by Carolyn Brown
Back when I was a girl growing up in Tishomingo, Oklahoma the stores all stayed open late on Saturday night. Everyone went to town after supper and the women folks bought groceries, looked through the two clothing stores to see what was new and caught up on the gossip that was too juicy to be told over the telephone.
Men folks leaned up against their automobiles and pick up trucks and discussed the price of chicken feed, how many bushels of sweet potatoes their garden would produce and fussed about the new car (a white 1963 Corvette with red leather interior) down in the Chevrolet dealership show room. Dang thing wasn't worth much. You couldn't haul enough chicken feed in it to last a week. It only seated two people so it wasn't worth taking home.
Poppa wasn't interested in gossip or what people thought of the car that I drooled over every day on my way home from school. He sat in the car and and watched the people and I was glad to join him in doing so. I didn't need to hear the gossip and if Momma wanted to know ALL the details she just had to read my diary (but first she had to find the key or get a whole lot better at lock picking). And I sure didn't like the way those old fellows badmouthed my dream car.
So I got my first lessons in people watching sitting in a car on Main Street in Tishomingo, Oklahoma. I understand that now that is called Observational Staring or OS which is okay in an author's business. It all falls under the RESEARCH heading in the handbook concerning legalities and they won't throw you in jail for it or take away your computer. Now there is something called Rude Staring or RS that will get you thrown out of your local chapter so don't get the two confused.
OS is something that must be learned and practiced often. You don't have to pay for classes and you don't have to buy special clothing or new-fangled technology. You can do it anywhere but you have to practice at least once a week.
Wal-Mart: There's a whole world of research in a two a.m. trip to the Wal-Mart store for a gallon of milk. Try walking around for an hour or so and just looking at the people and listening to them. Throw a few things in your cart so no one thinks you are stalking them and you are in business.
Cell phone kiosk at the mall: It's a great place to listen to a bunch of teenage girls. "I mean like OMG she's not even like hot. Did you see that piece of trashy cover like on her cell. It didn't have like a bit of bling. And FYI, she's not even going to like take Misty away from Dillon." All the while they're bobbing their little necks around so fast that their blue pony tail is dancing. (It's a great place to get the teenage daughter of my cowboy's neighbor just right for a future book.)
Bookstores: I do recommend until you get your black belt in OS that you use a book for a prop in this store. Your latest release will do just fine. Hold it up and peek over the top. (See picture above) When that big old gal you are studying catches you and comes out of the bargain books like a tornado and says, "What are you lookin' at hussy?" Then you can honestly say, "I'm sorry. I was reading my newest release. See! (Hold up book and point to your name) Love Drunk Cowboy and I'm the author, and I thought that you looked just like a character in the book." Do not tell her which character. Let her think that she's that brunette on the front with the red boots.
She'll smile and say, "So you are a romance author? If I go get one of those books from the racks will you sign it for me?"
"Yes, ma'am I surely will!"
Saved by a book! And she didn't even mop up the romance aisle with my hair! OS brown belt coming right up (Next: the black belt and I'll be an expert).
Last Sunday I was in a Mexican restaurant and decided to hone my OS skills. I watched. I sniffed. I listened and when I got back to the car, I couldn't find a single piece of paper to write my observations down. So I had to write my OS results on the back of the credit card receipt.
1. What was your most vivid visual?
Well, that would be the lady sitting at the big table at the back of the restaurant surrounded by what had to be her family. A brother, father, sister, mother and a couple of nieces. She didn't want to be there but it was Mother's Day so she couldn't get out of it. She didn't like Mexican cuisine because she nibbled at her salsa and chips (while I downed two baskets of chips and two bowls of salsa). She kept chewing her lipstick off and glancing over at the table where a cowboy sat with his granny and his mother. We live in a small town. I knew them all but to protect the guilty I shall not call names. But he kept sliding these long glances over at her and winking every so often and I didn't even know she'd starting dating after her divorce two weeks ago.
2. What did you hear?
Fifty conversations all going on at once. But the most deafening sound was the couple in the booth behind me. They weren't speaking at all. Silence during cafe chaos. Something isn't right here folks. He's looking at the menu and she's studying the serapes and the flamboyant hats on the walls. There is definitely trouble in paradise.
3. What did you smell?
The sizzle of hot fajitas in an iron skillet as the waitress carried them to the lady sitting all alone not far from the silent couple. And she's not looking at the couple. She's carefully keeping her eyes on her food. Oh, dear lord, had Mr. Silent gone and kissed his secretary again? Did Mrs. Silent find out about it and now they were all three within two feet of each other in a cafe? Then I caught a whiff of cinnamon as a platter of sopapillas passed by my booth. Mrs. Silent blew the bottom out of her Weight Watcher's Online Diet when she stuck a hole in the top and filled it up with honey. I expect Mr. Silent was just glad she didn't stick the knife in him and commence to filling him up with honey right there in front of the secretary in the short skirt and with the expensive perfume overpowering both fajitas and sopapillas. One more intense inhaling lesson and I realized where he'd made his mistake. He should not buy the wife AND the secretary the same fragrance even if he is kissing both of them.
Poppa would have called it "watchin' the people". Experts on writing call it Observational Staring. So do any of you ever entertain yourselves at the food court in a mall, on the subway or even in the grocery store check out line with a bit of OS? It's a lot more entertaining than the tabloids, isn't it? Come on, 'fess up. Tell me your stories! What did you find out on your first excursion into OS?