Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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January 13, 2021

People Watching During a Pandemic

by Eldred “Bob” Bird

There’s no doubt 2020 has changed some of our writing habits. In the years BC (Before Covid), one of my favorite writing exercises was people watching. I’d tote my laptop to parks libraries, pubs, and a whole host of other public places. This is where I found inspiration when building characters or looking for new and interesting ways to represent human interactions in my writing.

I paid close attention to things like body language, facial expressions, and all the little nuances that set someone apart and made them stand out from the crowd. I listened in on conversations and tried to guess where the person talking was from based on their accent and use of slang. I made up stories about the couple whispering at a table in the dark corner of the bar. This was my creative playground.

But then things changed.

Bars and restaurants are now half deserted or closed, faces are covered, and social distancing and mask-muffled voices makes it difficult to eavesdrop for those little tidbits that helped me bring my characters and dialogue to life. This ‘New Normal’ was crippling my creativity. So, what’s a writer to do during a pandemic?

Adjusting to the New Normal

If there’s one thing we writers are good at, it’s using our imagination. It’s the bread and butter of our existence. I figured if I applied some of that imagination, I could find a new approach to people watching and get my character hunting back on track. Here are a few solutions I came up with.

 The Big Cover-up

Masked faces are one of the biggest game-changers, but instead of worrying about what I can’t see, I now pay more attention to what I can see. Not being able to focus on full facial expressions has made me much more aware of just how expressive the eyes alone can be. Cheeks elevating, eyebrows arching and scrunching, pupils dilating and shifting around the room, foreheads wrinkling—all tell me something about the emotional state of the person I’m observing. I’ve also noticed an increased use of exaggerated hand gestures.

How someone wears their mask may also give character clues. Is it below the nose? Are they wearing a cheap disposable mask, or a high-end reusable one? Is it colorful, or basic black? Maybe they’ve personalized it or refuse to wear one at all. These details speak to the personality of the wearer and help to develop characters as well.

Video Voyeurism

The proliferation of work-at-home and video conferencing has given us a peek in the windows of our coworkers, family, and friends. Instead of gathering in conference rooms, cubicles, restaurants, and bars, we sit in front of a screen with a camera pointed at our faces and into our private spaces.

Video conferencing has made me more aware of who has pets (and spoils them), who has kids (and how those offspring behave), and what kind of knick-knacks everyone has on their desks and tucked in bookshelves. Paying attention to what’s going on in the background has given me all kinds inspiration for personality quirks and created questions for my imagination to feed on. Even what virtual backgrounds someone chooses to display can tell me something about them. It also makes me wonder what they might be hiding (like the disaster area in my office).

Into the Great Wide-open

I’ve learned a lot watching how people handle the new normal inside. I’ve found it just as informative to observe how they act when they get outside. People watch in the parking lot of your local supermarket for an hour and you’ll see what I mean. Everyone has their own little quirks.

Some people don the mask before getting out the car, while others wait unit the very last second when they get to the store entrance. Then there are those who argue with the employee at the door because they don’t want to wear one at all. My favorites are the ones who rip off their masks as soon as they step outside. They scrunch it tight in their fist and draw in a deep breath, as if they’ve been deprived of oxygen and are about to pass out.

There are also those who wear the mask in their own car even when they are alone. I imagine these folks masking up before stepping out of the house and keeping it on until safely locked back inside. These are the people we used to make fun of for always have a bottle of hand sanitizer in their pocket. Who’s laughing now?

Some Final Thoughts

Just because we’re not currently allowed to get too close to other people doesn’t mean we can’t still watch them. We just have to watch in a different way. Pandemic or not, the world changes every day, and we are constantly changing with it. I’ll admit it’s usually a gentler curve rather than the left turn we’ve been dealt, but the bottom line is we will adjust and survive, as we always have.

Has 2020 altered your writing habits? How have you adjusted to the changes?

* * * * * *

About Eldred

Eldred Bird writes contemporary fiction, short stories, and personal essays. He has spent a great deal of time exploring the deserts, forests, and deep canyons inside his home state of Arizona. His James McCarthy adventures, Killing KarmaCatching Karma, and Cold Karma, reflect this love of the Grand Canyon State even as his character solves mysteries amidst danger. Eldred explores the boundaries of short fiction in his stories, The Waking RoomTreble in Paradise: A Tale of Sax and Violins, and The Smell of Fear.

When he’s not writing, Eldred spends time cycling, hiking and juggling (yes, juggling…bowling balls and 21-inch knives). His passion for photography allows him to record his travels. He can be found on Twitter or Facebook, or at his website.

12 comments on “People Watching During a Pandemic”

  1. People watching is a great sport. When I can't hear what's being mumbled from behind the masks I imagine a conversation and how I'd like it to go. One day I may be right.

    1. I do the same thing. Kind of my own version "bad lip reading." I even make up voices to go with it.

  2. I'm with you, Eldred. Masks have added a new level of characterization to the people we encounter every day. I'm always interested in what masks people choose to wear—the generic kind, or something individual, and if something individual, what it says about them, or what they'd like it to say. All grist for the imagination for sure. Happy writing in 2021!

  3. Thank you Bob Bird for you mask observations. The mask is a sign of the times and speaks volumes, sometimes in unspoken words. Of course, some individuals choose to not wear a mask--there is no trouble discerning their faces as well as their death wishes. Someday in the future we might return to an environment when we safely can go out in public without a mask. Until then, like the Lone Ranger, I will continue to wear a mask.

    1. Absolutely, John. The choice not to wear a mask does give some major insight into the character. I look forward to the day when we can all come out into the light once more.

    1. Yeah, I see someone wearing it below the nose and wonder if their underwear is around their knees...

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