I Spy – why it works for writers

When I was a kid, I remember playing a game that we called I Spy. We would choose someone to go first, and they would begin offering clues to the rest of us. Whoever guessed the spied object first was the winner and then proceeded to lead us in the next round. To some people it may seem like twenty questions, but we didn’t form whole sentences, just whispered an adjective. We did play twenty questions – loud and raucous, not at all suitable for the I Spy atmosphere.

I Spy was usually something we did when we needed to stay still, and quiet. The adults in our lives needed us to play without really having fun. Or should I say loud fun. Whether in a car, in church, *oh yes, we did!* or at a neighbor’s house during a visit – back in the day, we were told to sit on the sofa and not move, nope, not swing our feet, touch anything, and certainly not interrupt the adult conversation – we had plenty of opportunities to play.

The other day, I walked into my garden and played an I Spy round by myself. Sounds pathetic, but I really enjoy wandering around the yard. I saw signs of winter life, green poking up from brown earth, and then I saw the pumpkin! The last one of the season. I must admit, after seeing it, I stood for the longest time gazing at the lovely salmon-colored fruit.

Some of you are about to tune out, I apologize for the digression. Okay, indulge me a minute. I wanted to grab my cool pix to capture expiring autumn. Here’s what you’ve been waiting for: why am I telling you this? On my way inside, I thought about characters, and writing, and gardens, and…just as my mind always does, I arrive at something through a wayward stroll, synapses scrambling all the way.

I recalled a time when I didn’t garden – in our first house. Which led me to think about all the other houses we’ve owned, which led me to think about our interior design, our floor plans, and the different needs we’ve had over the years. By this time I’ve snagged my camera and I’m outside again. Mission accomplished, I stood over my precious pumpkin and explored my racing thoughts.

What can I Spy when I write? How does this game help me become a better writer? Yes, those are really the dorky questions I ask myself. I believe things happen for a reason, an opportunity for me to learn something, improve myself or help someone. So, my routine is: What do I do with this info? Is this for me, or for someone else? Or both?

I pondered it a bit more as I passed the through the doorway, looking at my interior with fresh eyes. Who lives here? What personality does the occupant have, and what story does this stuff tell?

Is your character at home in this living room,



or perhaps this one?


I Spy in your mind’s eye what works for your story: What does your setting say about your character’s personality? What do you see around your character that adds dimension to your writing?

I Spy takes me down a road well-traveled – seeing things that are everyday items, overlooked ordinary incidents in a fully-focused manner. It makes me a better writer.

My magnifying glass is raised and ready…

Related article: Scratch and Sniff for writers?


2 thoughts on “I Spy – why it works for writers

  1. I play the game with my kids, especially when driving on long trips! 😉
    Great advice to use in writing to craft good characters without describing the person themself.

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