Monday, March 3, 2014

What I Overheard - A Writer's Confession

The Intrepid Eavesdropper

I've never been a sneaky person. I've never listened outside closed doors, picked up a phone extension and listened to someone else's conversation, or hid in a place where I knew I'd hear juicy gossip. I  don't think of myself as an eavesdropper ... but on occasion, I am one. 

Let me explain. I am a writer. I sometimes write in public places. A favorite haunt of mine - I go there maybe three times a week - is Zoka, a nearby coffee shop with perfect-sized tables, lots of electrical outlets, long banks of windows that are positioned to let in the golden evening light, and a barista crew that is starting to call me by name. My only complaint? Other people like Zoka as much as I do. Which can be problematic.

Zoka Coffee Shop, Seattle Washington
My writing place

The place gets crowded. Those perfect little tables fill up. Students from the University of Washington meet at my coffee shop for their study groups - it seems to be a favorite of the college-age set. But others like Zoka as well. Prospective employers meet with potential employees for getting-to-know-you chats. Friends get together. Families on outings come to visit; there are three different father-daughter combinations who come into Zoka for after-school hot chocolates and a half hour of homework. And, always, scattered here and there, are lone writerly types pecking away at their laptops, seemingly oblivious. I am one of them.

Several times a week, for maybe three hours, I nab one of the small square tables in front of the windows. I have a favorite table - the sideways one near the front of the shop, even though it rocks just a bit and I sometimes have to stuff a folded-up napkin under one of its legs. I drape my jacket over the chair, order a mocha (and the occasional almond croissant), and set up my laptop.

And then it begins: other people's conversations start leaking into my personal space. I can usually tune them out, but sometimes, it's hard. There's no avoiding it. 

Working on my Next Novel

Instead of being annoyed by these verbal intrusions, I've begun doing some ... ah ... judicious listening. Overheard conversations are wonderful places to gather real-life dialogue and interesting details and plot ideas. Writers have been carefully listening and taking notes for ages - it's a time-honored way of honing dialogue skills. Listening in on other people in public places is eavesdropping, yes, but I prefer to think of it as "dialogue research" intended for "character color". I've been jotting down the best snippets for months now - and getting some great stuff. I've collected wonderful bits and pieces of dialogue, and I thought it was a great time to share them.

Snippet Number One

Last week, when I was about to pack up and leave the coffee shop, two women sat down at the table nearest to me. I couldn't help but hear the job interview that the older woman was conducting for the younger one:

Older woman:   "You like to read?"
Younger woman:   "Um, yes."
Older woman:   "I mean, like a lot."
Younger woman:   "I can, if you want me to."

(At this point, I was drawn in. Intrigued. What kind of job involves lots of reading?)

Older woman:   "There would be stacks of books to read. Stacks like you've never seen."
Younger woman:   "As in ... manuscripts?"
Older woman:   "You'll have so many you won't know what to do with them."
Younger woman (laughs self-consciously):    "I bet."
Older woman:   "You'll have to read and pass the best ones on to me."
Younger woman:   "Okay."
Older woman:   "You'll learn to tell pretty quickly which are worth sending on to me."
Younger woman:   "I can do that."

(Now I had the sneaking suspicion that a literary agent was sitting at the table next to me! Holy Cow! Who was she? Had I submitted a manuscript to her?)

Older woman:   "Most are junk. You can tell by the first page."
(Younger woman laughs.)
Older woman:   "Sometimes by the first paragraph."
Younger woman:   "By the first sentence?"
Older woman:   "Sometimes! Yes!"

(Now I had a burning desire to rewrite the first page, paragraph, and sentence of my current novel.)

I scootched my chair a bit closer, trying to look innocent. They began talking about plots, and two-page synopses, and authors who don't know a Story Arc from Noah's Arc. Famous clients were mentioned. Publishers were brought up. By the time they left, I was in danger of falling onto their table, I was eavesdropping so hard. 

The last thing I overheard? The older woman asking how soon the younger woman could start.

Snippet Number Two

A few days later, I was seated next to an innocent-looking young woman. She sat at her laptop, wrapped up in her work and listening to music through her earbuds. I hardly noticed her, until a handsome young man sauntered up, pulled out a chair, and sat down across from her. That's when things got interesting. Apparently, he was late meeting her, and she was furious, as in white-faced, cold-voiced, seriously pissed off. I wasn't quick enough to capture many lines of dialogue, but what I got could be great fodder for a future scene:

Girl:   "I guess you and I have different definitions of the word SOON."
Boy:   "... but I was sorting my socks, Babe."
Girl:   "Since when does 'I'm leaving right now' mean an hour and a half later?"
Boy (tipping his chair back on two legs)   "I knew you would wait for me - so why should I hurry?"

That's all I got, but - Yikes! Oh, the simmering resentment and rage at that table! I found it hard to believe that these two would be together much longer. Great dialogue or not, it was too much for me. I found another, quieter, location, and left them to their altercation.

Snippet Number Three

The last one happened only last night. Three college-age women were having an earnest study session. It appeared that they were writing essays for a religious class or study group. They had a bible verse, and had dissected it from one angle and then another and shared their thoughts with each other. All well and good. I wasn't paying much attention - but then their conversation took a different turn, and I was all ears.

Jasmine (the only name I caught):   "I get all blushy over him."
Friend One:   "You do?"
Friend Two:   "You DO?"
Jasmine:   "I think of him like a boyfriend, like I'm in love with him."

(My hands went still on my keyboard. Could Jasmine be saying what I thought she might be? Really?)

Friend One:   "That's so cool."
Friend Two:   "What would you ... do with him?"
Jasmine (slowly):   "I get this FEELING when I think about him."
Friend One:   "Me too, a little."
Friend Two doesn't say anything but I hear her suck in her breath.
Jasmine:   "I think of myself doing something ordinary with him, like he was a real person. Like we would go out in canoes by Husky Stadium. Like we would hang out and talk, and he would be the best friend ever, the best listener."
(A pause.)
Jasmine:   " he would paddle when I got tired."

(I blinked. Wow. This was some good stuff, some inner thoughts and emotions. It was the most uncomfortable I've yet felt while jotting down overheard dialogue. For the first time, I actually felt like I was eavesdropping - but I couldn't stop.)

Friend One:   "Yes, Jesus would do that. For sure."
Friend Two:   "Oooooh, Jasmine. That's so good."
Jasmine:   "Yeah."
Friend One:   "I would hang out with Jesus."
Jasmine:   "Me too, definitely."
Friend Two:   "I would too." (Pause.) "But we wouldn't go paddling. We would watch old movies together and cry at the sad scenes together."
Friend One:   "Oh my god. That makes me shiver."
Jasmine:   "But now I'm hungry. I feel compelled by Jesus' love ... to buy a brownie."

That's all I have for now.

I'm sure there will be more - keep your eyes open for Intrepid Eavesdropper number two.

P.S. If you are ever in Seattle, near the University of Washington, stop in at Zoka and tell them I sent you. Here is their Website:

1 comment:

  1. All that entertainment for the price of coffee! Reading this makes me want to find a new coffeehouse. My old favorite changed hands & it just isn't the same. I miss the eavesdropping as much as the coffee. :)


Please let me know what you think!