Welcome to our regular Monday feature, where you'll find different kinds of writing prompts and exercises. Each week, we'll give you something to help exercise your mystery-writing muscles.
This week's prompt is designed to sharpen your observation skills. Good detectives are notoriously observant, alert to small details which might turn into clues. Writers and detectives have this trait in common. Writers should always be alert to details that might grow into story ideas, characters, or plot twists.
Grab your notebook and try one or all of these mini-exercises.
1. Crowd scan. Go to a busy area, such as a street intersection, a shopping mall, a grocery store at peak time, or a place at your school or workplace where people tend to congregate. Look closely at the people. Who looks suspicious? What do you think they are plotting to do? If people are shopping, what are they buying? (Sure, those cans of pumpkin pie filling might be for Thanksgiving . . . . but might there be some other evil purpose lurking in the shopper's mind?) What expressions are people wearing? Who moves quickly or slowly? Why? After five or ten minutes of close observation and imaginative speculation, go to a safe spot and take notes on what you noticed. (Note: Standing in the midst of a crowd scribbling in a notebook or typing on a laptop may make YOU the person of interest, so do be discrete!)
2. Shoe shopping. Love to shoe shop, but strapped for cash? Here's a fun writerly substitute. Go somewhere and only look at people's shoes. (This is especially fun on a subway or in a long line somewhere). Note details: type of shoe, age, general condition, distinctive features. Try not to look up at the shoe wearer before guessing what kind of person would wear these shoes. Once in a "safe" (private) location, take notes on the most interesting shoes you saw. Could any of them lead to a character? An entire mystery? (Note: Try the same activity with a different type of clothing to zoom in on: handbags, jackets, hats, pants).
3. Mug shots. Pick a venue where you can observe people at some length without attracting too much attention, such as a cafe, a restaurant, or a form of public transportation. Find one distinctive feature on every person's face. (An unusual shade of hair? Acne scars? Two different colored eyes?) Again, in a safe location, take notes on what you observed. Did any face in the crowd stand out because of some distinctive feature?
If you try any of these exercises out, we'd love to hear your results in the comments! Or if you have other exercises you like to do to heighten your powers of observation, please share tips!