Tuesday, 6 October 2015

people watching: a writing exercise

Today's writing exercise is all about building up your arsenal of stuff to be used in stories.

You'll need to be in a cafe, or other public space (preferably one where people stay for a while). You're going to need a notebook. You can write stuff on your 'phone or some other gadget if you prefer, but personally, for quick jotting, I'm a big fan of a notebook.

Choose a person. You're going to write about this person. What they look like, how they move, the cut of their jib. Unusual people may be more interesting, but anyone becomes unusual if you look long enough (try not to get done for stalking). Describe, describe, describe. Get a really good idea of the person as a character. You might want to move on from doing this to making stuff up about them - a name, the roles they play in their life. Their opinions on various topics. It's all good. If you're like me, you'll make that stuff up as you go along.

Now you've got an idea about your character, think about what they might have in a pocket or a bag - something they would always carry with them. eg Dr Who's sonic screwdriver.

Think about something that person might regret. And something they might rather be doing.

You don't have to do anything with all this just now, but it's useful to have some fully formed players waiting in the wings.

Here's what I got the other day:

Violet - she's the artist. Not me.
She's all in purple: a purple polo neck with a lace purple jacket on top. Sensible purple trousers. Where is her red hat? Which does not go? She's tipping her chair up and spreading her arms to make her point. Ribbons around her neck hold her keys and her glasses.  Diamonds sparkle in white gold rings clustered on her arthritic fingers. Jewellry passed on to her by her dead relatives, which she will pass on in not too long. But not today. Let's hope, not today.
Straight hair, flat upon her head in a practical cut, never tidy, and greying so now she looks in the mirror and is confronted by an ageing Boris Johnson. She moves on. Plants her glasses on her face and smacks down niceties.
Shall we call her Violet? In her shades of purple, and her violent temper. 
She's an artist. She was popular in the 1970s. She knew rock bands, earned lots of money for a crazy period, and had sex with Jimmy Hendrix (he was not good). But spent it all, and ended up working in a boarding school teaching posh girls art. She had no children of her own but some of those girls, the ones that didn't hate her, the ones she didn't hate right back, some of them are still in touch. Sometimes. 
Today, like every Wednesday, she's out with her neighbour. Although last Wednesday her neighbour was in hospital, and this Wednesday she looks a bit peaky, so Violet is entertaining her with tall tales. It doesn't do to dwell.
They always come to this cafe, because this is the cafe they always come to. Violet suspects others are better, but this will do, and it's not worth risking bad coffee. In her pocket she has smuggled out a biscuit. She doesn't like the ones that come with the coffee, so risks dipping her secret hobnob, released from its handkerchief prison. Who would challenge her, an old lady? Who would do it twice?
If someone asked Violet what she regrets, she'd break into song, 'Non, je ne regrette rien.' But. That's not the truth of 3am, when she lies in her lonely bed, wondering if she'd been just a little bit less fond of 'being herself', could she have made a new self? One that was happy? She has had a lot of sex, at one point, but not now, and truly, it wasn't good enough to last a lifetime. 

How did you get on?