Wednesday, September 24, 2008


OBSERVATION: watching, surveillance, scrutiny, inspection, examination, study

Glynna here! Today, as you read this, I’ll be winging my way home from five days of job-related travel. My schedule will have been jam-packed with early rises and late-to-beds, waiting in lines, catching flights, taxi rides, workshops, and meeting with colleagues. I’ll have pretty much been held captive during my waking hours. There won’t be much, if any, time to work on my latest WIP. But what there WILL be are snatches of time for “power observation” – opportunities to enhance and enrich my writing while in my “hostage” state.

When taking a college creative writing course years ago, the professor challenged my small class to spend an hour outside during the week to write down, non-stop, our observations of those settings. An entire hour? Wouldn’t 15 minutes be sufficient? Blue sky. Green trees. Mostly green grass. That should cover it.

Nevertheless, I committed to an hour and selected as my observation point a tree-studded “green” on my small, Iowa campus. Initially I recorded the obvious—what I saw. But as the minutes passed, I became more conscious of the nuances of my surroundings and began to record at a deeper level than merely the visual—what I heard, smelled, touched, tasted. The drone of a plane overhead. The pungent fragrance of freshly mown grass. The softness of a dandelion’s sunny bloom. The taste of my cinnamon gum.

As my senses reached out to my surroundings, memories tied meaning to each. The plane reminded me of my pilot grandfather and the time he’d taken me up to circle over the small Midwestern town my family lived in for generations. The dandelion and freshly mown grass vividly evoked an afternoon in high school when I dug dandelions out of the yard with my mother. And the cinnamon gum took me back to my grandma’s kitchen pantry. Observation, deep observation with all my senses, had taken me far beyond blue sky and green grass. It tapped into memories and emotions that enriched the superficialities of my writing with evocative detail.

Remarkably, my memory can still take me straight back to that hour of observation when I deliberately, consciously, experienced my surroundings. It seems we do so little of that as writers and lose a valuable opportunity to layer and enrich our writing with detail that taps into shared memories and experiences of our readers. Haven’t you too-often picked up a book where, even though the writer told you where a scene was set, you couldn’t envision it? You didn’t hear it, touch it, taste it, smell it, experience it? The characters marched in front of a bland, cardboard background spouting dialogue. Or maybe it’s the characters themselves who are transparent, blending into the surroundings, not coming alive in your imagination because there are no illuminating details.

While I won’t have had time to write much more than notes these past few days, I guarantee you I will have been indulging in “power observation.” Watching people at a deeper level, mentally (and sometimes literally) recording impressions of my surroundings. Tapping into emotions and memories that I can transfer to my writing. Details, details, details—they can make a character or a setting come alive.

This week I’d like to challenge YOU to pick a setting, settle yourself down, and take the time to observe with ALL your senses. Then afterwards, look over your notes. Think about how this setting would appear in an altered EMOTIONAL state. If you observed the setting while happy and relaxed, consider how an agitated or grief stricken condition might affect your observations. Would the surrounding beauty of nature mock you? Would you even be aware of the beauty painted above you in the azure sky, or would you be too focused on bare patches among the weed-infested grass? Would the tangy scent of a bright yellow dandelion be a sunny souvenir of childhood days--or would it be an unwelcome reminder of a darker nature?

Give it a try, and see if indulging in some focused “power observation” will stir up details that will awaken both your characters and their surroundings.



  1. Glynna, this is a great exercise and so freakin' true. The power to actually BE in the moment.

    I love this and I'm going to practice it because I observe characters but not surroundings and I love authors that draw me into the essence of the setting.

    Right now the essence of this setting is calling for caffeine...



    Most people hear 'spit, gurgle, burble and sizzle', but I hear that carafe singing out my name....

    Back later because our Glynna may not be in as often as she would like.


  2. We were between loads of hay once (yes, my summer life revolves around baling hay ... sigh ...) and when I looked at the woods it finally hit me.

    All the trees are different shades of green. Blue-green, yellow-green, greeny-green, light green, dark green ...The leaves are different sizes and textures. Lacy, floppy, dangly ... Whoa, like, far out ...

    However, I think I had realized it before but since I was talking to a friend that was the first time I verbalized it. The imagery part must have been stored in another part of my brain.

    Writing it out or talking it out seems to make it more memorable.

    Chai and candy corn this morning -- breakfast of champions!

  3. Glynna, your post prompted me to revisit a scene in my wip which could really benefit from including more sensory details. (Can you tell I'm writing an historical?)I often forget to include the sense of taste which is odd since taste is so important in my real life.

  4. Excellent suggestion! Thank you for sharing your deeper observations as a reminder that even the cursory glance over our writing can lead to deeper, better formed thoughts and images for the reader.

    Wonderful post.

  5. I think I'm going to try this exercise. What a great idea. Kelly Mortimer did a blog series on the five senses and how writers need to tap into all of them while writing. It was really helpful as this one will be as well!

    Thanks for the post!

  6. I'm not a real observant person. I'm one of those people who would witness a crime and just completely ruin the police's chance of solving it because I'd never be able to describe the culprit but, thanks to a vivid imagination and a desperate desire to be a 'people pleaser' I'd fill in all the blanks.

    This is not LYING this is me being REASONABLE because I'm PRETTY sure that's what the criminal looked like. Yes there are blanks but filling them in isn't that much trouble.

    I'm sort of tuned out to the world a huge part of the time because I do live inside my head a lot.

    I'm going to try and do better. Pay attention! It might also help my driving!

  7. Gynna, great post! At the ACFW conference, I ended up at the table of Gail Martin right after I'd been in her class. Because of the examples she'd given there, I said, "You study people, don't you?" She laughed and said, "Yes, all the time." She went on to talk about them, and you could tell how much the uniqueness of each person fascinated her.

  8. Glynna, what a great assignment! I used to keep a calendar with everything I noticed--the magnolias are beginning to open, the dogwoods are peaking, the grass is turning brown... I kept that for about 2 years so I could look those things up for my settings. But what you did is so much richer! Thanks for the suggestion.

    Missy--needing a little caffeine pick-me-up right now

  9. Ann! Candy corn??!! For breakfast?? LOL

  10. This is such a great idea. I used to do this so much more in the past. I actually copied down bits of overheard conversations on notecards too.

  11. I really need this, Glynna. I'm always so focused on STORY that I often leave out setting details.

  12. Ooh, I want to try this. I remember an exercise from my writing class in 4th grade(?) in which I was assigned to describe my entire bedroom on paper. Apparently it made an impact, because I still remember how challenging it was. Ought to try it again...
    Thanks for the suggestion. :)

  13. Hannah ^^ sent me over here -- this is wonderful! I really must do this -- perhaps begin a habit of it.