30 November 2009

Confessions of an eavesdropper

Teen girl to friend: "I didn't, but I really wanted to."

Frustrated mother of children climbing down the riverbank: "Get back here! Now!"
Easy-going Dad: "Relax. "It's Sunday. It's not like they're going to drown today."

Exhausted woman: "That's because you don't have kids."
Annoyed sister or friend: "You're right. I still have some sense."

I love to eavesdrop. I try to be discreet when I do it (especially when I jot down what I've just overheard) but I can't help myself. People are interesting, and I can't resist the opportunity to take what they say out of context and build a story around it.

For example, does the father above really think his kids can't drown because it's Sunday or is he just tired of trying to control two exuberant youngsters. Either way, conflict, possible disaster, and the potential for heroism exists in that 30-second exchange.

One of my favorite passages in my book ANAM CARA is a conversation between my hero and heroine regarding her worries for her daughter. Part of it came from an overheard conversation. Here it is:

Bran tugged her hand until she relented, sort of.

Still frowning, Liza positioned herself slightly to the front and side of him. He shifted to put himself directly behind her, smiling when she stiffened at the idea of having him at her back. Too close, her body language shouted at him.

“Ye worry too much. ’Twill only gives ye more frown lines.”

“You do not worry enough,” she said, even as she smoothed a finger over her brow.

“When has worry changed the outcome of anything?”

“’Tis prevented much mischief.”

“A little mischief is fun.”

“Says a man with no daughters.”

“There is naught to mull over, Liza. At worst they share a kiss, and yer Tess has a sweet flirtation to remember when the years grow heavy and bitter.”

“I do not want her to have a sweet flirtation.”

Once again, she’d caught him off guard. “Why?”

“Because she will expect too much then. I do not want her to be disappointed.”

“As ye were?” Her look could have mutilated a less hardened man. “Disappointment comes with living. Ye can no more prevent it than ye could bruised knees.”

“You are not a parent.”

“Aye, I have perspective.”

Yes, I stole (and modified) the last two lines from a conversation overhead on a train while feeding my traveling addiction. The real-life conversation was between a woman who wouldn't leave her child (who looked to be about 2) with a babysitter and her sister or friend, who replied, "You're right. I still have some sense."

What struck a note with me was the arrogance of each perspective, i.e. you can't possibly understand because you haven't had this experience vs. I understand because I haven't been blinded by this experience.

I assume eavesdropping is a writer's habit, and I'm not the only one who listens to other conversations. So my question is: what is the best conversation you've overhead, and did you use it in a story?


Francesca Prescott said...

Keena, I'm terrible! I eavesdrop all the time! I think my husband must go nuts in restaurants sometimes because he'll be sitting there, telling me something, and then I'll get this blank look on my face and he'll know that I'm fascinated by what's going on not only at the table behind us, but also at the table to our left. Incidentally, have you noticed how hard it is to listen in on a conversation without looking at the people who are talking? Or maybe it's just me. I'd make a crappy spy!

Unknown said...

KEENA--If I had all day, I might think of an incident. I do eavesdrop--I think it's a human frailty we cannot help. I loved yours. I do use phrasing I remember people saying and the way they said it.In one ms, I write about a mother chastising her grown daughter. I used language exactly as I remember my mother talking to me when I'd been gone from home 20 years. Celia

LK Hunsaker said...

I love the way you incorporated the actual conversation into your story!

Yes, I eavesdrop at times, but other times, my husband will shake his head at a conversation and I haven't even noticed it. My ears are very good, but I can also tune it out when I try. ;-)

I can't think of a particular story at the moment. Hmm.. maybe I'll pay attention while we're out shopping today!