Thursday, April 21, 2011

Dana the Spy

“The great advantage of being a writer is that you can spy on people." -Graham Greene, English novelist

I'm a writer; I'm a spy. I listen in on conversations, even those I'm not a part of, and I write down the things that you've said. I watch as you tap your wedding ring on the dining table, run your finger around the rim of your wineglass, ogle the woman with Sarah Jessica Parker hair sitting across the room. Everything you do, everything you say, every gesture you make--I capture them all. Thanks for the inspiration.


I wrote the paragraph above during one of my morning writing sessions a couple of months ago, and I often think about it. I love the idea of being a spy. As a child, two of my favorite books were Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy and The Long Secret. Harriet knew everything, and I wanted to be her. I would lurk around corners, hide in closets, listen to conversations with my ear to the wall... And I would write down what I heard and saw: tidbits of information, flashes of dialogue, descriptions of the colorful personalities I came across each day. These real-life details helped me in my early attempts at writing; they brought life to my stories.

As I grew older, I continued to spy on people, although I was no longer a lurker. Instead I spied out in the open, usually at restaurants or while waiting in lines. When I first moved to New York a few years ago, my then-boyfriend and I went out to dinner, and I think he was a little annoyed with me because I continually shushed him so that I could hear (and write down) the conversations around me. I remember remarking that our waiter looked just like my main character's best friend, and then I took out my purse-size notebook so I could record all the details.

I still spy today.

I love being a writer, and I think to be a writer, you do need to spy. You need to pay attention to the people and places around you and use what you learn to help make your characters real: three-dimensional rather than flat and one-dimensional. The details count, and what better place to find them than in "real" life?


  1. So true! You have to be a good observer of people and life to write well. The added benefit is that you're never bored! There's always someone/something to observe.

    Thanks for following my haiku blog - I just launched a writing blog, too, if you want a break from spying and feel like stopping by :).

    Happy writing!

  2. well noticed =)
    During my next edit go round I'm going to pay attention to the senses - so spying on how people react to scents, sounds, etc will be useful!

  3. Xaria: Thank you!

    mgudlewski: You're right about that: I'm never bored when there are people to observe! I'll definitely check out your writing blog.

    Tara: Good luck with your spying! ;)