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 Productive ways for a writer to spend time waiting in an airport
Productive ways for a writer to pass time in an airport

I seem to have spent a lot of my adult life waiting in airports. Although the overall amount of time is probably not that significant compared to the total minutes of my life, given my natural impatience, the minutes in the airports feel longer. But I have finally  learned productive ways for a writer to pass the time while sitting in an airport lounge.

Watch people and identify two to four details that could be used to describe them. In his book On Writing, Stephen King said “good description consists of a few well-chosen details that will stand for everything else. In most cases, these details will be the first that come to mind.”

Watch mannerisms in the people around you. Think about what the mannerisms reveal about the person’s frame of mind, age, or situation. Think about how you can use that in your writing.

Eavesdrop. A favourite of mine, but do it subtly. Listen for figures of speech and phrases that differentiate one voice from another. Consider how you can use this in writing dialogue.

Read. Ray Bradbury gave this advice to writers: “Just write every day of your life. And read intensely.”

Write. If you can find a spot to set up your laptop or note pad, get to work. If the environment is too distracting to create new work, tackle some editing.

If wifi is available, complete outstanding research.

Talk to people around you. Everyone has an interesting story. You may discover a tidbit to use in your next story. You may learn something about your destination. Or you may simply have a pleasant conversation.

Lean back and daydream.

As an author I’ve never forgotten how to daydream. Neil Gaiman

If a writer is daydreaming, leave them be. They could be plotting their next great story. Graeme Roberts

Whatever you decide to do to pass your time in the airport, have a note pad and pen or note application on your mobile device handy, ready to jot down those descriptions, phrases, mannerisms, and ideas.

How do you pass time in an airport?

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  46 Responses to “Wait and Watch: Writer in an Airport”

  1. Used to be a frequent traveller. Prefer to spend my time in a lounge, eat, drink and use the internet. If it’s enjoyable or not to watch people depends on where in the world the airport is. In some airports you have scams and the police arrest you on bogus charges and if you don’t pay what they want you end up arrested. So lounges are often a better bet.

  2. Airports are where I used to do my most intense people watching:) As a writer, I think that observation is so important to writing characters. But to be honest, I have had 3 trips in the last 3 months that have been so aggravating from a travel standpoint that I am too distracted to read, write OR observe. I used to travel internationally quite a bit. I can’t get over how much the experience has changed and not for the better.

  3. I don’t travel so don’t use airports but your tips are good wherever you wait – thinking doctor’s offices, etc. Watching people can be both fun and informative. BTW – you would make an excellent witness if a crime ever happened at the airport – the police would love you LOL

    • Lenie you made me chuckle. I don’t know how good a witness I’d be. I’d probably be watching somebody or listening to a conversation and completely miss the crime action.

  4. I do the same thing, everywhere I go. Sometimes, I know it is irritating to my friends with me, because I need to stop what I am doing and jot down some notes. Thanks for sharing this, I am glad to see I am not the only one who does it.

  5. Airports are great people watching places. When I use to travel for business it was something I really did enjoy. I think any kind of observation is so important. I gives us so much more then information about a individual, such as the personality, culture and atmosphere of a place. When I traveled to Europe I was amazed just much that experience changed my perspective. 🙂

  6. Great tips Donna. People watching is my favorite! But then I remember people might be watching me! 😉

  7. This is a great way to make idle time productive. I seem to remember doing things like this in my theater classes. It is amazing to watch other people when being challenged by really trying to step into their shoes. You can learn a lot and it can also stop you from making quick judgments about others.

  8. Hi Donna,
    In airports, I do much the same as what you’ve written about… watch, wait, and observe. Being observant is great at any location where large numbers of people are gathered, such as a fairground, or a large shopping mall. There is always something to see and listen for, and it’s all great for the writer in me.

    Kind Regards,

  9. Hi Donna,

    I don’t travel as much as I did in the corporate world, but your tips for using waiting time definitely transfer to time spent waiting for the doctor, waiting for a movie to begin, etc. I do exactly the same things, especially the practice of discreetly eavesdropping to pick up phrases or ideas different than what’s normally heard. Here’s my favorite, overheard while waiting for the doc (who knew those walls were so thing?), “I should have known he was up to no good on that Who asks a woman my age for sex?” I’m already working that in to a fiction piece!

  10. For the most part, excluding Frankfurt, I love being in airports. Mainly because it means I am boarding a plane to somewhere exciting. It is a time where, like you, I have spent many hours keeping myself occupied. People watching is a must and can keep me entertained perpetually. I do use the opportunity to write, read, and edit…and sleep.

    • Tim I can’t say I share your love for airports, but there are a few I don’t mind spending time in. But people watching and reading and writing can make the time in any airport more pleasant.

  11. Amazing tips Donna. Most of the time i spend time watching people. LOL.
    But i am surely gonna try things mentioned by you on my next trip.

    • Lately I have been particularly interested in how people speaks, phrases they use. Some popular words and phrases become commonplace across all people, but it’s interesting to note the differences.

  12. Eavesdropping is one of my favorite things to do in airports 😉 The last time I was in DC, a family kept talking about all the trips they had been on very loudly, as if to proclaim their greatness to those around them. To pass the time, I made up all kinds of scenarios such a family might encounter in a story. I also used to have my freshmen comp students do an observation activity similar to the points outlined here.

    • Jeri I think I’d like to listen to your scenarios some day. Should be interesting. My daughter has occasionally nudged me to be less obvious in eavesdropping but sometimes I get very interested.

  13. I usually read in airports. Mostly I spend the time reading books. Even if Wifi is available, I try to ignore the distraction of email and social media and anything else that pops up on my phone and concentrate on whatever book I am reading. In any case it is good for all of us to have a plan because things aren’t exactly moving quicker in airports.

    • Things certainly aren’t moving quicker in airports. When I can’t concentrate enough to read or do some of the things I mentioned in my post, the other activity I like to do is crossword puzzles. I like to have puzzle book with me.

  14. I love people watching in airports too, Donna. And on occasion, have done some eavesdropping as well…fun post!


  15. I find it interesting when sitting in waiting station, whatever the mode of transport may be. For me, bus terminals have the most interesting and colorful characters. Train stations seem to have the more wealthy and boring travelers while airports have them all. Above all, bus terminals are interesting but can be dangerous depending on where you’re waiting.

    I feel like you and I have similar strategies while waiting. I’m definitely trying to employ some of Bradbury’s strategies, with more writing and better reading. Thanks for sharing this.

  16. Donna, my husband and I travel pretty frequently. I’ve always enjoyed flying since I was a child and airports are just a place that I love being in. Call me silly! Our favorite, hands-down thing to do while we pass time in the airport is to try to find a bar or eatery where we can strategically sit for the sole purpose of people watching. Sometimes that will lead to chatting with people around us (like the Texas-based Rudy’s BBQ reps in the Phoenix airport) or eavesdropping too. One thing that seems to be a predictable behavior no matter where you are in the airport, you are bound to see at least one person (usually more) who will walk by you in different directions, multiple times. I love the airport! This was a fun post for me to read that I completely relate to!

  17. Great advice on productive airport time for the travelling writer! I’m kicking around taking a stab at some fiction and can use all the sources for character development I can get.

  18. I would join you on the people watching and eavesdropping. I also like listening to the different accents and trying to figure out where they are from.

  19. Hello; you made several very good suggestions here. I especially like the last one about day dreaming. 😉 i am blind and haven’ been in an airport since before 911. but usually they move me to the holding area and then to the plane in advance of the rest of the passengers. I was usually first on and last off. so i often chatted with the flight attendants. I didn’t have a laptop or other device then, but now I would probably listen to an audio book since that wouldn’t brake the rules about wireless devices. If anyone has thought about using a visually impaired or otherwise disabled character in their books, I’m available to consult. 😉 by the way my friend lorraine reguly has a great guest post about properly portraying people with disabilities on her site wording well. I strongly recommend it. thanks for sharing these tips, Max

  20. You have given excellent suggestions. What a multitude of people to practice characterizing you can find in airports. You can make waiting time turn into time that was well spent.

  21. Airports, Bus stops and train stations are all good places to observe people, strike up conversations and day dream about who they could be and why they might be travelling.

  22. I love to people watch! I often will imagine that I have to describe a person to the police, and how would I do that in a way that everyone else would recognize them. I agree too, with your point about always having something handy to write on. You never know when (or where) inspiration will strike.

    • Imagining how you might describe someone to the police is a good exercise in noticing things about people. I’ll have to try that one next time I’m people watching.

  23. Great post, I hate to think how many hours I’ve spent in airports! I usually intend to get work done, but end up spending most of my time roaming around the bookshop for way too long, drinking multiple large coffees and reading furiously! I hope you have inspired me to be more productive next time. 🙂

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