Alert! By Lance S. Barron
“Did you see that?”
As a writer, you’re probably the one saying, “Did you see that?”
A fellow Air Force sergeant that I met on a remote Army post in Thailand in 1974 taught me about black and white photography. We acted as the squadron photographers in our off-duty time. He went on to get a PhD and became a college professor teaching photography. Several years ago, we reconnected through Facebook. Since then, we’ve chatted at irregular intervals, and parts of those talks involved creativity. In October 2021, he was telling me about some of the things he had taught his students. One of his phrases caught my ear, and I noted it down.
“It takes an alertness to avoid apathy.”
If you don’t care about what’s going on, you’re going to miss a lot of it. Even, most of it. We didn’t get back to that idea until the end of last month. I wanted to revisit it because, in my recent readings, I kept running across similar exhortations. The first was in an essay on Henry David Thoreau where the author quoted a passage from Walden (p, 111):
“No method nor discipline can supersede the necessity of being forever on the alert. What is a course of history, or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected, or the best society, or the most admirable routine of life, compared with the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen?”
Thoreau expounds on this concept in more detail, of course.
Then, in Gary Snyder’s Earth House Hold, he records this phrase from his journal kept during the summer of 1952 while sitting fire watch on Crater Mountain in what is now Northern Cascades National Park. He had just finished reading the sutra of Hui Neng, the sixth Buddhist patriarch:
“one does not need universities and libraries/one need[s] to be alive to what is about.”
Snyder was writing about Buddhist enlightenment, but the sentiment is the same as Thoreau’s in that formal education is not worth much if you don’t see what’s going on around you.
Then, at the Carrollton Book Fest, the keynote speaker, Bren McClain, talked about how the elements of her book One Mama Bone came to her. She said:
“Stay open to what is in front of you.”
Finally, from the expert in observation himself:
“You see, but you do not observe.” (“Scandal in Bohemia”)
From these quotations, none of which deals directly with writing mysteries, comes a common point from these disparate observers: Pay attention. Not just to which specific twig a particular bird lighted on; not just the remarks of some random passerby; and not just whether or not the person sitting across from you in the waiting room is wearing mismatched shoes. Listen to what the person talking directly to you says and understand their meaning. What are they saying to you? About you? Be alert to opportunities that present themselves in subtle, nuanced manners that would pass you by completely if you were not paying attention.
You can’t do this. Not all the time. My Air Force friend said, “It happens to all of us. One who takes advantage of an opportunity shakes their head (to clear away the fog), and says, ‘Let’s follow this to see where it goes.’”
In writing mysteries, we can apply this exhortation to be alert in two major areas: our external observations of our surroundings and acquaintances to provide information for the settings and characters in our stories. And internally. If you’re like me, your story runs through your head like a movie. Do you see the setting and characters? Do you see the details, or is the film running too fast? Do you include enough of the details for your reader to re-create the scene in their minds? Pay attention to what’s going on in your head.
I’m the sightless person demanding the largest flashlight, but I’m trying. I’m trying to shake my head, clear the fog, and see what’s right in front of me. It’s coming. Slowly.
Photograph by Lance S. Barron