Monday, May 31, 2021

What we're writing: Watching strangers

 

HALLIE EPHRON: Every time I introduce a new character in a manuscript, I face the challenge of making the character memorable--so that when the reader meets that character again, they remember who I'm talking about. I hate it when the characters in a book blend together and the whole enterprise feels like a badly cast sitcom in which all the actors look alike.


Some authors are superbly deft at creating characters that imprint on the reader. Here’s how Jasper Fforde introduces a minor character in The Eyre Affair:
I worked under Area Chief Boswell, a small, puffy man who looked like a bag of flour with arms and legs. He lived and breathed the job; words were his life and his love – he never seemed happier than when he was on the trail of a counterfeit Coleridge or a fake Fielding.

Talk about terrific visual images—you can’t beat a bag of flour with arms and legs.

Here’s how Agatha Christie describes Jane Marple in the “The Tuesday Night Club,” the 1927 short story in which the character was first introduced:
Miss Marple wore a black brocade dress, very much pinched in around the waist. Mechlin lace was arranged in a cascade down the front of the bodice. She had on black lace mittens, and a black lace cap surmounted the piled-up masses of her snowy hair. She was knitting, something white and fleecy. Her pale blue eyes, benignant and kindly, surveyed her nephew and her nephew’s guests with gentle pleasure.
What makes the description work so well is the contrast between how Miss Marple appears – an oh-so-proper and somewhat ditzy old lady she seems to be at first blush – versus the very sharp observer and deducer that she turns out to be.

It's a challenge to put a memorable character on the page, and the devil's in the detail. I sometimes go to my people-watching file to find those details.

My people watching file is something I've been adding to for years. I carry a notebook and take down the details of the people I see on the subway or bus or airport, trying to capture what is it that makes one stranger stand out from another. Trying to imagine each person's story. Some real people have  inspired characters in my books.

Here’s my notes about a guy who was riding the Red Line into Boston:
I’m sitting on the subway beside a man - all I can see of him is a one bright blue sateen Reebok with a thick white rubber sole. He raises his arm, extends it so the sleeve slips away to reveal a watch. "Wednesday," he grunts.
Here’s another man on an Amtrak train to NY:
Bearded buddha, wire-rimmed glasses, swarthy, overflowing abdomen, black leather jacket, jeans. Scan down to his Teva-sandaled feet, scrupulously clean, toenails an even strip of white across the top of each. Back up and notice his shirt is white and unstained even if the buttons are straining. Back up to his hands - also clean, pudgy, silver ring embedded in the flesh of his pinky. Carrying a black backpack over his shoulder - he shifts it into his lap, unzips it and draws out a paperback. Star Trek.
This man was sitting opposite me on the subway:
Sneakers. kakhi pants, pink polo shirt – the clothing freshly laundered, not ironed. His body doesn't quite fill them and his clothes seem to cling to their own wrinkles. Skin so pale you can almost see through it, veins visible. Cheeks pink, nose reddish. Face clean shaven, eyes wide open, startled, watery blue. A raw bloody gash on the bridge of his nose. Comb-mark lines on his comb-over, as if he glued the hair down – a few strands have sprung loose and hang down in the back as if fallen from a pony tail. Fingernails long, clean. I want there to be a plastic hospital bracelet on his wrist.
Do you people watch? Do the people you watch surprise or intrigue you? Do they inspire you to tell a story?

78 comments:

  1. An author’s description of a character always seems to sort of draw a picture of the character in my mind’s eye; I usually find myself appreciating the details.

    However, unless there’s something obvious, something peculiar or noticeable about a person, they generally don’t tend to capture my attention in real life. But children are a different matter altogether. They always catch my eye and pique my curiosity; it’s fascinating to watch their reactions to things around them. Children interact with the world in fascinating ways and, although I’m not particularly inspired to tell a story, I am always captivated and intrigued enough to watch them . . . .

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    1. Funny you should say this... I was just noticing how much I notice children, especially little ones. I'd attributed to sensitivity developed because I have grandkids. They're so much more on the surface and exposed than adults. No need to guess what the little ones are feeling.

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  2. I love to people watch and love the idea of carrying a notebook to document some of them! I have just the notebook. Starting NOW.

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    1. Mine is tiny - fits in the palm of my hand. And I started doing it before cell phones so if I started doing it now I'd do it in *Notes* on the cell. Could even surreptitiously snap a picture... but I think that would be intrusive and cheating. Because we're not going for literal description when we bring on a character. That's flat and uninteresting.

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    2. I agree, Hallie. It's not about getting the exact description of the person, it's about perception and interpretation.

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  3. Like you, Hallie, I'm constantly looking for that one characteristic. The overbite. The cut of the clothes that look European. A lazy eye, so you never know quite where to focus when to speak to him. And making up stories about all of them.

    One of my first short stories was inspired by a man I saw walking along a street in Beverly, MA. My police lieutenant in the Country Store series by a student in Bloomington who spoke just like him - and was named Buck. My midwife by Peggy Thurston, the calm quiet (and tall, slim, dark-haired) assistant midwife I had with my first son's birth.

    That's one thing I miss about being in public during the pandemic - no people watching except from my second floor office window monitoring the street below!

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    1. Right and no more subway riding, airplane sitting... hoping soon we're all out and about and spying on our fellow human beings.

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  4. People watching and eavesdropping! All the time. I remember Jane Marple's black lace mittens. I can be at any airport and spot the people returning to Cincinnati. And it's not just the Reds caps.

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    1. And I've noticed how it's as if you enter another world when you've left Boston or NY and arrived in Arizona or California - an entirely different color pallette and so many more blondes!

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    2. Margaret, that reminded me of my visit to Arizona. At the airport, I could tell which people were Arizoniana.

      Diana

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  5. This gives me the urge to go back through my WIP and check on every single character...thanks Hallie!

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  6. I know the guy on the Amtrak to NY. His name is Kevin, and in spite of his girth, he's an avid hiker who photographs trails and mountains all over the East Coast. He's an attorney for a big environmental organization in the city, and that Star Trek was for a book club we both belong to. Thought you'd want to know;-)

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    1. Wow! That is so cool, Judy. And it just goes to show how good Hallie's description was that you recognized him instantly!

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  7. I wouldn't consider myself a people watcher outside of people annoying me by somehow impeding my way towards accomplishing whatever goal I'm trying to accomplish.

    However, since Massachusetts has dropped the majority of their mask requirements as of this past Saturday, I'm definitely watching people who aren't wearing masks because I really doubt all of them are fully vaccinated which means they are untrustworthy liars who need to be watched AND kept at a 6 foot difference. Particularly if I know them and know what kind of anti-vax BS they've been posting on Facebook the last year or so.

    I stopped off at my friend's record shop yesterday and when I got there I was the only person in the shop. My friend said, "You know you can take off your mask." I told him that I couldn't because I am still in the "two weeks after the second shot before I'm considered fully vaccinated" area. So my mask stayed on. And I watched all the people that did come into the shop maskless to make sure they stayed away from me. So if I'm a people watcher now, it's born out of a healthy sense of paranoia.

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    1. “... a healthy sense of paranoia “. I like that.

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    2. I'm "fully" faccnated and I STILL don't feel comfortable taking off the mask. So I don't.

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    3. I'm fully vaccinated and I still wear my mask.

      Diana

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  8. People watching is the only thing that make sitting in an airport bearable. And that's something I haven't done in a while.

    However, we have someone who comes to our street 3-4 times a month, parks in front of our house, and starts walking. Sometimes it is up and down the street. Sometimes he goes around the corner. He always wears a hooded sweatshirt and jeans, always drives the same grey Honda. He doesn't seem to do any harm, and he isn't old enough to be having an affair! Or if he is, he needs to vary his routine once in a while. I posted something on our neighborhood board, asking if anyone else had noticed him. That brought down a sh*tload of criticism on my head, as in how he must just like to walk in our neighborhood and why don't I go introduce myself and see if I could help him with anything. Seriously? His is odd behavior, and as long as he doesn't seem to do anything illegal, I'll tolerate him, but still I don't want to invite him in for coffee.

    Maybe he IS having an affair with some old dear. More power to them.

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    1. That's how a friend found out her husband was having an affair, Ann. He would park on a side street near his house and cut through yards so he could double back to have it on with the aide who stayed with his mother-in-law, who lived with them. A neighbor noticed and called my friend to see if she knew what was going on in her own home. Her mother couldn't tell her, because she'd had a stroke.

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    2. I observe out-of-the-usual behaviour on my street, too, Ann. An unknown car? Who is that AND WHY ARE THEY HERE???? is my first thought. Uncharitable maybe, but I want to have noticed the car and the person on the one occasion when it becomes important to have done so. And given that one never knows when that one time will be, I do it every time.

      And sometimes I use the bird-watching binoculars to get the license plate!

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    3. OMG there are at least a half dozen ideas for a novel here - starting with the repeated appearance of a stranger. Perfect for housebound covid-times.

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    4. We have a Next Door for our neighborhood and I am blown away by all the snarky comments people make when someone posts about strangers.

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    5. No kidding. I took my post down immediately. I’ve got no time for cyber wars. Maybe I scratched someone’s itch?

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  9. I love collecting overheard snippets of conversation. A young woman, early thirties, walking through Target with a friend: "My husband says I'm depressed. I'm not depressed. I'm sad, but I'm not depressed." I wish now that I noted what she looked like. Also, a 60-ish American tourist, sitting with his wife and another identical couple at an outside cafe in Rome. The Vespas are whizzing by and children are splashing their hands in the fountain in the center of the square. The man, though, is fascinated by the actual street and after much scrutinizing finally announces to the other husband,"Well, it looks like asphalt, but it ain't asphalt."

    Definitely going to start a descriptions notebook!

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    1. YES! Snippets of conversation! Here's one from a guy talking to his friend on a subway: "Anything you can do while drinking isn't a sport, by definition."

      Then there was a tall young man with a head nearly shaved like a billiard ball, large defined eyes, a major ring in his ear, came on the train hollering "Anyone got a dime sack?"

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    2. I don't even know what a dime sack is, but I laughed out loud.

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  10. I love people watching. They are endlessly interesting and sources of great delight.

    One of my favorite couples sat behind my husband and me at the commissioning of the Spruance a few years ago. She was a tall, spare, lady roughly 80 years old, he a pudgy doughboy of a man of a similar age. I couldn't determine their relationship, but she clearly had a military background. The man commented on the signal flags, calling them the flags of many nations. The woman replied in a basso profundo voice that then were signal flags, used for communication. She paused a few seconds then said, "Those say if you think these are national flags, you're an idiot." The man didn't seem in the least bit offended. A little while later a tape of a military band played just prior to piping the first crew on board. The man said, "Ever since the Titanic it's been maritime law to have a band on board to play in case the ship sinks." The lady's comment, "Don't make me read those flags again." I wanted to take her home!

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    1. How did you listen without cracking up and giving yourself away, Kait? I'd have been in stitches!

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    2. I like to watch interactions between people.

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    3. Interactions are great, especially ones like this...

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    4. This is priceless. He can't have been her first husband.

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    5. I don't think I could have held it together!

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    6. It was difficult not to laugh out loud, but worth it. My one regret is that I wasn't quick enough to strike up a conversation with her. I would have loved to know more about her. She was clearly a lady with a past and a history. I imagine her as an Admiral's daughter. She definitely didn't suffer fools and everything she had to say rolled off his back. They were classic and priceless.

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    7. Or, Kati, maybe she was a retired aAdmiral herself

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  11. Most of my people watching seems to be from cars, so I'm only getting a glimpse. But sometimes that is enough for me to make up a story in my head. Recently I have been intrigued by something I see on my way into town. I go by a very nice house owned by a couple about my age. On several occasions there have been maybe 12 or 15 cars parked outside, around 9:30 in the morning. A couple hours later, on my return, they are all gone. I can't make up a good story about what is happening and that is very frustrating for me.

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    1. Maybe they are gathering to prepare meals-on-wheels deliveries for the day? But my real question is, when do the cars arrive? Because that could be a whole OTHER story!!

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    2. That's an inteesting guess, but I doubt that is the case. From what I can tell it isn't happening on a regular basis, like every week, which is usually when I am driving by. last week I needed to go out twice and they didn't have the group on the second day. All of the cars are very nice, late model SUVs, which I don't think means anything. I never see the people so they must all be inside. Unless some bus has come along and taken them all somewhere else, which doesn't sound plausible to me. mind you, this is out in the country, although not isolated.

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    3. The house on the corner a few doors from us used to have cars pulling up all the time - staying for a short time and then leaving. Turned out the owner's son was dealing drugs. Much more boring than anything I'd come up with by way of explanation. Same house, they would accumulate food waste in their yard and that attracted rats which brought in the health department. Then the house had a fire, they rebuilt and lived n a trailer n the yard. Burned again. Foreclosure. ... now it's been gutted and renovated and resold to an delightfully boring family.

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    4. The house I rented when I first moved to this town was across the street from a drug dealer. That come and go activity is a very distinctive giveaway. Sounds like it's good that they're gone.

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  12. Oh my goodness, Hallie: what wonderful people-sketches you take of those you see. Any one of those people would be interesting to read about. And I do hope that man had on a hospital bracelet...

    I notice people, but I don't take notes and I don't watch as intently as I would need to in order to take your quality of notes. I'm going to pay closer attention from now on...

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    1. It's all in the details - the stuff that's hard to make up.

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  13. I've been writing down descriptions of memorable people since my 20's, and still have all my notebooks. The last time I really sat and observed other humans was in Europe. I spent a lot of time waiting for transportation, and the time passed quickly while I waited.

    For almost two hours in the Venice train station I watched shoes go by, wondering how many similar pairs I'd see. Almost none! A few Converse sneakers, but even they were different colors and styles.

    At the British Museum's cafeteria I once sat crammed next to two English women. The one woman barely said anything except "Yes, I see.". The other one was venting about her daughter-in-law, who she clearly hoped she could convince her son to ditch. I always wondered what happened here. I still remember what she looked like, leaning over the tiny table and shaking her finger at her poor friend.

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    1. By the way, I love that photo of you, Hallie!

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    2. I thought I was the only one who watches shoes!! Once I spotted a half dozen pairs of orange sneakers. Some kind of temporary trend... or insanity.

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    3. Karen,

      I was in Rome, Italy when I walked from Trevi fountain back to my hotel in the early morning. I decided to visit in the early morning before the crowds. I noticed women wearing designer eyeglasses, designer clothes and designer shoes.

      I dressed very simply when I visited Europe. I remember I was living in England for two months when someone said that I looked like a British person because I was wearing British styles (I copied what the Princess of Wales was wearing, which tells you how long ago I was in England!).

      Diana

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  14. There must be something special on someone for me to catch my attention.
    While reading, I like characters descriptions to be different. Too often, in books, women or men look like millions other ones.

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    1. I agree - but when the author gives the character a physical quirk, it can't be random - it has to somehow amplify (or contradicts) what/who that person is.

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  15. i love to people watch. In former times in airports, always fascinating. I never thought to take notes, but I did make up stories. When I still lived in a house instead of a high-rise condo, I would walk with a friend in the mornings and we would people watch then. We were trying to explain Twin Peaks to each other which tells you how long ago it was and every morning we would pass a small neighborhood park down in a dell with a waterfall and stream. We would see two cars parked up at the street and a couple down in the dell on a stone bench. He always wore scrubs and she didn't. We never decided if he was coming off of a night shift and she was off to work so this was the only time to get together or if it was a clandestine meeting away from spouses. But they were there nearly every morning about 7:30.

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  16. Avid people watcher! 2020 was lean in this regard. My favorite thing to do is make up dialogue for couples or groups of friends. I love that your notes included "I want there to be a hospital bracelet on his wrist." LOL.

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  17. And you can also convey social class: I was in the drugstore the other day, (amazing!) And there was a middle-aged woman and a very cute little girl, maybe seven years old. The woman said, with her Jamaican accent, should we go see your mama?
    And the little girl jumped up and down and said yes.
    And the – nanny? – – said: and if she is not seeing a patient, we will be able to go into her office.
    The little girl said: I know.
    The nanny said: and then we’ll go have sushi.

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    1. Hank,

      If they were conversing in Sign Language, would you have known what they said?

      Diana

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    2. I am trying to figure that out. I probably would not have watched them for so long, thinking about it. And certainly would not have been aware of the Jamaican accent!

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    3. Hank, I noticed that sign language style is similar to handwriting style. Some signing is more elegant while other signing is lazy.

      Diana

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    4. I love watching people conversing in sign language - it's perfect for riding on the subway because they can sit across the car from each other and be the only ones who can actually talk to each other while the train is screeching and rumbling along. It's a beautiful language.

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  18. I love all these stories about people we've seen. Your notebook idea is genius, Hallie.

    I recently attended my youngest granddaughter's high school graduation, and the people watching opportunities there were prime. One young lady was greeted with loud cheers and woofing from what appeared to be about half a football team's worth of really good looking young men. I leaned over to my oldest granddaughter and said, "You know I make up stories about all these people, right?" And she said, "Does this one include six older brothers?"

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    1. I love that, Gigi. Jenn has a character with 7 older brothers and I love it when she brings them into the story.

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    2. I thought of Jenn's books when I found out about the six brothers. I have on scholarly older sister. I can't imagine what it would be like to grow up as the only girl in a six-pack of brothers.

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  19. Some of the best people watching in our neighborhood is along the trail down the main boulevard. The variety of joggers and walkers is amazing. All ages. All manner of fitness and dress. Some of the shirtless men are mighty fine. Others should leave those shirts on. Please. We used to see Tutu Man all the time. He was baldish, thin, and wore a tutu to run in. Sometimes a sun dress.

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  20. Hallie, what an inspiring post. (Love your photo, too!) I love people-watching and have really missed it the last year and a half. I carry a notebook in the UK, but I should do it here as well. I have the perfect one. At the moment I have to content myself with making up stories about our neighbor who spends hours sitting in his truck (with it running), talking on his cell phone. Hmmm.

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    1. Wondering if you think you'd be able to tell the difference between a photo taken of a people on the London Tube and one of people on the NYC subway?

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    2. Easy Hallie. The ones on the subway don’t mind the gap

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  21. Hallie, definitely! I often people watch at airports, bus stops, train stations and public places. I also watch people walking their dogs and people pushing baby strollers / prams.

    Question: Have you ever seen people conversing in Sign Language?

    Regarding Sign Language, I asked because when a deaf friend met me for dinner at the Left Coast Crime in San Diego, we were conversing in Sign Language and no one batted an eye. It did not seem to be a big deal.

    Perhaps three times in my life did I ever encounter someone who "noticed" us conversing in Sign Language.

    Diana

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    1. When I was in Venice a few years ago with my daughter we took a gondola ride with a young couple. Turned out they were American, and both either all or partially deaf. They signed to one another, but both read lips, and he spoke very well. She didn't speak, but I don't know if she perhaps was too shy.

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    2. Diana, I live 2 miles from the American School for the deaf. I notice people signing all over town. I do not know sign language but concur that there is certainly style involved.

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    3. Karen in Ohio,

      That is awesome about Venice. As a people watcher, you probably noticed their facial expressions, right? I remember when I was a kid at a formal event with my Mom. We were seated at a table and there was a elegant lady sitting at our table. She was talking to my Mom and she noticed that I did not like the taste of something we were eating. She said that she noticed from my facial expression that I did not like the food. LOL


      Judy,
      That is awesome. I visited the American School for the Deaf and the grave of Laurent Clerc in Hartford. Did you know that the school was founded by a Deaf man who came from France? He became a teacher of the Deaf and his name was Laurent Clerc.

      Diana

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  22. I don't people watch that much. Maybe that's why I am so impressed by authors who can create a character in just a couple of sentences.

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  23. "A bag of flour with arms and legs" is quite memorable indeed. And, I didn't know where Miss Marple was first introduced. So, thanks for both of those, Hallie. Then, there are your detailed observations of people. Wow! You really nail the telling points that make them individuals. I can't say I ever look that closely at people's feet.

    I do like to observe people, but I do more of imagining what their lives are, instead of what they look like. Of course, what they look like blends in with their stories. After reading your detailed observations, Hallie, I'm going to try that next time I'm out.

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  24. I'm not a great people-watcher, sad to say. I do draw character profiles from ancestors and people I've known in life - good and bad. Interesting article!

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