Set a Story Across Your Street

The neighborhood in which you live can be a wonderful story resource. While in the middle of writing, I’ll often pause to look out my window at the row of apartments across my street. When I saw a curtain move in the window, I was instantly riveted, curious about who lived over there, what they were doing, and what their lives were like. Did they, too, look out of their windows, spying (benignly) on their neighbors?

Then the curtain moved again, and a dog poked his head out. The little guy made me laugh; he had his paws up on the sill and was doing exactly what I was doing — looking curiously out, examining his world, wanting to know more about what was going on out there. That reminded me how the world just across your street can be surprisingly like your own — and it can be the perfect creative source for stories.

Remember the classic Hitchcock movie Rear Window? This movie often gets billed as a murder mystery/thriller as Jimmy Stewart spies on his neighbors and begins to believe one of them is guilty of killing his wife. But that’s just one part of this charming, multi-faceted story; the best part of the film is all the little hints of stories we see unfolding in each different apartment building. We see a young socialite’s artistic salon; we see a newlywed couple rapidly begin to go sour; we see a lonely woman struggle for companionship. All of the stories are touching and telling in their own way, painted expertly into the film with just a few strokes of the brush.

How to set a story across your street

If you think eavesdropping is unacceptably rude, then you’re not going to get too far as a writer; writers make their art (and learn about life) by listening to and observing other people’s lives. So if you’d like to try this exercise, push your qualms of eavesdropping aside. Look across your street at a likely house. Many people keep the shades down all the time, but there’s still so much you can play detective about. Study what the house looks like, and what kind of blinds or curtains they use. Study when the people come home, or if they never leave. Study what pets they have, and when the lights come on. Listen to the music coming out the window, or notice which curtains get pushed back during the day or night. All of these things are clues that point toward a stranger’s life; they’re all fair game for your story. Details like these are the sorts that can sketch out an entire lifetime of conflict or happiness for your characters.


5 comments

  1. Blair, nice idea. I was born and raised in Manhattan, where there are hundreds of windows (and stories) all around, but even in the “country,” all is not lost. While I do know my neighbors across the road have two daughters and a boat, I don’t know why, despite being clearly comfortably off, they never rake their leaves, paint their house, or mow their grass.

  2. mary brady says:

    Great idea, BLH! The folks who live across the street from me are certifiable whackos & damn proud of it. I’m not kidding. They know everyone can hear their loud yelling matches but they don’t care. Besides, the fights don’t seem to mean much, since these people are really nice to everyone else. They’re probably just letting off steam…

    The best thing about them, though, is their sense of ‘holiday decor.’ They put up Halloween lights in their living room around late August & they are so bright you could land a plane by them. What must it be like to LIVE inside such a house?

    They do the same thing for Xmas, Easter, Arbor Day–you name it. Their home is constantly ablaze with seasonal lights that are blinding from the street, never mind from the interior.

    They’d make a FINE subject for a story…

    Margaret–hi there! Listen, I was led to believe “there are 8 MILLION stories (just like this one) in the Naked City…” Was the man who said that on TV lying to me? Were there really only hundreds? Sigh. Another childhood dream bites the dust…

    (I could also write about my dogs looking out the window just as BLH’s little neighbor does. Why, once my little Rottie Duke was SO happy to see a friend approaching my house that he BROKE THROUGH the window to reach him sooner! That was one expensive visit.)

    L&K, MaryB

  3. Mary, now that you mention it, we have some neighbors with weird decor ideas, too: they have tinsel and a few ornaments hung year-round on a couple of scraggly bushes in their front yard. Hmmm — now I have to think up a really good reason …

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