Spying – or People Watching?

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?



Author: Liz Milliron

Liz Milliron has been making up stories, and creating her own endings for other people's stories, for as long as she can remember. She's worked for almost twenty years in the corporate world, but finds creating fiction is far more satisfying than writing software manuals. A lifelong mystery fan, she is the author of The Laurel Highlands Mysteries series. The first book, Root of All Evil, will be released by Level Best Books in August 2018. Her short fiction has been published in several anthologies, including the Anthony-award-winning Blood on the Bayou, Mystery Most Historical and The Killer Wore Cranberry: A Fifth Course of Chaos. Visit her at http://lizmilliron.com, find her on Facebook at https://facebook.com/LizMilliron, or follow her on Twitter (@LizMilliron).

4 thoughts on “Spying – or People Watching?”

  1. Mary, this is brilliant. People watching is a favorite past-time of mine, too. And it’s definitely not boring! Although, I’m sure my daughter would agree with yours. Trains, I find, also are a wonderful environment for people watching and tidbit harvesting. Thanks for sharing!


  2. Thanks. Now that i work in the city, people watching has taken on whole new life. Today’s sighting: an elderly man in a kilt, white shirt, tails, bow tie, top hat, and white gloves, holding a can, wearing art-deco bright yellow glasses and red/silver-metallic sneakers. Now tell me that isn’t a character begging to be written!


  3. Good way to put it, Mary! I love to people watch. It was extremely fun when I lived in South Florida because there were always tourists around and for some reason they always seemed very unguarded (I guess vacation has that effect). Though, it’s pretty darn fun just at the mall, as you say, or even the grocery store.


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