People Watching

I went to the zoo to see animals. But I most appreciated the people.

Recently I’ve read several detective stories set in San Francisco in the 1980s. One element that’s kept me hooked is author Marcia Muller’s eye for people. And not just her major or even supporting characters.

As Muller depicts urban landscapes, she refers to the distinctive individuals who populate them. Whether a flea market, a city park, a home remodeling show, or skid row, Muller conveys a sense of not only how the people look, but also how they act—and often how they speak.

She couldn’t just make this up and make it feel real. Neither could you. Yes, if you only “write what you know,” you can populate a story with characters like the ones with whom you work and shop and dine.

But eventually that well runs dry—especially if you spend most of your hours pounding a keyboard. If you’re writing something contemporary that involves characters outside your regular contacts, take a field trip.

On my granddaughter’s birthday, I took her to the zoo. The place was packed, and I spent a lot of time watching people. I couldn’t have invented the cast I saw in just ten minutes:

● an older Japanese woman wearing not only a floppy hat, but also black gloves past her elbows

● a trio of Pakistani men in their sixties, one carrying an elaborate silver cane

● an elementary age girl trying to herd a Canada goose

● groups of special needs adults, many in their forties and fifties

● twenty kindergartners holding a length of blue rope as they walked with their teachers

● people with more tattoos (and piercings) than I thought possible

● a family with four girls wearing long skirts and net hair coverings

● another family with the men and older boys all wearing yarmulkes

● a couple in their eighties, one carrying an oxygen bottle

● a young woman dressed as a tooth fairy, assisting at a dental clinic booth where children could spin a wheel and win a tube of toothpaste, a toothbrush, or a grand prize

I noticed enough to recognize the potential for watching the people watching the animals.

Wherever you go, redeem the time by casting your next story.


Andy Scheer, editor-in-chief for the Christian Writers Guild, also serves as a freelance book editor and an agent with Hartline Literary. A frequent speaker at writers conferences, he served for twelve years as managing editor for Moody magazine.

Photo Credit: © Peter Galbraith –

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