By Debra Hyde
Vacationing this week along the South Carolina coast, I strolled a pier while the tide went out and watched life in the salt marsh around me. I saw small schools of fry swirling swarm-like and large blue crabs emerge from the marsh mud and annoy each other over territories. One pair clung together, mating, an exception to the rule. An egret, his stride slow and his temperament ever patient, hunted, oblivious to my scrutiny, catching and devouring small fish. Further off, a gang of noisy tourists young and old alike made for shore in a pontoon boat done over in a pirate ship façade. Arrh but that was cheesy, matey.
Blame it on a boundless curiosity, a sensibility I don’t remember being without. What started as tagging along with my outdoorsman dad became an indelible and intrinsic trait. Every day brings the possibility of wonders and I’m always on the lookout for them. Heck, last night I was watching Elementary with my family and one opening shot centered on the Court Square Diner in Queens, NY. I had been in Queens two weeks earlier—for a mere three-block visit. Small world, but this diner sat in the middle of that visit.
My curiosity fuels two authorial skills that I constantly hone: the ability to observe and to incorporate. Being observant is by far the more ongoing of the two. I won’t claim that I can walk into a room, record its details, and recall them after exiting. No, I’m talking about something more along the lines of stopping to smell the roses. As a writer, consider indulging yourself in your surroundings, no matter how mundane. Be aware of what your senses detect: the smell of a place, its colors and lighting, who or what populates it, its temperature and relative comfort. Watch its activity. (Or even lack thereof. When my sister moved to Arizona, she discovered its desert could go terribly silent at a moment’s notice. She had no memory of our living west as children and when she mentioned it to me, I lit up. “Yes,” I told her. “I always called those dead spots.”)
Be people-watcher, too. Observe a crowded street, the quiet suburb, a city park in the afternoon. Watch what people do, how they interact. See what kind of moods surround you. Last night at a commercial shopping area, several white women—sisters and cousins, I think—sat chatting and enjoying their ice cream cones. They returned my smile when I walked by, friendly to others in a shared public space. Then, strolling by a fudge store about to close its door for the night, I saw two African-American men—one, the store clerk, the other a friend waiting for closing time—broke into songful harmony. Theirs was not a dreary waiting as the clock ticked down.
Why observe? Because it will hone both your awareness and your recall—skills you can apply as you write. And, best of all, you can incorporate your observational experiences into your writing. Many years ago, I had to get a hold of myself, driving home from the vet’s after saying that final goodbye to a beloved cat. I decided getting pulled over by a cop for distracted driving wasn’t going to become part of that day’s memory and managed to keep the tears at bay. But weeks later, the memory surfaced and, with it, the start to a tale that M. Christian accepted for his Best S/M Erotica 2. My experience became the launching point for the story’s protagonist, a male submissive who sees a Dominatrix for punishment in order to get a handle on his temper—after he engages in a rude moment of road rage when he confronts another driver and finds she’s returning home from the vet in the exact circumstances I experienced.
You never know when that observational payoff will come.
Yesterday I saw a gray fox squirrel foraging among several pine trees. Much larger than the eastern gray squirrels of my oh-so-familiar New England, his appearance caught me up short. His body was gray, but his face masked in black. When he flicked his tail, its ticked fur looked almost ringed on the underside. Oddest yet, two inches at tip of its tail was a distinctive white. From a distance, it looked as much like a lemur as it did a squirrel. I have no idea if this squirrel will every appear in my work. Maybe never. But that’s not point. What is? That I noticed, I made recorded my reaction to it, and that it’s in my memory bank. Today, I’m heading out to the beach for one last afternoon along the Atlantic. And who knows what’s waiting for me there.