Thanet Writers Research People Watching

Writer and author Alice Olivia Scarlett researches people-watching and its applicability on behalf of Thanet Writers.

Image Credit: 
Henry Voordecker / Public Domain

Learning to observe the people and places around you is an invaluable tool for a writer. Watching a scene with a writer’s eye makes you examine the familiar with a fresh perspective; it helps you see the strange and unusual in the everyday and familiar, it hones your ability to translate image and atmosphere into words. If you can draw a scene, based on life, full of genuine details that you know from observation ring true, it becomes easy to replicate that on a larger scale, transcribing a fantasy throne room, an alien planet, a historical battlefield with the same spark of authenticity.

This piece is intended as a demonstration of the power of people-watching. Exercises like this help you learn the texture of a scene, and pinpoint the marks that bring it to life. Describe your home town as you would a foreign country, and the wonder that defamiliarisation brings will carry through into your writing as a whole.

Ramsgate High Street, 07/08/18 16:30–17:30

The light is grey, and hot, and heavy. The sun splinters through the dark spike leaves of the tree outside Poundland, but the cobbles below are plain and unglamoured. The benches beneath are scattered with discordant confetti: pale scraps of receipts, white and green Jackson Pollock guano, the plastic flying saucer lid of a Pick ‘n’ Mix, cigarette ends—so many cigarette ends.

Children on bikes knot around the murky maw of Claire’s empty window. They down energy drinks and gesticulate at each other. One bike is left behind when they disperse, and stands shiny melancholy red against the black hole of a business gone bust.

A woman in khaki cargo pants strides up the road into WH Smith. Her hair is black and wild, reined in with a plain headscarf. Her stride is a swagger. She’ll buy a birthday card with the same cool authority as negotiating for nuclear weapons.

Another bike, this one white and trim, wheeled by a woman in a blouse the colour of the Caribbean, big sunglasses, and cropped linen trousers. She could be writing a murder mystery, or planning one. Her bike has surprising lime-green accents. It sits outside Poundland and side-eyes the litterbin with its crown of old ash and older chewing gum.

The light is longer and brighter now, sighing down behind the shops and silvering the grungey railing above Claire’s and the EE shop. Café Nero will be closing soon, but the tables outside are still full. Magenta hair and floral shirt, hot chocolate with plenty of cream. Shaved head, blue plaid, green tea. Grey hair, white Westie in tow, double espresso, never any sugar.

One lone pigeon, tender coral feet, black scarecrow feathers, combing the cobbles for treasure. Its path takes it in front of the homeless man in the recess by the cashpoint, sunk in a tumble of blue sleeping bag and old blanket. Pigeon and man, pigeon shuffled away by the tide of busy feet and a dozen different wakes from a dozen different ships heading up and down the high street.

The air is thick, and soft, and suffocating.

Alice Olivia Scarlett is a freelance writer and editor. She lives in Thanet with the seagulls and parakeets.

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