We live on a small connector road that's only a few miles long, named for the family that built the farm we live on. Our closest neighbors to one end are half a mile away; I've never measured it, but at a guess our closest neighbors in the other direction are as much as 3/4 of a mile from us... Maybe even a little more.
We know it's normal for hay to be delivered on flatbeds and we know who comes to mow the lawn. We recognize the trucks of farm hands.
We know what's normal.
Last Friday morning waa anything but normal. It started with bringing Murph outside around 5:35 am. She has a run line and I clipped her up and started my routine. I went around the side of the house to get the hose to fill the watering can.
Our cellar doors were open.
That made me jump. I went to the back of the house to raise the pump and Murph started barking. Across the road from the barn, on our farm field, there was a car. And two people were outside of the car looking across the field. Now, I hadn't heard the car and when I saw it I could tell that it had been turned off but I still initially thought they'd stopped to look at deer or something. I didn't think much of it.
Then they started walking down the road past my house.
Maybe the car had broken down? We must have 54 feet of fencing running along the road in front of our house. Maybe more. They walked past the house and past the spot where the drainage culvert runs under the road and turned right... walking down our farm field on the far side of the ravine.
Murph is continuing to go crazy so by 6 almost everyone is awake and in the kitchen. I watch these two guys, who I woukd have guessed as teens, walk down the field, go to one side and then the other and then return with a third person on a piece of equipment, like an ATV with a bucket on the front.
We live on 500 acres. I couldn't begin to tell you where all the property lines are... all told, there are three houses on different parts of the property. Neither of them are the closest houses to us.
I know what's normal around here. Enough to recognize abnormal when it happens and let the property owner know something is amiss.
This was when I realized that I hadn't taken a very good look at the guys who'd gone down our field. Sure one was taller, with dark curly hair, while the shorter fellow had sandy hair. I could see the tall one's white t-shirt easily across the field. The shorter guy's blueish-green shirt meshed in with the trees in the distance.
It was easy enough to walk over and take down the car's details but I realized after I texted Bill and heard that nobody was expected and certainly not at 5:45 am that if there was a real problem I'd be giving the most mediocre, general description ever.
It reminded me of something Anthony Bidulka said years ago when I was at one of his book signings. He said he pays attention to physical details of people around him because it informs his character descriptions.
Studies have shown that eyewitness testimony is often unreliable.
The start of my Friday the 13th last week proved that, even as a writer, I wouldn't be much better than anyone else. Part of the reason was that I didn't see the need to pay attention to these guys until they were walking away from me at a great enough distance to not be able to see much that would be useful for identifying them.
Want to play a fun game with yourself? When you meet up with a group of friends, guess everyone's age and height. Then confirm that information. How good are you at telling how old someone is or how tall they are? This is a great thing to do at a meeting of mystery writers. Another thing to do? Have different people come in wearing masks and costumes. See if you can use other physical characteristics to identify who is who.
Writers, remember if you're writing a mystery that not every potential witness is a good witness... but paying attention to the physical characteristics of the people around you enable you to produce rich descriptive details of the characters in your works.
Also... remember that how a person describes another comes down to perspective. A young child may describe Dad as a giant when he may be average height. Descriptions in writing are about seeing the world through the character's eyes, not your own.