Friday, January 25, 2013

You See, But You Do Not Observe

I would like to thank my sister for getting me hooked on the BBC's Sherlock series starring Benedict Cumberbatch (War Horse) as Sherlock and Martin Freeman (The Hobbit) as Dr. Watson. It all started when she gave me a 3-episode DVD for Christmas, recognizing that some things are just good for people, whether they know it or not.  The stories are tightly written, smart and compelling. The characters are well-developed and complex.  And the villain is...well, a madman. The kind you wouldn't expect, which makes you squirm whenever he enters a scene. A fitting nemesis to the self-proclaimed 'high-functioning sociopath.' They have begun the third season and from what I gather, there are only 9 episodes so far. Total.


What I also love about the series is Sherlock's deductions, which appear briefly in writing over a person or situation stating a fact that he has ascertained by keen observation.  A piece of lint, an impression in cloth, a subtle change in gait reveals clues that are so obvious to him that he remarks to Dr. Watson, "You see, but you do not observe."  Commonplace objects and conditions tell the story for him.  How amazing it would be to have his keen eye to help me to flesh out characters and scenes.  It has challenged me to sharpen my own powers of observation.

In fact, I've put it into practice.  Not really snooping, just watching.  Last week I covertly peeked into the shopping cart of a 50-something man in the grocery aisle and deduced from the copious amounts of single-serving frozen dinner entrees and boxed macaroni and cheese that he would be dining alone.  Possibly he was newly single judging from the men's body wash, men's shampoo, jug of mouthwash and new toothbrush.  People don't usually run out of everything all at once.  But it could happen, and it could be an interesting twist if his actions were misinterpreted - in a story, not in life, poor man.

Of course, physical clues are only part of the story.  Intent and motivation are not easy to deduce or to show. The truth is, I 'see but don't observe' much of the time.  It takes practice to read a person's body language and the clues they unwittingly give. Some good news is that I think that just getting older has helped to make me more observant. Maybe because I've seen a lot. And I bet you have, too. 

So this is one part of how I plan to Carpe Annum in 2013 - sharpening my powers of observation to make strong, true characters and planting clues naturally within the story so they aren't contrived. How does 'seeing and observing' fit into your plan to seize 2013?


Jennifer Major said...

I love grocery cart detectives!! I've been snooping in carts for years.
Go on a Friday after work, it's really sad how many people buy ice cream, popcorn and chocolate. That says "alone...again". If they blindly grab an expensive indulgence and don't gasp at the price, or open and close the freezer door a few times? This is their route. They'll go to the bakery next and grab a cake. Please, frumpy middle aged lady, just one!
Or the older man who buys one single cupcake at Valentine's time?
I planted a clue at the 1/3 mark of my MS that doesn't get mentioned again until the almost very end. But it's a game changer (pats self on shoulder) and I was saving it!

And just to mention my favourite movie? After Magua kills Uncas and Magua is looking at Alice, the actor playing Magua flexes his hand and moves the knife around, he's telling the viewer that Magua is harbouring SOME compassion for the terrified Alice and knows the knife is heavy with the weight of her future. A man bent on killing would never loosen his grip on his weapon.
I learned to observe at the knees of Siskel and Ebert.

Have a great weekend ladies!

Wendy Paine Miller said...

That was my favorite part of taking writing seriously again, it was as though I became awake to my surroundings again. A rich blessing!
~ Wendy

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Jennifer, I first realized how telling a grocery cart can be the first time my husband went out of town for an extended period. I saw a man looking in my cart at the checkout and was suddenly aware that he knew. Gave me the creeps! BTW, what is the name of the movie you were telling about?
Wendy, it is amazing how much more engaged you feel. Once at a conference we watched a staged purse-snatching and then we were questioned as a group about what we saw. Only a few got it right. Most of them saw but did not observe.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Three things go with me to the grocery store every time. My list, coupons, and idea journal. The grocery store is fascinating!

One thing I've found over the years is that I will get more from observation if I actually engage the person in conversation. I put on my best outgoing girl facade and ask someone a question. Last night, on a quick trip to Target, I stopped in the Starbucks (because I was 'cold'...yeah, we'll go with that excuse). The fellow that served me was so interesting. I asked him one question and he went on and on. I not only got a few ideas for a character in my novel, but I also had a very pleasant conversation with the young man who made my vanilla spice latte.

I love being a writer!

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Yes! People love to talk about themselves if given a chance. I love your grocery journal idea!

Jennifer Major said...

Debbie, it's Last of the Mohicans. released in 1992. STarred Daniel Day Lewis as Hawkeye, Madeline Stowe as Cora and Wes Studi as Magua.
Alot of people think Studi was robbed of an Oscar, it's the best role of his career. Stowe was good, too.
But the supporting cast was insanely good. Watch for Russell Means as Chingatchgook and a creepy Belgian as Montcalm.

Bonnie Grove said...

Because I think and process the world in story form, and I'm trained in counselling and psychology, I'm basically a snoop.
I'll be out with my husband Steve, or somewhere with my kids, and I zero in on people around us. Steve has begun to enjoy the game.
I go still and silent and he looks around. "Which one?" he asks. "There," I say with only my eyes. He observes for a few moments a family sitting at a nearby table, the ones that interest me so much. "What?" He'll finally ask.
"The mother," I answer. "She's not the mother of all the children at the table. Watch how she interacts with the boy."
"Do all the children belong to the father?"
"Yes. But her favours the boy like one favours a broken bone."
Then Steve will eat his lunch while I make notes.

Jennifer Major said...

Oh my word,Bonnie!
That happened to our family when I was a teenager.Only it wasn't a nice,kind writer who silently observing us. It was a very loud family who sat RIGHT NEXT to us at McD's and analyzed our family out loud. From 4 feet away. For 30 minutes.
WHy? Dad is brown, Mom is white, son is tanned and daughters are brunette and redhead.

Twas not pleasent. But I will use it in a book one day.

Bonnie Grove said...

Ouch. Sorry to hear that happened to your family. I'm never unkind. Life has too many lessons for each of us to waste time being unkind to each other.
I simply observe interactions.

As for the grocery store, I've found that most people will not only give themselves away through the content of their carts, but if you strike up a conversation with them, they will tell you their lives too. I do this often (grocery shopping takes me hours and hours), especially with elderly folks. They are lonely and they are fascinating. I listen, they talk. I've hugged strangers in the produce department after hearing their stories.

Jennifer Major said...

It was so incredible that it was happening, but we still laugh ourselves senseless over it.

Not in a million years would I think you'd be unkind. Nope.

I love chatting with really,really old people, they floor me with their insight.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

I think airports are the most fascinating places to people-watch. People feel invisible there because they don't know anyone. It's the ultimate fishbowl. :)

Bonnie Grove said...

Debbie: You're so right. I live in a city with an airport (for years we lived in towns far from one), I should make it a habit to visit even if I'm not flying out anywhere.

Megan Sayer said...

Debbie we LOOOOVE Sherlock!! Brilliant, brilliant show. Steven Moffat - the writer and producer - is my all-time favourite screenwriter
. He also writes Dr Who (the good ones), and another of my favourite shows, the English show Coupling, which (aside from many, many sexual references and terrible morals) has some of THE most insightful and hilarious writing about human nature I've ever seen.

I learned to observe people after reading my first Hercule Poirot detective story (Agatha Christie's version of Sherlock Holmes). I must have been 13. Poirot addresses his audience (and the reader) with a tone of exasperation that they (we) did not observe, or that they (we) observed and did not see, that from then on I decided I needed to. I guess you could say it opened my eyes, and later, changed my life. It never ceases to amaze me though the amount of people that do not to do it - the amount of people blind to the things happening right underneath their noses. Too busy thinking about books and TV shows perhaps :)

Latayne C Scott said...

Debbie, as I write this I'm in a popular local coffee shop trying to get caught up on writing. I don't look around, don't make eye contact with anyone because I vant to bee alone. But your post reminds me to look around. And also that I'm probably being observed by someone. Thanksa lot.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Sorry, Latayne. Ha! You could not escape notice if you wanted to, pretty lady. :-)

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

oooooh, great post, Debbie. I'm exceptionally unobservant. Bad flaw for a would-be-novelist. I'm trying to be less day-dreamy and more aware of my surroundings. (Particularly while driving. Ha!)

I love this, especially the grocery-cart snooping. How fun! And I've only seen Sherlock a couple of times, but it was brilliant and intriguing.

Glenda Parker Fiction Writer said...

I loved your post and I enjoyed the comments. I know i will never go anywhere without thinking of those comments. I haven't seen this series but I to get my hands on it. God bless you all.

Glenda Parker

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Thank you, Karen and Glenda! Another more personal (and possibly embarrassing) place to snoop is at the drugstore. I am always very aware that what I place on the checkout stand is in full view of everyone around me. Sigh...

Henrietta Frankensee said...

The best and most sought after stories have many layers of clues. Every reader gets something and the really deep detectives feel that rare repletion of a case well solved.
My husband to be was creeped out when I stared at his shoes for too long. Grass stains. He didn't like me knowing he cut the grass that afternoon. I am more discrete now.