Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Living in the Shrubs

You might be wondering what "Living in the Shrubs" has to do with writing advice.

For me, the phase has plenty of meaning.

Writers spend a good portion of their time reading. This reading can be research (reading non-fiction that helps us to ensure the doctor character in our current story spews dialogue of medical terminology that makes sense). The reading can also be fiction, by writers we respect (who we want to emulate) or other writers who we might not respect, per se, but we might want to at least understand.

Now we're almost in the shrubs.

Over the last couple of weeks, I've been reading fiction that I find somewhat embarrassing. We're talking books I keep upside down in my car so if a passerby happens to glance in, they won't see the cover and judge me for reading such "drivel." And no, I most certainly will not admit which books or authors I have been reading.

When I read these books, I'm trying to figure out some vital information:

Why is this book and/or author so popular?
What in this book appeals to such a broad audience?
What do I personally find appealing in the book (if anything)?
How can I capture some of this money-making-brilliance and stuff it into my novel?

When I perform this sort of research, I feel like I'm living in the shrubs, hiding from society, ready to pounce on the unsuspecting public.

Don't be too creeped out. I don't actually live in the shrubs. I am not a serial killer or anything interesting like that. But I am a bit of a serial observer.

Writers are watching and listening (maybe even taking notes) all of the time. That means that we should be theoretically living in the shrubs, where we have a better view of everything around us. Now I'm not suggesting you actually live in the shrubs, because that's just plain wrong, but I believe I've made my point.

So what are we writers observing?

- mannerisms
- conversational dynamics
- clothing
- eating and drinking habits
- architectural and decorating details
- car models and driving habits
- reading habits
- development and use of technology

Okay, the list is getting long already, and I'm only scratching the tip of the iceberg's surface at this point. Because we really are observing anything and everything we are able to absorb. Because if we wish to infuse our characters with believable characteristics, and we long for our settings to come alive in the readers' minds, and we aim to build believable worlds then we need a foundation of details with which to generate these details.

Wait a minute. I thought fiction was about making stuff up. About lying for a living.

True.

I don't like shrubs, and I don't want to get my outfit dirty.

It's a metaphor. Weren't you listening?

This is a blog. Listening doesn't apply.

Enough with the clever quips, Suzanne. Get back to your point.

My point:

Fiction comes alive when it is infused with truths.

So go out and buy that bestseller that you think is lame and poorly written (lock yourself in the bathroom while you read it, if you don't want anyone else to know). Shamelessly eavesdrop on conversations at the coffee shop, on the subway, in the mall, at the office, wherever. Pay attention to how everyone dresses and carries themselves, from old ladies at the synagogue to teenagers at the bus stop, to moms at the grocery store. Notice whether everyone who drives a pickup changes lanes without signalling. Remember how your mechanic wipes his nose. File away how the housekeeper at your hotel sways her hips while she pushes her cart.

Absorb and catalogue it all for later.

So the next time you're walking past the neighbour's shrubs, imagine how much you could garner from an afternoon spent hiding amongst them.

Do it now
Look up, right now, and watch whatever is in front of you for five minutes. (If you're alone in your office, look out the window and watch the grass grow, or the squirrels scampering.)

The next time you're at the grocery store, write down five different character types you encounter.

The next time you're a passenger in a car, watch and study how different people in different cars behave. I said a passenger! Don't be distracted while you're ACTUALLY driving. Safety first!

Read a book you think you'll hate, just to see what other people might see in it.

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