Wednesday, May 11, 2011 you practice it?

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?


  1. I live in the country--a stray dog is worth two weeks of gossip at the mail boxes. I spent a few days in London right before the Royal Wedding and found myself doing a protracted OS any time I left the hotel. I'd run over to Boots for a sandwich, and an hour later still be sitting on bench just goggling.

    And it's as you say: You goggle with your eyes, but also with your nose and with your ears. It was wonderful-but I was ready to get back to the peace and quiet of the countryside!

  2. Grace: I like your stray dog even better than the old "sitting on the porch watching the dust settle after the mail truck went past." I bet you had many great lessons in OS in London especially during that time.

  3. I was at a fabric store that was closing down, and my daughter and I both were making observations about our clerk--sullen, moody, Goth, skull on her shirt, pink stripe in black hair, hospital band from current hospitalization like a badge of greatness--slash marks all over her arms. She was a cutter. Now, some of the things, I noticed, and some my daughter noticed. Neither of us had planned to catalog everything we could about the girl, but when we left the store, both of us were comparing notes. It goes to show it's important to take another observer with you. We both missed a lot of neat clues as individuals, and yes, she's been in a story. :)

  4. Terry: You are very close to winning that black belt in OS. I'm still learning. I didn't realize it could be a team effort but I like that idea.

  5. This was great Carolyn. I love people watching. I had never heard it called OS. That makes me feel better, like it's legit. Now, I'm trying to remember some good stories but I'm drawing a blank. I have OS block. Will report back if I can think of something good.

  6. Anita: I'm new to the concept, also. It was pointed out to me by LaVerne St. George, another author, who practiced at a food court. I did some research and found that they can't throw you in jail for it! I wasn't aware that (in Terry's case) it could be a team effort or in yours that you could get OS block! Wonder what else we'll about it this day.

  7. oh, my goodness, Carolyn, I don't think I am a people watcher. I do look at magazines to get ideas about how to describe characters, but when I'm out and about in the grocery store or shopping center I just want to get what I want and head home. I don't usually look at anyone. If I'm some place like an airport, or doctor's office I'm usually reading so yes, I'd have to say I don't do a lot of people watching.
    Loved reading about your small town

  8. Amelia: Try it sometime. You'll be amazed at what happens but be careful, it is addictive.

  9. Carolyn, what a fun post! I worked in bookstores for years and they are the absolute best for OS and OL (observational listening, because you can't always stare without being noticed). I used to volunteer to put out the magazines because they were right next to the cafe and I could eavesdrop on conversations while I worked.

    People tend to come to the cafe to have those conversation that would end up in a knock-down, drag-out fight if you weren't in a public place, so I've heard families torn apart and patched up again and all sorts of relationship drama.

  10. Loved your post, Carolyn! I grew up in a small town and on Sunday afternoons, all the teenagers would go to the next small town over and drive up and down Main Street for hours. Yep, just drive, going 25 miles per hour up and down the street - turning around in the same two parking lots - taking note who was there - hoping you would see that special somebody you were hoping would ask you out. :) Haven't thought about that in so long... Thanks for bringing up such a fun memory!!

  11. Joanne, so you are an old hand at OS and its sister, OL! Bet with that kind of experience you've about got a black belt in both! We could do the team effort and compare notes next time someone needs magazines put out on the rack! LOL
    Catherine: "Draggin' Main," is what we called it. What fun!! Hadn't thought about that in a long time. But it did bring back memories that could land me in divorce court if I wrote them down!

  12. My favorite place for OS is the park. You can learn a lot about people based on what their kids say when they're playing.

  13. Shana: You nailed that one! Art Linkletter said, "Kids say the darnedest things." Well to say it they got to hear it somewhere.

  14. Fabulous post, Carolyn. I've long been a fan of people watching, trying not to be obvious, it wouldn't do to get caught by those one was trying to observe.

    We raised our kids in a smaller town than the both of us grew up in, and the hub was always the Shop Rite. It was a great place to find out what was going on with whom and who was in trouble at school, etc.

    I'll have to polish up my skills!

  15. Thank you, Colleen! When you call it OS, it's not eavesdropping, BTW!

  16. I've done this all my life and just called it "people watching" I'm from a small town and lived outside of town until I was about 9/10yrs old, so my people watching mostly consisted of watching Grandma and the neighbor lady or my cousins...unless we went to town and then I'd learn used to amaze me that people would say and do things in front of kids and think they had no idea. Now I do it out of habit. I'll just sit and wait for the kids...or whoever and just watch. It's truly amazing what you learn, and what you imagine....And visiting places where we are "different" meaning leaving my state or my part of the state and OMG the way people talk, walk, stand, it's all different.

    I find it all fascinating.

  17. I wouldn't necessarily call it observational staring, but I do like people watching, especially in places like Walmart. You do sometimes see some strange sights, it's good writer fodder.