The Observation Deck: Eavesdrop
Many writers are notorious eavesdroppers. Eudora Welty explained the practice saying, “In the South everybody stays busy talking all the time-they’re not sorry for you to overhear their tales. I don’t feel, in helping myself, I ever did anything underhanded. I was helping out!” F. Scott Fitzgerald kept a notebook in which he recorded “overheard conversations” as well as “nonsense and stray phrases.”
When Nelson Algren, author of The Man with a Golden Arm, was asked how he developed his style, he replied, “The only thing I’ve consciously tried to do was put myself in a position to hear the people I wanted to hear talk, talk.” For seven years he frequented police lineups-ostensibly searching for a mugger-listening to conversations among the criminals and cops.
For James Jones author of From Here to Eternity, “conversation is more often likely to be an attempt at deliberate evasion, deliberate confusion, rather than communication.” Short story writer Raymond Carver was a master at demonstrating this. Pay attention to what is not said in a conversation. Re-read your transcript (after writing down what you’ve heard) and look for the hidden agenda each speaker is trying to further. If a man is trying to seduce a woman, what techniques is he using? Flattery? Boasting? Subtly denigrating his rival? Does he try to make the buyer feel he’s being the times? Drop name of other famous clients? Asl questions to establish a rapport?
If you are writing about a particular subculture, find it locally and go eavesdrop, with pen and paper ready. Visit an old folks home, a gambling den, or an exclusive club. Pay attention to what the patrons are talking about.Notice the rhythms, the jargon, the secret codes. Then see if you can construct a scene that captures what you’ve learned. Write an interaction between patient and nurse over feeding time. Or a student-teacher confrontation regarding a missed assignment. Remember what is not said is as important as what is said and that conversation is often indirect.
Tumblr readers: Personally, I the last sentence in the paragraph above is a vital tip for not only writing, but also reading people in everyday situations. Think about it.
To stretch your imagination, try the game played by the ten-year-old heroine of Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy. Sipping an egg cream at her favorite luncheonette, Harriet would “let the voices from the tables behind her float over her head” and try to guess what each person looked like from his or her conversations. You may be surprised at the accuracy of your guesses, or you may discover that you need to listen more carefully for clues regarding age class and appearance.
While you are going about your daily tasks, take note of the various ways people say good-bye. Is it “See you later”? “Gotta go”? Or “Would you please excuse me”? Notice different ways people say “I’m sorry.”
You might also want to take a conversation you have already written or found in someone else’s work and recast it with very different participants. Rewrite a scene from Romeo and Juliet as a conversation between tho immigrants, or between a teacher and a attractive student. You will have to make each character specific-with particular needs and histories-and create well-defined circumstances to make the conversation seem real.