It’s a beautiful day. You’re sitting on a bench in Central Park ready to delve into your science fiction novel. A young women in a purple track suit takes a seat on the bench across from you. Her eyes are red as if she’s been crying. You are about to ask if she needs some help but before you do she reaches inside her track suit pocket and pulls out her cellphone. Her voice cracks as she recounts to the other person on the phone details about her recent break-up with her boyfriend. You take it all in,
pretending to be engrossed in your novel but knowing you’d borrow her pained conversation, her brooding movements for one of your fiction stories.
We were often told not to eavesdrop as children. As a writer though, eavesdropping is the quintessence of good fiction. It gives us a bird’s eye view of other people’s voices and their melodramas. We hear their inflections, their accents if they are from a different country, and get the chance to obtain information about their life. This adds another layer to our characters as we begin to build their profile. It also makes our fiction more relatable; fiction editors are more prone to publish and readers are more inclined to read.
So don’t distance yourself from eavesdropping. It can give you raw material for your characters and more income with each acceptance. Here are some suggestions on how to become an intentional eavesdropper.
Do your homework beforehand. Put on some dark sunglasses, (okay that might be a bit much) and scout out great eavesdropping places like café’s, coffee shops, park benches, bars or at work by the water cooler. Even on a commuter subway or bus or airplane people tend to let their guard down and their intimate conversations are privy to everyone.
Eavesdrop on cultures in other neighborhoods to get their perspectives on social issues, values and customs. We live in a melting pot society. We should all try to build relationships with other cultures but often we don’t out of fear and misconceptions. Try visiting places where there is a mix of ethnic, racial or religious groups and spend a day (hopefully more) in their life so that you’ll have stronger characterization and your characters will be authentic.
Eavesdrop with the consent of a person you’d like to base a character’s profile on. Maybe it’s a restaurateur or a local radio host or an up and coming comedian. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much people will divulge if you tell them you are writing a novel and would like to watch and listen to their inner workings for a few hours.
As you eavesdrop intentionally don’t forget to take note of the setting of the person you are eavesdropping on. What is going on around the person you may base your characters POV on. Is the park noisy with children and families oblivious to her weeping? Is there the sound of an espresso maker making a double espresso as a young man flirts with the woman at the next table? What are the sounds and aromas around you? Home in on the details that envelope your person of interest to truly immerse your readers in a character.
Know when to create boundaries. Eavesdropping can help you add depth to your characters but know when you should set boundaries and give people space and privacy. Even though you can gather story lines from the people you are eavesdropping on remember they are human beings not just to create a salable manuscript.
Jeanine DeHoney is a freelance writer whose writing has appeared in several anthologies, blogs and magazines. She is an essayist in Chicken Soup For The African American Woman’s Soul and Living Lessons and upcoming in an anthology entitled, “Here In The Middle.” She has written for Literary Mama, Mused Bella online, Metro Fiction, Devozine, The Children’s Ark, Scary Mommy, Brain Child Magazine, Parent. Co, Wow-Women on Writing-The Muffin’s Friday Speak Out, among other magazines. Ms. DeHoney is also a contributing writer to Dream Teen Magazine, a magazine that celebrates the accomplishments of noteworthy teens.
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You’re so right! Some of my best ideas have come from snatches of conversation overheard in coffee shops, restaurants, laundromats (doing the laundry in these places doesn’t have to be boring), women’s bathrooms — well, in public! I keep a notepad and jot them down. Sometimes the best things come from hearing the least. As a fiction writer, I love coming up with “the rest of the story.” Thanks for a great post!
What an insightful, delightful article. Thank you!