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A month ago, I was in California for my nephew’s wedding. After several days around the Bay Area and time at a gorgeous vineyard in Sunol, we headed south to the Los Angeles area for time with even more extended family, beaches, and theme parks.

After all, when you’re in the “neighborhood,” you might as well make the most of the opportunity.

However, while slathered in SPF 50 sunscreen to avoid the lobster look I recall from beach excursions in years past, I thoroughly enjoyed doing a little character research as well.

Character research. Otherwise known as eavesdropping and people-watching. Noting everything from fashion choices and body language to facial expressions and dialogue. Of course, I also used all my senses to soak up the setting from the crowded Santa Monica Pier and famed “muscle beach” to the rugged tide pools and strings of seaweed at Crystal Cove near Newport Beach to the insane spaghetti-shaped network of highways and equally-crowded theme parks.

And trust me. There were plenty of characters to be observed.

Of course, I’m not planning to write a California story anytime soon. But there are a lot of transplants from California to Colorado, so my local characters are bound to run into a few surfing and organic-everything neighbors. Plus variety in the cast always helps when crafting memorable stories.

One thing I try to do in my stories is to create a movie with words. And in order to pull off that feat, I have to bring my characters to life as if they are truly actors on a stage instead of paper dolls or figurines I move around at will. And in order transcribe that vision for the reader’s benefit, I first have to be able to see and hear my characters.

That’s where the research comes into play. Not just while out of state on vacation but also at my son’s cross country races, at the local coffee shop, in the foyer before church, and waiting in line at the grocery store. Everywhere I go, I’m watching and listening.

Writing is a solitary occupation involving the voices in my head and my laptop. But character research breaks me out of the bubble and forces me to interact with the real world. Which in turn makes my stories come to life.

So next time you see me sitting by myself in public with a slight smile on my face, be careful what you say. It just might end up in my next book.

What about you? Are you a people-watcher or eavesdropper? What’s the funniest thing you’ve overheard? Did you ever wonder if the person you saw was for real or putting on an act?

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