I thought I was going to the zoo this past week to see the animals.
While I did see a fair number of those, I most appreciated seeing the assortment of people. And this got me thinking about what a great resource it could be for writers.
This past month I've been reading a series of detective stories written and set in San Francisco in the 1980s. (While written as contemporaries, with the passage of time the early books in the Sharon McCone series by Marcia Muller are now almost historicals.)
One element that's kept me reading through four or five novels is the author's eye for people. And not just her major and supporting characters. As she paints the setting for various scenes, she's sure to include brief descriptions of the distinctive individuals who populate her urban landscapes. Whether it's a weekend flea market, a city park, a home remodeling show, or a skid row district, 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 neither could you—not and make it consistently feel real to readers. Yes, if you only “write what you know” you can populate a story with characters that resemble the ones you used to work and shop and dine with. But eventually that runs out—especially if you spend most of your hours in a basement office pounding a keyboard. If you're writing something contemporary— especially if it involves characters outside your regular contacts—a field trip may prove useful. Maybe one to the zoo.
This past Wednesday was not only my granddaughter's first birthday, it was also a free day at the Denver Zoo. And it turns out we weren't the only people who thought going there was a good idea. When I volunteered to watch the stroller my daughter couldn't take into the tropical discovery building (a great place to see Komodo dragons) I made the most of the time by watching the people.
Perhaps I'm lacking imagination or I don't get out enough, but I couldn't have invented the people 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 man in their sixties, one carrying an elaborately decorated 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 varied tattoos (and piercings) than I thought possible.
● a family with girls all wearing long skirts and net hair coverings.
● another family with the men and older boys all wearing yarmulkes.
● couples in their eighties, with one carrying an oxygen bottle or riding in a wheelchair.
● and a young woman dressed as a tooth fairy, assisting at a dental clinic booth where children could spin a wheel and get a tube of toothpaste, a toothbrush, or a “grand prize.”
I wasn't taking notes, so I'm sure I've lost most of the interesting details. But it was enough to make me realize the potential a zoo presents for seeing and hearing more than just animals.
How about you? Where do you go to just observe—and how do you capture the details before they're lost to your memory?