Observing the World Like a Writer

After a month on the road it feels great to be home again.

Seattle is where my family and friends are, and along with missing them I’ve also been yearning for the ordinary comforts of home: our local coffee shops, my comfy writing chair, and my mechanical keyboard with Cherry Brown MX switches.

We had a fun time on our fall adventure. After Bouchercon, we scraped enough airline miles together to visit Amsterdam, Cambridge, and London at one week apiece. We were in tourist mode most of the time, visiting museums and taking walking tours. And the sights were often beautiful.

Tall narrow buildings in Amsterdam crammed together along a canal. A yellow canal boat in the foreground.
Amsterdam
A top-down view of British pub food, including a round steak and ale pie with mashed potato and gravy. A round white plate on a brown table.
London Pub Food
The Sherlock Holmes Pub in central London. Gold leaf letters on the sign beneath a leafy canopy.
A pub in Central London
Narrow punting boats along the edge of the River Cam on a sunny day in Cambridge UK
Punting boats along the river Cam in Cambridge (UK)

Observing the World Like a Writer

While this wasn’t a working vacation, and I had little time to write, I did practice my observational skills. That’s something I’m trying to get better at, because good fiction is often inspired by real life. At home I tell myself I’ll jot down my observations on my cell phone, but how often do I follow through?

Spoiler: not very often.

And even when I do remember to capture an interesting snippet of dialog, or a clever turn of phrase that I’ve heard, notes on my phone tend to disappear from my brain. So during this trip I tried something different: carrying a small notebook and pen.

A Field Notes notebook and pen next to a cup of coffee on a cafe table.
My September 2018 Notebook

To my delight, a paper journal worked much better than my phone for observing the world. Whenever I noted something interesting, I wrote it in the journal. Paper beats pixels, at least in this case. A notebook can be flipped through in a way that digital files cannot, jogging the memory and inviting new connections. And handwritten thoughts seem to stick in my memory better. Besides, it simply feels more writerly to scribble in a journal.

What did I capture while we traveled? Here’s a partial list:

Notes from Bouchercon panels, including the names of authors I met, and interesting tidbits I heard about publishing and writing.

The following quote by Van Gogh, from the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam.

The painted portraits have a life of their own that comes from deep in the soul of the painter and where the machine can’t go.

A reminder to look up author MR James of Cambridge. We took a Ghost Stories tour in Cambridge, and his name came up a lot. He’s considered the father of English ghost stories.

Two scribbled pages of description about the large Orthodox Jewish family that sat near us on a train outside London.

The names of forty different types of clocks I saw inside the British Museum’s clock room. So many clocks! And so many sexy nouns. Here are just a few:

Sectric Motor Clocks
Musical Table Clock with Automata
Orrery
Planispheric Astrolabic Clock (1560)

I also captured little snippets of overheard dialog. Public transport is excellent for eavesdropping. I caught some hilarious banter from people arguing about Jesus on a public bus.

I have no specific plans for any of these notes, they are enriching my mind. Together they form a kind of mulch from which a story can grow. And if I hadn’t written them down, they’d be gone by now.

Embracing The Ordinary

It’s October now, and my first little notebook is full. Time to switch to a fresh one, and apply those same habits of observation to my life here at home. Listening is something you can do anywhere, no plane ticket required. Although I still think a city bus is an ideal place to discover new characters.

Still, I’m grateful for a chance to fill my eyes and ears with novelty from time to time. And travel is a wonderful source of novelty.

But for now, if you’re in Seattle, and you say something interesting or weird on a Metro Bus, look around. I might be the woman scribbling in a brown paper notebook, listening for the weird and the wonderful, ready for that next spark of inspiration. 😉