18 May 2016
I Couldn't Help Overhearing
It is one of those super powers most fiction writers seem to have: the ability to eavesdrop. Comes from a natural curiosity about our fellow mortals, I suppose.
Lots of people listen to what is said around them, but we writers, well, we tend to put them to good use.
Take, for instance, Harlan Ellison, the science fiction and fantasy author (and winner of two, count 'em, two Edgar Awards, by the way). He was at a party once and overheard someone say "Jeffty is five. Jeffty is always five."
He assumes that this was a mondegreen, but it inspired a stunning short story, "Jeffty is Five." It won a Hugo and a Nebula and one poll of SF fans voted it the best short story of all time.
Not bad for an overheard snippet of conversation, huh?
James Thurber's "The Lady on 142" begins with the narrator and his wife waiting for a train in the Connecticut suburbs. He hears the stationmaster saying over the phone "Conductor Reagan on 142 has the lady the office was asking about."
The narrator's wife assumes the lady was sick. Our hero suspects something much more nefarious is going on. Complications ensue. I liked the story so much that I ended Thurber On Crime with it.
Before Harry Kemelman started writing about Rabbi Small he made it into Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine's Department of First Stories with "The Nine Mile Walk," in which a casually overheard remark leads to the discovery of a murder. It is one of my favorite crime stories.
I remember thinking, sure, someone is just going to toss off a country song hook while I happen to be standing nearby. A few hours later I heard a woman say: "She's thinking of giving up California." And voila.
She's thinking of giving up California
Moving someplace farther from the sea
When she talks about giving up California
I think she's really giving up on me.
And not long ago I was walking through the library where I work and I heard one student say to another: "Whatever page you're at, whatever stage you're at..."
I silently added: "Whatever age you're at." And I was off.
So, how about you? Have you ever overheard the kernel of what became your next masterpiece?