Friday, November 27, 2015

Situational Awareness by Betsy Ashton

I learned to be aware of my surroundings when I was really little. I was clumsy, so I learned to watch where I put my feet. I played that old game, "step on a crack, break your mother's back." I avoided cracks as much as I could. I tripped on the stairs, more going up than going down. I held railings all the time to be sure I didn't slip off a step and fall or sprain an ankle.

When I was old enough to have a driver's license, I never pulled into traffic without looking right, then left, then right again. Rear view and side mirrors gave me nearly 360-degree awareness. Except for the blind spots. For them, I had to glance over my shoulders.

Long before I began to write seriously, I used this situational awareness to eavesdrop on conversations. I can't tell you how many great lines, how many wonderful images, I picked up over time. Like the time I was sitting outside Wolf Trap waiting for my gal friend and her mother. We had seats for "Rent," a musical I couldn't wait to see. Walking toward me like he owned the world was the cutest guy. Tall, erect posture, GQ styling, polished shoes, and the biggest Big Gulp I'd ever seen. That 32-ounce cup of soda killed any interest I might have had to flirt.

Or the time I was eating breakfast in a hotel where a scientific conference was going on. Tables were at a premium, so strangers shared. Two men joined me. One had a noticeable accent, Scandinavian something or German, I thought. The other was pure Bahston. Doc Bahston asked Doc Scandinavian where he was from. Oslo. Aw, Doc Scandinavian was Doc Oslo. Got that. More get-acquainted conversation continued. Doc Bahston asked Doc Oslo where he was teaching. Doc Oslo said, "I was tired of the cold in Norway, so I took a job teaching at the University of Buffalo." As in Buffalo, NY, one of the coldest cities in the state. I wanted to ask him how getting away from the cold was working out for him.

I'll probably use both of those images in stories at some time. I'm not calling dibs, so if you want to add Mr. GQ and Doc "I don't like the cold" before I do, feel free. I don't even want royalties.

The more I write, the more I am aware of what's going on around me. What I don't get, in this era of bad guys who want to do harm, why so few have the same situational awareness as I do. Sit on a bench in any city with a lot of foot traffic. (That would probably rule out Los Angeles, unless you're in Santa Monica.) How many people look around, listen or pay attention to anything? Not many.

Too many people walk with heads down, thumbs flying over smartphone keyboards, ear buds drowning out footsteps coming up behind. People are too interested in cute kitty videos, or sharing the latest thought with their cadre of friends or pumping music directly into their brains. Is it any wonder when something happens requiring an accurate eyewitness account, most aren't capable?

Peeps, put those cellphone in your pocket. Listen to what's going on around you. Watch how people move. Who knows. You might overhear a snippet of conversation that you can't forget, that you must write down or you'll just bust. Don't miss the opportunity. Become aware of your surroundings. If you don't, I'm likely to find you, exploit some tic or quirk you'd rather I not notice and stuff you in a novel. For your sake, I hope I find something positive rather than some than silly thing you don't think I'd notice. Believe me. I notice. So be wary. Be very wary.


Betsy Ashton is the author of Mad Max, Unintended Consequences, and Uncharted Territory, A Mad Max Mystery, now available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.


Margo Hoornstra said...

Great post. Much to ponder for the day (off) after the holiday. The number one rule of self defense training - be aware, be very aware!

Jannine Gallant said...

I love watching people and getting ideas for characters from them. Let's face it, there are a lot of oddballs out there!

Betsy Ashton said...

Margo, what spawned this post was listening to President Obama ask all of us to be more aware of our surroundings. I didn't want this to become a political post, so I left that out. But still, how are we going to know what's going on around us if we plug into earbuds and stare at a smartphone. Doesn't that make us a wee bit dumb???

Leah St. James said...

I love people watching, too, and making stories for them. :-) It's a great way to improve your showing-not-telling writing also. Watch mannerisms--what people do that reflects different emotions or states of mind.

Susan Coryell said...

My kids call it familiar to us writers. Nice post.

Diane Burton said...

What a great post, Betsy. Also being clumsy, I really have to watch where I'm walking and my surroundings. I was made especially aware of that when I fell last month. How? No idea. A bit bruised, nothing broken, thank goodness, but it was a wake-up call to pay more attention. I love listening to conversations going on around me. I've yet to hear that sentence that will go in a book, but I'm listening for it.