A show of hands for all the people-watchers. Me, too.
Don’t ask me the score of the football game, but quiz me on the fans seated in our section. Clothing, who’s bored, who’s having a fight with their partner, which couples don’t fit together, parenting styles, and on and on. The writer in me makes up stories about what led them to this game, this moment, and what will happen when they go home.
Lucky for me, my avocation became my profession.
It wasn’t until I taught Head Start in the early 1970’s in a tiny East Texas town that I knew what I would do with the rest of my life. What a privilege to teach/observe 36 impoverished 4- and 5-year-olds in their first school experience. (The fact that I had majored in French and German and was nonetheless hired for this job is another story.) The force of the children’s personalities stunned me. The show-off. The leader. The caregiver. The outcast at 5! The friend to all. The 4-year-old worrier. Their friendships and earnest beliefs. They captivated me.
I became a Developmental Psychologist. We study how people behave, think, and feel across the course of a lifetime and in varying contexts. We pose specific questions and then design studies to reveal what people are likely to do. Always, the answers uncover more questions. My basic research question over the decades has been: How do childhood relationships affect a child’s social and emotional development? Even young children have a variety of relationships with parents, grandparents, siblings, friends, classmates, teachers, caregivers, or pets. What is the effect of bullying on development? The effect of having lots of friends or just one good friend? Is it different for girls and boys? Do the effects change with the child’s age? How about when the child’s sibling is disabled, or the family lives in rural poverty? What are the likely effects on the child, if any? The questions are endless.
What does this have to do with writing novels or reading them? Everything. I write about rich layered relationships, and I like to read about them, too. Action, sex, and internal machinations outside the context of a relationship don’t interest me. I want to witness the character interact with and change others, and in that relationship be changed.
Do you delve into characters’ relationships when you read? Do you imagine what might happen next when you people-watch? Check out my personal blog for future posts about relationships—observed anecdotes and research findings—and how they lead to good questions and interesting stories.
PS: My novel, Burden of Breath, explores a troubled mother-daughter relationship. It’s a free download today and tomorrow on Amazon.