Europe is experiencing the coldest spring in a hundred years. This week my husband and I are driving along the lovely Mosel River in Germany, freezing to death. Shops and restaurants are decked out for the Easter season while people walk around swathed in heavy coats and winding scarves. Sidewalk cafés provide wooly fleeces and blankets for patrons stubbornly determined to sit outside. I’m thinking we should have gone to Italy.
One thing is going well, though—people-watching.
A fellow writer told me once that people-watching can improve your writing skills. “Watch how people move,” she said. “See if you can tell how they’re feeling or what they’re thinking by clues in their body language. Then make up a story about them.” I like people-watching anyway, but her advice has given this trip added interest.
In Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life, Elizabeth George explains what she calls THADs, or “Talking Heads Avoidance Devices.” THADs are activities characters engage in that illumine their character or state of mind and prevent a scene from becoming “no more than he said/she said.” A THAD can be anything from changing a diaper to assembling a bookcase. They help the reader understand the inner life of the character and prepare him for what is to come. The key is how the activity is performed.
For example, the mother of a toddler pushes an overfull grocery cart through the supermarket while her little angel, like Hansel and Gretel, leaves a trail of broken eggs on the floor behind them. Is the mother so focused on her task that she doesn’t notice? Or is she so exhausted that she no longer cares?
In another example, an elderly woman with orthopedic shoes and a knotted wooden cane climbs a steep cobblestone street. She stops, leaning heavily on her cane, before trudging slowly on her way. Do her feet hurt? Or does she dread what she will face at home—perhaps a husband with Alzheimer’s, or simply a cold and empty apartment?
In the first example, I can tell you what the mother felt because she was me. On that particular grocery run, I was so exhausted that I truly didn’t notice what my son was getting up to. A kind employee called my attention to the trail of broken eggs, called for clean up, and replaced the carton without charge. Bless him.
The old woman I observed yesterday in the village of Cochem, Germany. If she were a character in my novel, I could use her body language to reveal her character and state of mind so that when she returns home to a husband who no longer knows her (for example), the reader understands her hopelessness without being told.
Some other interesting characters I’ve observed this week include an aging Burt Reynolds-type in designer jeans and oh-so-trendy neck scarf escorting a much younger woman in a tight-fitting mini-dress; an older couple having lunch in a café, saying nothing, barely aware of each other’s existence; and a well-behaved dog sitting quietly and obediently under his master’s restaurant table in spite of severe provocation from a naughty child tempting him with bits of table food.
I believe the dog will appear in a future novel. And I believe spring will come.