As an author, one of my goals is to make my characters as human as possible. That means spending a good amount of time studying how people talk and behave “in the wild”. While I do need to often turn off my Steve Irwin voice while people-watching, I try to fit in these five research activities as often as possible:
- Watching shows like Justified and Lie to Me: The writers for Justified have an amazing ear for authentic dialogue. Watching that show is like a full hour of studying the use of timing and pauses and snappy verbal exchanges. Lie to Me is a brilliant complement, as it’s all about body language and what microexpressions and movements people make when they’re subconsciously thinking about something.
- Observing couples at an amusement park: There’s something about long lines and crowds that bring out the best—or worst—in a couple. Watching a pair in love interact under such “strenuous” circumstances is wonderful fodder for how couples fight.
- Studying couples on dates: One of the only reasons I enjoy going out on traditional date nights (I’d much rather spend Friday and Saturday lounging at home!) is to watch other couples in their best romantic light. Do they sit on the same side of the booth? Do they fight under the strain of having a “perfect” evening? Who orders the food? If amusement parks bring out the worst in couples, a date displays them on their best behavior.
- Reading magazines outside my interests: Writing a young, brilliant billionaire? You know he reads Forbes. Dark, brooding hero has a fast car? Pick up Car and Driver. In 30 minutes, you can snag enough knowledge to make small character details authentic. I particularly love fawning over the expensive men’s clothing and accessories in GQ.
- Listening to everyday conversations: If you catch me out at a coffee shop, I’m usually in the corner with my headphones on. Most of the time, I’m listening to music and writing. The rest…well, people have the illusion of privacy in coffee shops, and will talk about everyday things. This is an amazing way of listening to verbal cadences, studying when full sentences are used versus sentence fragments, and the way questions are answered in real life (i.e. not always directly). This is also a great place to pick up casual tics, like gesturing with a coffee cup, smoothing out eyebrows, and fiddling with purse straps.
So next time you see your author sitting in the corner being antisocial, just remember—she’s not a misanthrope, she’s a spy!