3 Tips For Writers Who Eavesdrop


I went to a market where I shared a table with a young girl hidden behind big sunglasses and long bangs. We were at opposite ends of a long trestle table with benches. The kind where you need to coax your legs into twisty, bendy positions to get in. We sat in a courtyard, under swaying, shady trees. Cold wine, beautiful people and an afternoon to write. Idyllic to say the least.

My pen found paper and I settled into my story. I thought the young girl was alone, but she was soon joined by equally hip, long-banged, individuals. All girls. All talking at once. I was annoyed. I wanted quiet time to write.

I think they were around 23. They did not shut-up for a second. I haven’t been a 23-year-old girl in a long time. I forgot what it sounded like.

Today my conversations are filled with kid’s homework, play dates, cricket practice and the need for new ballet shoes. So when the young girls started speaking about sex buddies versus boyfriends, I moved closer. I can write about play dates – but boyfriends and sex buddies? Well, I’m a little out of practice.

Now, how can I use this conversation for my writing, this is after all a hard-won writing afternoon.

This is what I did:

  1. Words: I jotted down the words the girls used, especially the ones that I was not familiar with any more.
  2. Sentence Structure: They spoke fast. I couldn’t write it all down. I grabbed pieces and tried to concentrate on specific sentence structures.
  3. Body Language: I watched them move. Mommies are always keeping an eye on their kids. These girls were looking at each other, their phones and the people walking past.

Then I had a page full of squiggles and I turned it into a scene.

Meet Lisa, Alice and Cara:

Alice folds her legs under the trestle table. Picking through the eco-friendly, take-away box with a funky wooden fork. She unearths a mussel shell, dripping with thick white sauce. Garlic wafts over the table. She slurps and empties the shell. It ends up on a serviette. She licks her fingers and dives back into the container. Another shell emerges. The process is repeated.
“Jeez, how was that queue?” Lisa collapses onto the bench, arms full of more food. Her maxi skirt making her clumsy, her foot catches as she hoists it over the bench.
Alice smiles and pushes her sunglasses up onto her head, parting her long bangs. “You should have chosen the mussels.” She says sucking the sauce off another shell. “They’re so good.”
“I have bubbles.” Cara arrives, balancing three flutes between her fingers. She climbs onto the bench handing out champagne as she settles. “Ok,” Cara says and they both turn to face Alice, “No more holding out. Spill.”
Alice jumps in, as if waiting for her cue. “So I haven’t heard from him in like months and then he texts me twice this week.” Her hands flutter, gesturing to her phone. They all look at the phone as if the inert device can explain the text.
“Is he an in-between-er?” Cara asks. “Or a keeper?”
Alice shrugs and blushes. “Maybe, maybe not.”
“A sex buddy?” Lisa says with a grin.
“I don’t know. He was such a write-off, but I’m seriously tempted.” Alice says, “Why is he sending me messages now?”
“This week is truly a resurrection of the exes.” Cara says, shaking her head.
They hold up their flutes, the soft clink drowned out by their laughter.
“A resurr-ex-tion.” Lisa says.
They collapse against each other. Glasses still held high.

###

Eavesdropping is fun. It serves as a great prompt and this particular conversation was more intriguing than cricket practice. Don’t get caught eavesdropping though, and if you are, just say you are a writer. People think we are weird anyway.

If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg or sign up for our online course.

 by Mia Botha

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This article has 4 comments

  1. Dave

    This is a great article! We struggle with dialogue and personal attributions, and they are around us all the time. I teach and write about counseling, and I have often benefited from eavesdropping on conversations at airports. It isn’t as easy now that the gates are closed to most everyone but travelers, but the terminal restaurants are great places to listen. People often seem to play catch-up, and the information, as in this article, can be very informative. Ultimately, people are our business – no matter what writing we do.

  2. Linda

    SO good, Mia! Loved this one. Keep ’em comin’!

  3. Bev

    Great post, Mia! You’re right that writers are weird anyway.

  4. Michelle Wallace

    Great ‘eavesdropping’ post!

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