Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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February 1, 2013

Confessions of an Incessant Observer

I came across a quote the other day by Mortimer J. Adler - "In the case of good books, the point is not how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you" - that was perfectly timed. Why? Because I'd recently read a beautifully written book that got through to me - loud and clear - as both a reader and writer. And I'm beyond tickled to welcome the brilliant Kimberly Brock, author of The River Witch, to Writers In The Storm. - Orly Konig-Lopez

KBrockheadshot4by Kimberly Brock

An idea may come to me because of a place I visit, a photograph, a piece of trivia or obscure history that catches my attention. I love obscure history. But a story only ever begins for me with a voice.

From the time I can remember, I’ve been running lines in my head. Whether it was a voice from my family or a teacher or some stranger I encountered at the grocery store, in the airport, on the TV or radio, I tried them out in my own mind. Sometimes the words were bits and pieces of remembered conversation. Sometimes I gave them original things to say. And I would listen and wonder why they sounded the way they did and consider the feelings they stirred in me. I would mimic their intonation and emotion, their body language and expressions. I spent hours watching myself in the mirror, “trying people on.” I was a precocious and curious child. My radar was always tuned to those around me, trying to figure out for all I was worth, why they were the way they were.

I guess, more than anything, I was and am incessantly observing.

But that’s only the first piece of it because the observation is merely the seed. What springs from it is my compulsion to explain people, situations, and the whole world, to myself. And therein, lay the stories. I think all the minutes of my entire life have been spent doing this in one way or another. It won’t surprise you to learn that one of my favorite places was a library, where I could read other people’s explanations in countless attempts to make sense of their worlds. You might expect that in high school and college, I finally made it onto a stage, where I took my mirror acting to another level. I even attempted to write poetry (didn’t we all?) and published a few short stories along the way. But the day I sat down and began writing novels, a floodgate opened. The voices I had collected and dissected and obsessed over, were all waiting there in my memory, eager for their turn on the page.

The clamoring was almost enough to scare me off. In the case of The River Witch, there were eventually two voices which rose above the rest. At some point, I chose the strongest voice, the one spouting the story I most wanted to hear, and that’s when I began to know Damascus Trezevant. And really, all I did was listen patiently, in wonder, and eventually, I wrote down what she had to say about herself, her life and the people that filled her days.

I was charmed. I was in love. But at some point I realized her perspective was limited and often flawed. So I listened and waited for the voice which could speak to the other side of the coin. I followed where all my questions led and that is where I met Roslyn Byrne, bringing her own skewed perspective which somehow brought balance to the whole of the narrative.

These two characters shared a short summer on a very remote island and by allowing each of them to speak their own truths, fears, and hopes, somehow they explained not only themselves, but each other. It was a dance, really. At times, it was a battle. I spent hours staring at the computer screen, waiting for one or the other to reveal herself and terrified neither would show. Some days the story languished in coy silence. At times I could hardly keep up with the pace as these distinct voices challenged each other in every way, desperate to understand love, loss, family, abandonment, death and faith – all the same things I struggle with in my personal human experience and the very things I’ve watched those around me come up against in our journey through this life.

In the end, I know more than I could have known about these people and their worlds than if I’d simply approached the story head-on, without daring to go at it from multiple angles. I’m wiser than I was before I wrote it. And I hope that’s what the reader experiences: the gift of seeing the world through another’s eyes. I’ve always said I wished I had the eyes of a fly, so I could see the world a thousand different ways, so I could know the why and how of everything, but also the why of the why and the how of the how. For me, being a writer is the closest I’ve come to that kind of grace. That’s the true gift of story, I believe. Perspective.

Facebook: Kimberly Brock Author
Twitter: @kimberlydbrock
I coordinate the blog network for national online book club She Reads at www.shereads.org
I am represented by Jenny Bent of The Bent Agency.

0 comments on “Confessions of an Incessant Observer”

  1. I LOVE this post, Kimberly. It was one of those "light bulb" moments for me. I've been having a tough time getting into the new WIP and I finally realized why - I wasn't giving myself the time to get to know my characters but trying to force the story forward instead.

    So today, my main character and I are chilling by the fireplace, drinking coffee and getting to know each other. 🙂

    1. Orly, I wish I had more "light bulb" moments. I wish I didn't rush myself. I think it's part of our culture, and for me part of being a mom, that makes me believe I'm not working if I'm not going 90 to nothing. I'm learning to give the process the time it needs and my writing is better for it. Even if my readers all want to know when, when, when the next one will be done. 🙂

  2. I've made my living for a few years, hearing what people DON'T say when they're telling me their problems.

    That has translated into my fiction, making my dialog fiendishly slow to write because it has to come out just so, but as it comes out, what feels natural becomes obvious.

    Just as great writers are great readers, great writers are also observers, else they'll never have the vision to show others.

    1. You are right on the money, IMO, Joel. I think people RARELY say anything that is true to what is going on with them, internally. That fascinates me. In another life, before my kids, I taught students with severe neurological and behavior disorders. I learned a lot about listening, and when it comes to people, it can rarely be done with our ears. I think writing a good character means listening for the INTERNAL voice, and then being able to recreate that through all the things they DON'T say.

      1. "RARELY say anything that is true..." Wow. Seems like an overstatement given that with social networking, many tend to overshare. I can relate to the point though because I try not to talk about heavy burdens until they are behind me and the emotional pain passes.

        1. True, social networking does encourage over-sharing. But not necessarily what I'm talking about here - I am referring to people-watching for the purposes of writing effective characterization and achieving intimacy with a character's inner dialogue. A better way to say it might be that people customarily don't wear their hearts on their sleeves. And sure, there are always exceptions. Thanks for the PERSPECTIVE. 😉

  3. Kimberly, I'm going to try not to sound all 'fangirl,' here, because I LOVED River Witch. You made me feel like such a hack!

    I'm not as conscientiously observant as you. I don't purposely look for quirks, etc. When one catches my eye, or ear, I don't notice, but it turns up somewhere in my writing.
    Great post! Thanks for blogging with us!

    1. Thanks so much, Laura. You made my day! And here's a confession -- I feel like a hack every day. I think that's part of the game we play with ourselves as writers. 🙂
      And I agree that lots shows up in our writing that we have noticed and tucked away without even really being aware. People are patterns and puzzles and miracles! Don't you love that?

  4. Great post! I fit the description of "incessant observer" too, but would've never coined the term. I like the idea of the two voices rising above the others in your novel. It's inspiring because although I'm writing a memoir, in my own "voices," certain themes, threads and stories will rise above the resr. Thanks.

  5. Kimberly, as a compulsive/obsessive people watcher, I have enjoyed so much of what I see and hear in the world around me. People can be so funny or sad and reveal so much of themselves when they don't know they are being watched or overheard. The characters I've known, the strangers and those close to me I've wanted to remember are like treasures I keep in a giant trunk in the attic, an old suitcase wrapped with cord in the basement, those odd bags and shoe boxes in the back of the hall closet ... and when I need inspiration or when they get restless and calls to me ... I go in and find one, dust them off and have a great old time. Yes, I even talk to my characters 🙂

    Thanks so much ... I loved this post and also love that quote at the opening. I have not yet read The River Witch, but you can be sure I will add her to my TBR stack of must reads !!

  6. KIm--What a great post--something to decipher within myself...I'm idea girl for sure--Usually a question comes to mind and book 'springith forth.' Ha! I need just the right character to go with my idea...right now, my girl Jenny and I, are learning a bit more about each other. We need to learn quickly. 🙂 Thanks for a dip into your insight.
    Lindi P.

  7. wow, this really hit me like a frying pan in my face. I've always been accused of over-explaining things, and repeating myself ten different ways. I defend myself be stating that I just want to ensure everyone understands the point I'm trying to get across, so I go into intense detail and rephrase everything so that no stone gets left un-turned, and we can all walk away on the same page. What a revelation that this NEED to get the details exactly correct is yet another part of my writer's mind to tell the story --- whatever story it is we're discussing at that moment in time. Holy crap. Mind = blown.

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