Sunday, August 29, 2010

Hey, Could You Talk a Little Louder?

Here's my biggest dirty secret as a writer: I eavesdrop.

Eavesdropping is something I have done my entire life, and I'll bet a signed copy of my novel (see cover photo in side margin!!!), as well as an almost heart-felt apology, that all writers do the same thing. How else can we learn people's mannerisms and quirks when they speak? I know that the reason I listen in is the better to enrich my own characters. My husband tells me I am rationalizing, but don't listen to him. He eavesdrops as much as I do - and he's an engineer.

I like the waiting rooms in doctors' or dentists' offices. To be fair to those who have no clue they are being, well, spied on, I will consciously tune out any conversation that is far too painful and personal for a complete stranger to absorb. But anything having to do with neighbor complaints, kid behaviors, husband behaviors, or the ongoing argument with a public utility company? Hey, I'm there.

A family in my dentist's waiting room gave me all kinds of ideas for a novel I was writing at the time. My main character came from a family of nine kids, and listening to these siblings pick on, tease, ridicule, and laugh at each other was a joy. I wonder if any of them noticed I never once turned a page of the magazine I was supposed to be reading.

Airports, trains, buses, and elevators are also good places for catching a conversation or two. Except with elevators, sometimes you never get to hear the outcome of the story. I guess I can't really run after someone and say, "Excuse me, Miss, but did your co-worker's sister-in-law turn out to be pregnant after all?" On the other hand, that leaves me free to write my own ending!

I also practice this skill in restaurants. When I'm really in the zone, I can keep track of three to four conversations at once. The fire at the neighbor's house across the street was started by visiting cousin Jerome? Do tell! Mrs. Crumphorn's husband moved out in the middle of the night? Please, elaborate! The PTA president's daughter was nabbed for shoplifting? I love it!

So all you other writers out there tell me: am I really the only novelist delighting in other people's conversations? Or is it possible that you just happened to overhear something really tasty the last time you were stuck in the line at the grocery store?


  1. Oh no doubt!! Many a time I have texted myself a line of dialogue from something I overheard in a bar. I have a keen sense for dialogue- from growing up in a very colorful neighborhood- so I was trained to listen. If you are a writer and you do not eavesdrop- shame on you!!

  2. You caught me. Listening to other's, especially kid's, conversations can be so enlightening. Then a character introduces him/herself to you, and that's a beginning. Great post.

  3. I do this all the time. Since I'm fluent in Spanish, I listen to them too. Once we were at this restaurant and husband asked, "So what are they talking about?" Yes, I was listening to this very intense discussion between a teen and her parents. I loved not what she said but her body language. If I remember right, I wrote it down.
    Also after church services you'll see me at the back, watching and observing. I love watching how people interact with each other. How teens giggle about the cute new guy. Or how I can tell when one girl doesn't quite fit in just by the reactions around her.

    Once I was putting together this service project for the Karina survivors. The local youth group helped me. I was so amazed at how they worked together. I also was able to pick up great conversations that way.