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?

There are also stories about overheard conversations, which I think is due to the writer's special interest in the subject.

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 have stolen a lot of overheard dialog and put it in the mouths of my characters, but I don't think any of my stories were inspired by  an overheard remark.  Songs, ah, that is a different subject.  Years ago I attended a music camp and took a class from Geof Morgan who was a Nashville hitmaker, until he reformed.  He told us to listen to conversation for the rest of the day, waiting for a hook.

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?



  1. A column beginning ( and not so beginning, too) writers would do well to read!
    I used to assign my students to collect dialogue and sometimes that did indeed inspire them.

  2. Heard a mother outside yell to a boy, "I'll kill you if-" And that became an assignment for my creative writing students! Finish the sentence and keep going.

    What, me eavesdrop? grin. I'm a writer. Anything is game.
    Fun post.

  3. Very easy these days when so many folks talk loudly on their cellphone regardless of the setting.

  4. Did you participate in the C&W noir challenge at Flashing in the Gutters a few years back? My entry was inspired by "The Corvette Song," written by Gary Gentry & sung by George Jones. The song is about an overheard comment which was misinterpreted in an amusing way - nobody got their feelings hurt or anything.

    I love country music, which some are beginning to call Americana music to avoid the stigma attached to "country & western".

  5. I have ducked out to my delivery truck and written down things my customers have said! Oh, and we just watched the "Mike and Molly" where aspiring writer Molly goes on a police ride-along with her recorder!

  6. Dang! I’ve got to check out Elizabeth’s song.

    Unlike a lot of guys, I like listening to women talk. I especially like hearing and watching black women talk, often a whole body experience. It's the sounds, the movements, it's never dull.

    A few days ago, I read a blog that talked about modern speech patterns and vocabulary, and that young women and girls are the trend-setters in speech. The article talked about Gen-X and younger girls speaking in questions. At the time, I couldn’t imagine what they were talking about, but a computer colleague sent me an example embedded in a technical discussion.

    Skip over the first minute-plus, but listen to this girl’s inflection. Her voice rises at the end of declarative phrases, although she usually ends sentences normally. Now I see what the blogger meant.

    The writer blamed men for this (sigh), so women will have to tell us if she’s right or not. Her argument was that in a male-dominated world, women have to ask permission to speak, so this ‘questioning’ speech pattern is part and parcel of a patriarchal society. (She doesn't know the women I know!) In the same article, she says the reason young women and not men establish speech and language is that men communicate a lot less than women do.

  7. Elizabeth, that's a great song and I'll bet your story's terrific too.

    I was surprised when working in Europe how popular country music is. It translates surprisingly well. Now, you can hear European country music with USA chords and French or Czech lyrics.

    Kevin, you're oh, so right.

  8. Elizabeth, no I didn't know about the noir contest. I think of Americana as being broader than country. I am used to it meaning essentially anything but classical/jazz and rock. In other words: country, folk, bluegrass, blues...


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