Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Lost Art of Eavesdropping

Wanted: Inquisitive person who keeps their ears and eyes open every day to possible story ideas.

Sound like you? Want to apply? Then congratulations, you’re a writer.

I’ve always found people and their conversations fascinating. (Okay, I’m just plain nosey). But since I’ve been a writer my inquisitiveness has become an asset and a great source of story ideas for both my fiction and non-fiction work.

Ideas are Everywhere
Stories and story ideas are out there everywhere, you just have to find them. Sometimes if you’re lucky, some will come looking for you.
Not that I’m going to turn the following conversation I overheard into a story, but for some writer it could have been perfect.

An Interesting Conversation
I was getting the oil changed in my car and sat in the waiting area reading all by myself for the first 10 minutes. Then a man, probably in his mid 30s, sat down. All was nice and quiet until his cell phone rang and the conversation started. I couldn’t figure out who he was chatting with but for the next 30 minutes he talked about the woman he’d been living with for the last two years and why he was going to walk out on her in two days time. The conversation continued with him saying he’d been unhappy for over a year and had plotted his ‘escape’ and had done his best to keep his true feelings and his abrupt exit a secret from her.

It’s a Story
My first thought was (other than why do people air their dirty laundry in public) for a writer there was a story here somewhere. For example-

For a romance writer, it could be he walks out but discovers he really can’t live without her after all.

For the mystery writer, she reacts badly, starts to attack him with a kitchen knife and he ends up killing her in self defense.

For the mainstream writer, he might get into a car accident on his way to telling her he’s leaving. He’s in a coma for the next two years while sits faithfully by his side without ever knowing what he’d plan to do to her.

It’s Easy These Days
And these days eavesdropping has got even easier. Back before cell phones you just had conversation between two people dining together. Now you have your pick of what cell phone conversation to key in on while you dine. So keep that notebook handy because you’ll never know what you’ll overhear.

Other Added Benefits
And eavesdropping has some other added benefits. It’s a great way to listen to natural dialogue. Listen to how real people talk. Can you make your characters sound like that?
And how about character traits and quirks? If you dare look their way while they’re revealing these intimate details, what are they doing as they speak. Twisting their hair or tapping their foot.
If you haven’t already guessed it, yes, I find people who speak on cell phones in restaurants and other public places really annoying. However, please don’t stop because some writer might use what they’ve overheard as the premise for their next book.

Susan Palmquist is a freelance writer and author. Her latest book, Sleeping with Fairies is published by Lyrical Press and received a five books review from Long and Short Reviews. She’s currently working on her next novel, a romantic suspense set in the Pacific Northwest. As well as blogging here, she also writes the Susan Palmquist Interviews blog at For more about Susan and her work, visit


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