Listen Up, Writers: Never Ride Public Transportation Without a Notepad

Writing on public transportation / Shutterstock.com

Editor's Note:

Juliet Blackwell is the pseudonym for the New York Times bestselling author of the Witchcraft Mystery series, and the Haunted Home Renovation series. She is also the author of the stand-alone novels Letters from Paris and The Paris Key. Together with her sister, Juliet wrote the Art Lover’s Mystery series. The first in that series, Feint of Art, was nominated for an Agatha Award for Best First Novel. She currently resides in a happily haunted house in Oakland, California.

My best writing advice? Never ride public transportation without taking notes.

I always carry a small paper notebook, but a phone with a note-taking app works just as well. The point is, look up, soak in the unending parade of human types, fashion choices, and social interactions unfolding in front of you, and feel free to steal with abandon.

All writers are thieves! Don’t feel compelled to invent every last detail of your book; on the contrary, your story will benefit from the vivid sense of realism that comes from noting and reflecting upon the world around you. And the good news is, observation is a skill that improves with practice.

I learned the formal art of observation while studying anthropology (not the digging-up bones kind, but the cultural kind), wherein one observes closely how others go about living out their day-to-day lives. I also worked as a waitress, and later became a social worker — two more professions that benefit from a high level of observation to “read” what clients want and need. And I’m not alone: It turns out a lot of writers used to be anthropologists, servers, and social workers. This is no coincidence; the best writers are keen observers of the human condition.

A few tips:

1. Never leave home without the ability to take notes. Not only on public transportation, but also at parties, the dog park, on the beach, in a dentist’s waiting room, in line at the grocery store. If you witness a child turning up to say something adorable to her father, steal that moment in time. You never know when you might have use for it in your manuscript. When stuck for ideas, refer back to your notes for inspiration.

2. In addition to clothing, jot down distinctive posture and physical features like facial hair, tattoos, hairstyles. Granted, I live in the San Francisco Bay Area and therefore am exposed to a higher-than-average number of iconoclastic style choices. Still. When I sit down at my keyboard, my creativity is sparked by looking over my notes to cadge vibrant physical descriptions — and sometimes even whole characters.

3. Notice the way people interact, their body language, speech patterns, and turns of phrases. I once walked by a house where an elderly woman stood on the stoop, waving good-bye to a passel of younger relatives, and she used a phrase I remember my mother saying: “I want food enough to last for days!” That phrase helped me formulate the character of my protagonist’s grandmother in Letters from Paris, when the elderly woman is making plans for her own funeral — with an emphasis on a lot of food, enough to last for days.

4. Make up stories for your newfound characters on the spot. When taking BART to San Francisco, I’ll often challenge myself to invent a five-second story for every person in the train before we emerge from under the bay. The sixtyish man in the plaid sweater vest — sporting a few long white hairs — and shiny shoes? A recent widower who enjoys ballroom dancing and dotes on his late wife’s white cat. The young tattooed man wearing a hoodie, drooping pants with grass stains, and a jammed backpack slung over his shoulder? A community college student studying botany who works in his community garden and is trying to prove to his parents, his high school teachers, and himself that he can make the grades to transfer to UC Berkeley. The thirtyish Asian woman with a pink Hello Kitty backpack, bent low over her sparkle-covered phone? A recent transplant from Beijing, beyond scared but excited to be starting her new life far from the overbearing extended family she’s left behind.

5. In anthropology, qualitative research stresses not only observation, but participation. If you’re writing about a pianist and don’t already know how to play, take some lessons; note the slick feeling of the keys under your fingers, the frustration of coordinating movements with both hands, the joy of producing something that sounds like a melody. I tried my hand at picking locks while researching for The Paris Key; learned mold-making for Letters from Paris; and followed around a carousel restorer in her studio for The Lost Carousel of Provence. Hands-on experiences provide a host of sensory details the imagination alone could never conjure.

There’s no magic pill that will help you to sit down and finish that manuscript. But careful observation of real life can provide inspiration, vivid descriptions, and a sense of realism that will benefit any story. After all, the imagination can never live up to the variety of humans and situations witnessed on the average bus, train car, or in line at the DMV.

So remember: Steal without guilt!