DIY Nosiness #amwriting

Mindyourownbeeswax.Here in the midwest, we have a reputation for minding our own business. We don’t. We just tend not to ask direct questions. That doesn’t mean we won’t go ask somebody else, or pump somebody for information and then put two and two together. Sherlock Holmes and Homeland Security got nothin’ on us.

Writers have a reputation for loving to people-watch. This is true. It’s an occupational hazard: We’re always looking for interesting looks, walks, tics, clothes, hair, accessories, non-verbal communication cues, and verbal eccentricities.

My pal, Western writer Ralph Cotton, used to run his own riff on both of these, with the added benefit of practicing characterization.

He would watch people in public — people he didn’t know — and totally invent backstories for them, right on the spot.

More fun than that was when he’d grab a couple of props, change his posture and even his voice, and narrate an invented backstory for himself. Here’s an example I’m making up to give you a feel for the kind of thing I mean: “I’m Billy-Bob Gorton. Used to be a child evangelist until I hit puberty. I got Missy there with child. She’s the only daughter of Mayor Dubuque, mayor-for-life of this medium-sized town in Idaho; he’s also the king of the numbers racket in that whole county. So we had to get married. I don’t drink, but see how I’m wrapping my hand around this Coke can? I’m hoping everybody’ll think it’s a beer, ’cause I don’t want people to know I don’t drink.”

Only Ralph’s inventions were much better than that.

I really can’t recommend this exercise highly enough. It’s much more fun than really digging the dirt on people, not to mention safer and easier. It’s great practice at fitting together backstory, visual and verbal cues, and interpretation/misinterpretation. Is that scowl because the guy’s wife said something that pushed a button, and there’ll be tears before bedtime, or is the sun just in his eyes? Did that woman’s strap slip by accident, or did she make it happen in order to be alluring? Is that kid really polite, or an Eddie Haskell?

A WRITING PROMPT FOR YOU: Look at someone or a group you don’t know, and invent a backstory for them, complete with interpersonal relationships.


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I was born in Louisville, Kentucky, but now live in the woods in southern Indiana. Though I only write fiction, I love to read non-fiction. The more I learn about this world, the more fantastic I see it is.

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One thought on “DIY Nosiness #amwriting

  1. Jane

    February 8, 2016 at 9:47am

    Something to think about, indeed. I still feel stuck trying to figure out people I supposedly know!

    I find an interesting exercise is reading the blurb on an ebook, and then trying to guess how the author is ever going to work that exotic premise into the book….and how quickly. So I read the free sample to find out.

    Occasionally I’m amazed at the elegance of the intro of the exotic thing. Other times, I’m dumbfounded by the ham-handed info dump.

    I’m thinking about putting my blurb into the preliminary material of my book. Because I’ve seen this done, and it does help one figure out why one has that particular novel on the ol’ kindle app to begin with. Just a thought.

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      Marian Allen

      February 8, 2016 at 10:47am

      Oh, the people we supposedly know are SO much more complicated and contradictory than any character. A character who was actually true to life would be a mess of nonsense.

      That sounds like a good idea, putting the blurb or an excerpt or something at the front of an ebook, as they do in a print book. You’re right — it does help! [Note to self: do this]
      Marian Allen recently posted..A DEAD GUY AT THE SUMMERHOUSE

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  2. joey

    February 8, 2016 at 11:25am

    Oh my yes. You are so right.
    Before the scary days of 9/11, I used to love to go to the airport and people watch for story ideas. It’s more fun at the airport — more diversity I think.
    joey recently posted..We’re Not in Georgia Anymore

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  3. Holly Jahangiri

    February 10, 2016 at 8:04am

    The exercise you describe was taught in acting classes I took, years ago. It’s something that works quite well for writers, too. πŸ™‚ It helps, getting into others’ headspace, trying on their mannerisms, walking their walk – and it’s easier when you’re a kid to do it in public. You don’t yet feel silly and you can claim it’s “homework.” Good for those who can just run with it unselfconsciously or have the imagination to act it all out in their own heads. I wish I could do the former, but at least I can still do the latter.

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    • Author

      Marian Allen

      February 10, 2016 at 9:16am

      The great Anna Deveare Smith first came to my attention in a New Yorker article about her work doing this. She would recreate the look, clothing, mannerisms, speech patterns, — everything outwardly observable — and inhabit that character. She’s utterly brilliant.
      Marian Allen recently posted..A DEAD GUY AT THE SUMMERHOUSE

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      Marian Allen

      February 10, 2016 at 10:28am

      I know I can’t. πŸ™

      Hey, is there another ad blocker other than ad blocker plus that I can configure to let me see sharing and Like buttons without loading me up with cookies and spyware?
      Marian Allen recently posted..Fried Soup

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  4. Holly Jahangiri

    February 10, 2016 at 10:55am

    Try Ghostery. It’s not an ad blocker; it’s a cookie warner/blocker. There’s a browser plug-in. It’s much better, I think. I don’t want to be at war with the ads that support a “free” internet. I am only at war with the insidious, intrusive, and downright rude ones.
    Holly Jahangiri recently posted..A Touch of Early Spring

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