I love to watch people. I am not alone in this. Sometimes, I think the entire practice of people-watching is custom-made for fiction writers, but I know a lot of non-writers who like to do it too.
Back in 1995, my first job out of college was a loan clerk for the Small Business Administration. What few people knew was that back then (and maybe even now) victims of natural disasters had to be turned down for an SBA loan before they could apply for money from FEMA. So in September of 1995, I was dispatched to Puerto Rico in response to Hurricane Marilyn.
Now this was back before gambling was “no big deal” in New York. It was a “big deal” in Puerto Rico. Every hotel had a casino, even the Holiday Inn I stayed at. And once the work day ended (around 7pm), there wasn’t much to do in San Juan except go clubbing (not for me) or gamble (also not for me).
So I developed a habit. I’d eat and perch just outside the casino area and observe. There was the group of little old ladies who camped out by the slot machines, the guy in the loud Hawaiian shirt who never left the craps table, the newlywed couple who lost at just about everything, but had fun anyway. One night, I managed to grab a spot at the El San Juan hotel – very swanky (it had a dress code just to walk in the lobby). There I watched men and women dressed in everything from designer beachwear, to suits and dresses, to tuxes and gowns sashay through the doors, ready to win – or lose. Somehow, by the looks of the clothes, I didn’t think it mattered to them.
Too bad I was years away from writing fiction. Oh, the fodder for characters! People left in various stages or jubilation or dejection. There were arguments between friends, spouses, patrons and hotel security. Who were these people? Why were they there? Why were they gambling away thousands of dollars every night?
And what happened when they went home?
As I grew into writing, the casual “people watching” bug became even more valuable. At the pool, what about that young girl who wears a demure one-piece when her parents are around, but a scanty bikini when she’s alone? Since cell phones have obliterated personal privacy, you can hear tantalizing snippets of conversation anywhere – the bus, the subway, the line at the grocery store. What’s up with that harassed-looking woman at the mall, poring over ties like her life depended on it?
Fodder, all of it. I even got to use an overheard snippet in a current WIP. “You’d better fix this. You hear me?”
Think of the possibilities.
My daughter likes to roam the mall. I’m not so big on roaming, but I love to sit in the food court or Starbucks and watch the world go by. So many stories, so many possibilities. She thinks it’s boring. I think it’s fascinating.
Shakespeare was right – all the world’s a stage. The characters, the settings, the plots are right there, just ripe for the picking.
Spying? No, I’m people watching.
So what about you, readers? Do you people watch? And do you make up stories about the people you watch?