Monday, May 31, 2010


In many of the how-to-write fiction/nonfiction books that I love to read, one writing prompt  that a lot of them seem to agree on is the idea of eavesdropping on other people's conversations. So lately I've been trying it out; rather than listening to my iPod all the time as I walk around, I listen to bits and pieces of other people's conversations. (It's not always by choice, though, since some people talk really loudly and apparently are not self-conscious of the fact that other people--like nosy writers--can hear them.)

Later I write down what I hear, because who knows? Some of those bits and pieces could be put together for an interesting story.

Here are a few examples of some of the things that I've heard, as well as what my mental reactions to them were:

Outside my bedroom window at 2 A.M., an angry girl is talking on her cell phone, screaming and crying:

Angry cell phone girl: Just tell me, WHY? WHY? How could you do that to me?
Me: I dunno, but could you take your whys down the street so I can go back to sleep?

On the train, a guy sitting behind me is talking on his cell phone, upset because he is low on cash and is afraid he will get evicted. So he calls everyone in his family for help:

Broke guy: Mom, I don't WANT to ask Dad for help. You know how he can be. But what am I gonna do? The landlady says I only have five days....okay...yeah, but he's such a JERK....okay, FINE. I'll call him.

Broke guy then calls up his father: "Dad? What are you doing?" He then proceeds to detail his money problems to his father, who promises to wire him cash for food. A few minutes later Broke Guy ends the call and then says, "DRUNK."
Me: I guess he won't be buying him a Father's Day gift this year.

On the street, two guys are walking right behind me:
Guy #1: My only problem with her is that she never showers. Even when she gets out of drag she only washes off her makeup!
Guy #2: Maybe she showers when you're sleeping.
Guy #1: No, she totally doesn't!
Me: Must walk faster so they don't hear me giggle. Must walk faster so they don't hear me giggle.

On a subway platform, two young subway performers, who are each carrying guitar cases, are flirting:

Male subway performer: I could spend hours listening to Mariah Carey.
Me: Yeah, right.
MSP: She's so much better than people like Britney Spears.
Me: Do not criticize the Britney!
Female subway performer: (smiles) Haha. Anyway, it was nice talking to you, but I have to go...
Me: Are you going to ask her for her phone number? Because I think she's interested in you.
MSP: Well, I hope to see you later.
FSP (walking away): I'll be performing later!

The conversation between the two subway performers got me thinking. Did they ever meet again? Did the male subway performer wait all day, hoping that the girl he liked would show up again? Did he start composing a song about her in the hopes that she would hear it?

And just like that, I started getting an idea for a story...

What about you? Do you ever eavesdrop on other people's conversations, and then become inspired to write a story? It's one of the reasons I love Chicago; there's always something interesting to write about.


  1. I totally do that! I also read the overheard blogs, like Overheard in New York - those things are goldmines.

  2. i can't help listening to others when they're speaking loudly, but it hasn't inspired my writing yet.
    how cool that two subway performers could spark an idea for you!

  3. Hi Margaret,
    Thanks for telling me about Overheard in New York! I kept cracking up at all the titles that the blogger wrote before each overheard conversation. I'm definitely bookmarking that blog...

    Hi mi,
    At first I felt guilty for eavesdropping on other people's conversation. But like you said, when they're talking loudly, you can't help but listen to them.

  4. Oh, I love eavesdropping on conversations! They definitely inspire me to write certain vignettes.

  5. this is interesting. i should eavesdrop more often haha!

  6. Oh, I love doing this. But I have not been doing much of it lately. When I am out, I am either completely absorbed in my computer or talking way too loudly with a friend. I must remember to listen!

  7. Oh I eavesdrop more than I would like to sometimes. I've witnessed so many couples arguments, stranger disputes, some questionable parenting...on my commute in the morning. It's fodder for writing. It's fodder for writing. I try to think of the positive side, rather than that I live in city full of insane people.

  8. Hi Talli,
    I like writing vignettes too, even though I can't actually pronounce the word "vignette" correctly. :)

    Hi janjan,
    You should try it! It's easy to pretend you're not listening even if you actually are listening.

    Hi Rebecca,
    Sometimes I do forget to listen too, even if I don't have my headphones on. But when I remember I usually hear interesting stuff.

    Hi Palindrome,
    I like how you described it as "fodder for writing". That's totally true.

  9. It's fun to eavesdrop but I try not to... >;D

  10. LOL, I totally just realized that I repeated myself. I did NOT do that on purpose.

  11. The greatest vindication win in my writing is almost always when I can pull a snippet of a conversation or idea I heard or had years ago, and work it into a current piece. I'm always so pumped when that happens! I hope it happens many many times for you!

  12. Hi Amanda,
    It is fun to eavesdrop; I just try not to let them know that I'm listening. But sometimes I wish I could just grab a pen right then and there and write what they said on my arm (if I don't have paper available).

    Hi Palindrome,
    No worries! I do that sometimes too.

    Hi Boomka,
    Thanks! I hope it happens many many times for you too! I'm impressed that you've been writing down snippets of people's conversations for years, because I only started doing it recently. You must have a ton of good stuff to use by now!