little gems you may discover.

The People-Watcher’s Guide to Writing

5. Always carry a notebook

Last but definitely not least, to be a true people-watcher, make sure you always have a notebook at hand. You never know when you’re going to see or hear something that sparks an idea, and many times I’ve kicked myself for not having anything to scribble it down on. Now put down your phone and happy people-watching!

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