People Watching

Have you ever been on a coach holiday? They’re great for people watching and character invention.

Cardiff Castle Wartime Shelter

Cardiff Castle Wartime Shelter

I was a coach holiday virgin until last weekend when I went on a two-day break to Cardiff and Bath. It was planned as a getaway for me, my sister and my mum so that we could spend some time together without the hassle of driving, flying or lots of organisation.

However, we didn’t anticipate the amount of time we would spend hanging about at service stations waiting for ‘feeder’ coaches to arrive. Four coaches had to meet part way to Cardiff on the outward journey and again part way home from Bath on the return journey.  So there was a lot of waiting around.

But this gave us time to watch our fellow passengers and the drivers.

We discussed the man sitting across the coach aisle from us. He appeared to be travelling alone but then we saw him with a woman and then alone again. Had he been chatting her up? Is a coach holiday a good place to meet someone of the opposite sex? Yes, but only if you’re male – there were a lot more women than men travelling with us.

The drivers’ lifestyles came under our scrutiny. Cooked breakfasts and burgers seemed the popular choice at the table ‘Reserved for Coach Drivers Only’ in the service station cafe. None of the men seemed to know what route they’d be driving from one day to the next or what time they’d be getting home. And the final leg of our journey was driven with urgency because if the driver didn’t get home at a certain time he wouldn’t be allowed to drive the next day due to insufficient hours between the two trips.

There was a Murder Mystery dinner in the hotel. In tables of ten we worked out who’d killed the Earl. Group dynamics came into play and it was interesting to see who took charge, who just listened and who was keen to interrogate the actors. Then there was the table of riotous women on a birthday outing who made it difficult to hear the scene where the body was discovered.

Finally, my imagination went into overdrive in Cardiff Castle’s wartime shelter. Think of the drama, heartache, deaths (and possibly births) that must have happened as the sirens wailed in the 1940s.

I haven’t come back with any complete story ideas but I have got various characters buzzing around in my head. Perhaps eventually one of them will come to the fore and tell me their tale.

Do you have a favourite place for people watching? Or a favourite technique for dreaming up characters?


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  1. #1 by P. Douglas Hammond on October 14, 2014 - 7:41 am

    I had a really good place to think through story ideas; I used to look after some bowling greens, and that involved me walking behind a mower for up to nine hours a week. It was a great place to go over different scenarios – and earn money at the same time.
    Unfortunately I have lost that opportunity now.
    As for characters, I have looked at friends in the past. As I know so much about them, I could consider so many points of detail.

    • #2 by Sally Jenkins on October 14, 2014 - 11:24 am

      Walking up and down with a mower sounds like a great way to contemplate ideas, Douglas (& earn money & keep fit!) – a shame it’s gone. I’m wary about studying friends and family – I’d hate them to recognise themselves in a story! But you’re right about being able to pick up details from them.

  2. #3 by juliathorley on October 14, 2014 - 7:57 am

    Apart from the people-watching, which I’d love, the only thing worse than a coach holiday would be a cruise: trapped for hours with strangers and nowhere to hide. Yugh! I go and sit in one of Kettering’s 20+ cafes when I need inspiration. I keep my head down ‘reading’, and listen. Each watering hole has a distinct clientele – we have a wartime themed cafe, another that attracts the arty set – oh yes, we have one! – places for mums and tots, wifi hotspots for people between or holding meetings… The other day I was entertained by a little boy of about four who was struggling to grasp the concept of loose tea. His mum said when they got home they’d cut open a ‘real’ teabag so he could have a look.

    • #4 by Sally Jenkins on October 14, 2014 - 11:28 am

      I take your point about being trapped with people, Julia. But I wouldn’t say no if someone offered me a cruise..
      I love the sound of your different cafes. Round here they are mostly the standard chains, Costa, Starbucks etc. It must be nice to have somewhere different to go.

  3. #5 by Size15Stylist (@LeDudess) on October 14, 2014 - 9:02 am

    Sounds like you had a great research trip, Sally! I love Bath and Cardiff too, very stylish cities! I haven’t been on a coach trip for a while, but I know what you mean about the stories you can generate spending so much time with relative strangers.

    I’m off to a coffee shop this afternoon to edit, and will no doubt indulge in a bit of characterisation around me!

    • #6 by Sally Jenkins on October 14, 2014 - 11:29 am

      Hope you have a productive afternoon, Size15Stylist!

  4. #7 by jac dowling on October 14, 2014 - 9:15 am

    Yes Sally, we do. Living beside a whale sanctuary, in Hermanus (South Africa) we take huge pleasure in watching visitors watch whales- they come in so close to the rocks that, at times it’s possible to look down their blow holes!!People gather on the rocks, so quietly, and they’re HAPPY – they SMILE and take away great memories. On one unique occasion, we had a whale cow with her newly born calf, swim into the clear water of a deep bay just below where we were sitting. She pushed the calf to the surface, drew back her ‘lips’ and smiled! it was just her baleen of course, but I’ll never forget it.

    • #8 by Sally Jenkins on October 14, 2014 - 11:31 am

      What a great image you’ve described, Jac! And how nice to see people when they’re happy – too often we’re moaning & groaning about some little thing.

  5. #9 by liz young on October 14, 2014 - 9:22 am

    I people watch in the street cafes here, and the odd snatches of conversation are always fascinating. I would not have been as philosophical as you about the waiting around – you’d paid for a two day holiday, not to sit in a bus station – but the wartime shelter looks great.

    • #10 by Sally Jenkins on October 14, 2014 - 11:33 am

      I did think about writing a letter of complaint, Liz. But I decided it probably wasn’t worth the time.

  6. #11 by Linda on October 14, 2014 - 11:49 am

    Sounds like you certainly had a busy trip – a writer’s mind is never off duty. Now its the hard work of capturing the characters on paper!

    • #12 by Sally Jenkins on October 14, 2014 - 2:11 pm

      You’re right, Linda, I don’t think a writer ever is off duty. But is never easy to translate those brilliant ideas to words on the page.

  7. #13 by Linda on October 14, 2014 - 1:18 pm

    I haven’t been on a coach holiday but any kind of public transport is great for people watching, and I love motorway service stations. I can’t help wondering who all those people are, where they’ve come from and where they’re going … I also enjoy my weekly visit to the supermarket. It’s a great place for collecting funny/ strange/ intriguing overheard snatches of conversation e.g. ‘I told her she couldn’t do that but she said she’d already gone and done it.’

    • #14 by Sally Jenkins on October 14, 2014 - 2:12 pm

      Yes, Linda, supermarket checkout queues can be brilliant. And what about airports and railway stations?

  8. #15 by Ann Williams on October 15, 2014 - 3:08 pm

    Sounds a great trip, Sally. Must check out those war tunnels in Cardiff Castle. Don’t remember family mentioning them.
    Public transport is great for people watching and I generally find myself taking note when I have to endure a half hour wait when changing trains en route to visit family. Write notes in a list so hope people imagine Im creating a shopping list. One day someone is going to read over my shoulder!

    • #16 by Sally Jenkins on October 15, 2014 - 4:38 pm

      Public transport seems to be a favourite place, Ann. Perhaps it’s all that emotion in the ‘goodbyes’ and ‘hellos’.

  9. #17 by hilarycustancegreen on October 17, 2014 - 12:51 pm

    I’m on a short story course at the moment and character is next week’s main topic… The course involves both bus and train travel and I am gobsmacked by what I overhear. Swimming pools are good especially for how parents and children interact.

    • #18 by Sally Jenkins on October 17, 2014 - 7:12 pm

      Swimming pools – that’s a good one, Hilary. A bit difficult to have your notebook & pen in the water with you though!
      Hope the short story course is going well.

  10. #19 by Patsy on October 18, 2014 - 12:48 pm

    I went on a coach holiday once. From what I remember there were rather too many opportunities to watch fellow travellers.

    • #20 by Sally Jenkins on October 18, 2014 - 5:38 pm

      Sounds like you had a lot of waiting around too, Patsy!

  11. #21 by Charan on October 18, 2014 - 6:31 pm

    Hi Sally, Thank you so much for your wishes on my blog, they mean a lot!! You have a wonderful blog, just read through your latest posts. I’ve never been on coach holiday but sounds interesting and for writers like you, it inspires you with new thoughts and ideas!! 🙂

    All the Best,
    Charan 🙂

    • #22 by Sally Jenkins on October 18, 2014 - 6:46 pm

      Thanks for dropping by, Charan. Anything that generates new ideas is great for us writers!

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