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People Watching

At the end of her book Tigerlily’s Orchids, mystery writer Ruth Rendell, talks about one of her characters watching some new neighbours who have moved in across the street: “Duncan watched them from his front windows, imagining lives and dramas for them that bore no relation to reality.”

 Rendell here reveals one of the distinguishing characteristics of writers—they are inveterate people watchers. They are like the characters Tina Fey and Steve Carrel play in the movie Date Night. In airports, on buses, in movie theatres, in stores, in restaurants, on the street, they are invariably watching people—how they look, how they move, how they talk, how they react. It is research. In this way, writers become experts in the human condition. It is this truth about human beings which they reveal in their novels and which makes their fiction so true to life. Yes, they imagine things about the people they see that are not true of those particular people—but they are true of people in general. And that is why we read, to learn what writers have learned, so that they can teach us about ourselves.

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