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The Writing Life: A License to Eavesdrop

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We all eavesdrop a little, but for the most part Americans in general are told to mind their own business. As writers, we teach ourselves to block out distraction and my spouse swears that I, for one, can write through most commotion that doesn’t involve gunshots or open fractures. But when not actively writing, I eavesdrop everywhere.

Eavesdropping can give you unique or catchy character names (Belson Garcia), occupations you hadn’t considered for the funny little character you don’t have a story for yet (installing fiber optic cable for NASA in underground tunnels at Cape Canaveral), provide small moments captured in time for scene-building (guy in pink vinyl hot pants on the A train giving instructions by phone on how to clear a computer cache), and give you practice noting description when you tilt yourself over to take a look at who’s talking (a surfer-girl cum soccer mom in aquamarine cover-up and tennis shoes). One of the biggest benefits of eavesdropping is developing an ear for natural dialogue.

Opening our ears to the conversations going on around us is an important adaptation to cultivate as a writer. Paying attention to the syntax of the sentences we are hearing is a skill we can work on developing. Everywhere we go in the world, there’s a dialect to parse. In the US, there are the regional dialects we’re all familiar with, such as Southern or Mid-Western, strictly local dialects, think New York City or Boston, and dialects that indicate a time period, like Valley Girl. But dialects can vary over areas as small as a single county.

Eavesdropping can lead to lots of useful information if you use what you’re hearing to start up a conversation. Once I’ve already broken the fourth wall by eavesdropping at all, I sometimes weather the occasional mild irritation by dipping a toe into someone else’s conversation. Usually once the speakers realize I’m genuinely curious, they open right up. For me, the best opening gambit is, “I couldn’t help overhearing… can I ask you a question about your job/sailing/dogs/local surf/school/apartment complex.” The key is to ask questions about whatever they’ve said that has stirred your imagination or would be useful for your works in progress, not regale them with your own thoughts on what they’re talking about. And don’t overstay your intrusion!

Conversation starting based on eavesdropping can occasionally land you an expert to speak with or even a lifelong friend. At worst, you get brushed off and go on your way. The rewards are worth the occasional fail. And it’s like practice for the next social gathering you attend.

Where exactly do you go to eavesdrop? Anywhere, but places like coffee shops, diners, and medium-speed sit-down restaurants like Panera or Tijuana Flats are prime ground for me. Car washes are surprisingly great places to overhear, observe, and approach people. Public transportation. In line at theme parks. Hotel lobbies can be very interesting. Anywhere you already are, have a reason to be, and people are talking without an expectation of privacy can net the thinking writer a whole lot more than a meal.

Do you have a favorite eavesdropping story? Tell me all about it below and join me on the first Friday of each month for exploration, discovery, and discussion of the writing life.

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Elle Andrews Patt's speculative and literary short fiction has appeared in markets such as The Rag, Saw Palm, and DarkFuse, among others. She has earned RPLA awards for her published short fiction, a published novella, Manteo, and an unpublished mystery novel. Her short story, "Prelude To A Murder Conviction" won an Honorable Mention from Writers Of The Future. She'd love to hear from you! Website

6 Responses

  1. David-Michael
    | Reply

    Great stuff, Elle! Many thanks. I take comfort in knowing it isn’t just me who practices this casual voyeurism for the good of the craft. Eavesdropping story 2.0 – wave the wand, create the characters in your world of choice, then eavesdrop on them in your head as they work through their arc. Just great characters in a great circumstance. With this technique, I don’t write until I re-write. The rest is eavesdropping, watching, and me holding the pen. Thanks again!

    • Elle Andrews Patt
      | Reply

      Yay! Glad to find a fellow eavesdropper for story! and yes, eavesdropping on your characters works, too, lol. A great way to break writer’s block is to start a conversation between to characters and then stand back and see what happens 🙂

  2. Ken Pelham
    | Reply

    I take the commuter train every day and it’s a great place to hear snatches of conversation from all walks of life. Very democratic, the train, and most commuters get along just fine. Good model for society, now that I think of it.

    • Elle Andrews Patt
      | Reply

      I hadn’t thought of that, but you’re right! Commuter trains are definitely a great example of cooperative living and many regular commuters have a built-in community of people they see nearly daily. Thanks, for the thinky-thoughts, Ken!

  3. DIANNA COLE
    | Reply

    Your suggestions are great. However, I live alone in an apt. and I’m on a walker so can’t drive! All my apt. neighbors
    keep to themselves. I’ve tried to get us all together with no success. I wouldn’t like to just knock on doors & ask if i could come in.
    the only recourse I have is email. So, I’ll try to use your techniques with people on my contact list.
    Thank you for your suggestions.

    • Elle Andrews Patt
      | Reply

      Aw, I can see that your situation would definitely make it harder to utilize my suggestions. Do you have a communal area like a lobby or a pool? Maybe a common room? If you go sit there semi-regularly, I’ll bet other people will notice and come to do the same or stop to speak to you when they see you there often. If not, you could try “eavesdropping” on YouTube by searching your favorite interests and seeing what comes up. Online forums can also yield some interesting threads of conversations that can give you anecdotes or new fodder for plotting. We have a forum right here at florida writers.net, but also google up a hobby your characters might engage in- tennis or gardening and add “forum” and see if you can find conversations and new people to “eavesdrop” on that way. I have yet to write a firefighter character but their conversation threads on firefighter forums are highly entertaining to me :-))) Best of luck!

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