Monday, May 21, 2012

Did you hear that?

Image courtesy of Jeroen van Oostrom / Freedigitalphotos.net
Have you ever been chatting with your spouse or a friend in a restaurant and discovered that someone eating at a nearby table was listening to your conversation?

Yeah, that was probably me.

I admit it: I'm an eavesdropper, and today, for Blog Me MAYbe's "May I tell you something about writing?" day, I thought I'd talk about how listening to the people around me helps to strengthen my writing.

I can't help but overhear things. Writers are naturally curious, and sometimes I feel as though I have ears that are specially tuned to take in the words around me. I don't set out with the intention of listening to what other people are saying, but much of the time, the conversations just seem to come to me--a word or sentence strikes my interest and suddenly that conversation is all I hear. I've listened to random dialogues in restaurants and airports; I've overheard one-sided phone conversations in grocery stores and waiting rooms (and have had great fun imagining what the other person was saying); and last night I listened through my already-open window as the neighbors (loudly) fought in their backyard.

What I've learned from listening to those around me is this: people are complicated and often more bizarre than any characters a writer can dream up, and writers would do well to pay attention. Wonderful (and often useful) snippets of dialogue exist in overheard conversations, as do great story ideas. For example, one thing I overheard during my neighbor's loud argument last night was a man saying, "You better watch her. I gotta go to work." My imagination took off immediately: Who is he talking to? Is it his wife, or is someone else outside with them? Who (or what) needs to be watched--and why? I can think of several stories I could write based on this snippet of conversation alone.

(If you haven't heard any interesting conversations lately, check out a Web site like Overheard in New York, where people submit the things they've overheard in the course of their day. It's an excellent--and often hilarious--source of both story ideas and dialogue.)

What it boils down to is this: People are both more unusual and more normal than we can ever dream, and being curious and really paying attention to what people are saying can only strengthen our writing.

As they say, you can't make this stuff up.


Have you ever eavesdropped on conversations? Did any of what you heard end up in a story?

42 comments:

  1. I was browsing in a small gift shop just last week and couldn't help hearing the 2 sales clerks discuss how many times they had thrown up and how long their diarrhea lasted with the latest bout of flu going through the family. Sometimes you don't have to eavesdrop. I must have been invisible that day.

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    1. That's true. Sometimes people are all too willing to broadcast to everyone within range. :)

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  2. You're peeking out your windows and now you're eavesdropping on my convo! I'd call you a busybody but I do the same thing sometimes. If I'm at the table with my hubby and he's not talking... well... I can't help but eavesdrop! lol

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    1. LOL I'm telling you, I hear (and see) some really interesting stuff. :)

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  3. Oh man, I am terrible for listening to other people's conversations! Like you, I never intend to listen, but when someone says something weird, I can't help but tune in!

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    1. People are definitely entertaining, even when they don't mean to be. :)

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  4. I definitely do this, but it depends on the situation. Usually when I'm out by myself, I'm writing. I actually have to plug in my headphones to keep myself from doing this so I can focus on writing!

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    1. I should try that. I don't get as much writing done as I should because I'm too busy listening and observing. :)

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  5. I also love to eavesdrop, but watching people is my forte. I've been known to attend the county fair or shopping mall and just sit and watch and take it all in. My best friend and I used to have a schedule of events, and we could watch for hours, just discussing the "fashion", relationships, children, personalities, mullets, etc. Some people's conversations make me wish I had no ears (the really loud people with nothing remotely interesting to say), but the quietly spoken ones, hushed tones and attentive partners, make me silence myself and my surroundings to try to drop in.

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    1. Thanks for following!

      I also love watching people; I wrote a post about that on May 8.

      I agree: the quiet conversations are often the best sources of writing material, at least for me, although there's also something to be said for loud conversations like the one I overhead last night. :)

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  6. I absolutely love observing people - whether with my ears or eyes. And sometimes it's all I can do to keep myself from jumping in and offering to help (if help is needed).

    I was at the beach a couple of weeks ago and a British lady was trying to order a vegetarian meal - but the waiter couldn't understand her accent. I was absolutely fidgeting but I didn't get involved because I wasn't sure if she would have appreciated it. In the end, he served her non-veg food lol

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    1. Yes, often I want to step in as well, but like you said, it's hard to know sometimes if the person would like help. Last night's situation was easy: the argument I heard was pretty intense, but it was also none of my business. Other situations (like the one you describe) aren't as easy.

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  7. haha i kinda hate to admit, that i like to listen---really it is i listen if they can be heard--i don't try not to hear!

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    1. I know exactly what you mean! :)

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  8. Awesomeness! Yes, I love hearing little snippets of other people's conversations! How brilliant of you to post about it. :)

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    1. It's a great way to find story ideas. :)

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  9. We're not eavesdropping. We're doing "character studies" to improve our writing. So of course I do it. Purely in the name of research, of course... (HA! Besides, it's some of the best free entertainment around!)

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  10. You always hear that truth is stranger than fiction, and I think it's definitely true.

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  11. I have. I have. Public places are free reign. With cell phones you now have to listen even if you don't want to. And I just spent an hour reading and laughing and shaking my head on the Overheard in New York link!! What a find! LOL! :)

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    1. It's quite a site, isn't it? ;)

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  12. Ha! This kind of goes with your nosey neighbor post. I bet you can really get some good ideas from listening to conversations. I haven't yet used that tactic in my writing, but maybe I should. LOL.

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    1. I find it's one of the best ways to generate story ideas. :)

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  13. I'm going to check that website asap. I don't like overhearing angry conversations, although they would be interesting! Sometimes I think people WANT others to hear their private conversations. I have a neighbour like that who talks to her little nieces and her dog in a very loud voice when I'm out in my yard. It's weird; it's like she wants me to listen in on her conversation!

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    1. I agree. I wonder if those people are lonely or attention-seekers.

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  14. I seem to always overhear others' conversations, even when I don't realize I'm doing it. Many times I wrongly assume my husband is listening in to, and when I try to reference something I heard, he's not only clueless about what I'm talking about, but he also gives me a "You should know better" kind of look.

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    1. Yes! You've just described my husband, too! This happens to us all the time.

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  15. I agree - I love people watching. I'm more of an "observer" than an eavesdropper. I love watching people and I love the movie Rear Window. I never thought of it as a writer thing. I've always blamed my psychology background:)

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    1. I think I'm equal parts observer and eavesdropper. :)

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  16. I'm just really glad I don't live in your neighborhood, or your city. That. Is. All.

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    1. LOL I understand. :) I can tell you, though, that I never chase people down. If I happen to be somewhere and someone is talking loudly enough for me to hear, well...sometimes I just can't help myself.

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  17. I'm a people watcher and an eavedropper too. Its fascinating to listen and even though you know you shouldn't, I find myself doing it, LOL. It makes me aware though to be careful what I discuss when out and about with hubby :)

    betty

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  18. I do it all the time...hopefully not in a creepy way, haha, but writing research like you're talking about. Dialogue is so hard to get right and it really helps to pay attention to how people actually talk. Great post!

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  19. Man, that's interesting advice... I've always thought it rude to eavesdrop, so I've always tuned people out. Never considered the benefit to writing skills it could have...

    Thanks for the post! Food for thought, for sure. I better go check out that Overheard in NY link...

    Dave the Goof

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    1. Eavesdropping is great for learning to write realistic dialogue. Hope you enjoy the link. :)

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  20. I guiltily confess that I listen to other people's conversations all the time. It gets to the point, I have no idea what's going on in the conversation I'm supposed to be in!

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    1. That happens to me sometimes, too. LOL

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  21. I try not to, but some people are so very loud! Which is why I talk quietly when my husband and I are at a restaurant....he can barely hear me, but neither can the person sitting at the next table over!

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    1. That's a good plan. We try to do the same thing, but we're usually out with the (loud) kids, and in order to be heard above them, we sometimes have to speak loudly ourselves.

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