Professional Eavesdropping: A Cautionary Tale

Posted on 21st February, 2015

Some writers enjoy a spot of earwigging. A snatch of overheard conversation might provide an idea for a plot point or a piece of characterisation. It could suggest a speech pattern or provide a line that sticks in the mind.

I've never gone in for deliberate eavesdropping, myself, but I did once hear a woman say, 'Jimmy died. He died. He just died.'

I don't know who she was. All I can tell you is she was middle-aged and casually dressed. Neither do I know who Jimmy was. Her son? Her brother? A neighbour? He might not even have been a person. He could have been the dog. But the words stuck in my head and later I used them, though not Jimmy's name.

Do you ever listen in on purpose? Some writers claim it's part of the job. If you do listen, have you heard anything that you subsequently used?

But if you are an eavesdropper, just make sure you don't get carried away.

Years ago, I had a colleague called Margaret. One morning on the bus, she was sitting behind two women who were engrossed in an animated conversation about a third party, and Margaret was busy lapping up every indignant word.

As the conversation approached its emotional height, one woman turned to the other and said, '...and do you know what she said then? Do you know what she said?'

Whereupon Margaret leaned forward, saying eagerly, 'No – no. What?'

Don't say you haven't been warned.


Make A Comment

Characters left: 2000

Comments (7)

I love it. I can just imagine the faces of the two women in conversation. Did Margaret find out the answer to what 'she' said? I get my eavesdropping habit from my dad! In a restaurant, he was often miles away listening to a conversation at the next table and oblivious to what we were saying!!
What a great tale Susanna. It really made me laugh out loud.
Oh, I am a dreadful eavesdropper! How else would I get all my ideas!
What a lovely story, Susanna! Did you find out what the answer was?
Although not nearly as good as Merryn's wonderful canoe anecdote, I once overheard a conversation in a bookshop between two ladies. 'Are you still going?' said the first. 'Yes,' said the second, through gritted teeth. 'But you don't want to go!' wailed her friend. I jotted it down in a notebook thinking it might spark an idea for a short story but I never did get around to coming up with a possible scenario - maybe one day!
Thank you for leaving a comment, Merryn. I loved your anecdote - I just hope you didn't laugh out loud. Your novel, The Girl From Cobb Street, is on my TBR pile and I'm looking forward to reading it.

Thanks as always to you, Jen, for your continued support of my blog. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Expecting to be safe when speaking a foreign language isn't something I'd thought of, but you are quite right. You never know who can understand.
Loved this post, Susanna. As someone who can't stop herself from eavesdropping on public transport, I confess I have used details in fiction, although not identifying ones.

An additional warning, even those speaking a foreign language should beware of eavesdroppers. You never know who in the vicinity may understand the language you're speaking! I overhead a fascinating telephone conversation by a French-language speaker in an English environment, and I'm sure the speaker had no idea that intimate details were being broadcast more widely.
I eavesdrop all the time and it's a huge temptation to join in. Sometimes, though, it's better to wait for the punch line. A few weeks' ago, I was sitting on a bus behind two women talking about their evenings the night before. One had obviously had an X rated time while the other seemed nonplussed by her friend's activities. When she did volunteer information, it was to say, 'well we bought a canoe on ebay last night'. I loved it!