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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Eavesdropping as a tool for writers

“Confound it all, Samwise Gamgee. Have you been eavesdropping?”

“I ain’t been droppin’ no eaves sir, honest. I was just cutting the grass under the window there, if you’ll follow me.”

- from Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Eavesdropping is a dirty word these days. Think of it and you think of the Leveson Inquiry, dodgy tabloid journos and phone hacking. The mere act of listening in on somebody’s private conversation is taboo, a form of theft. Yet eavesdropping is one of those tools that can provide a wealth of inspiration for writers in the right circumstances.

The term ‘eavesdropper’ originated in the mid 15th century to mean “one who stands at walls or windows to overhear what’s going on inside” (thanks, Online Etymology Dictionary). I’ve heard tell that in the old days it used to be a criminal offence to listen to somebody else’s conversation. But writers who resolutely refuse to do so are missing out.

Put simply, eavesdropping is a great source of external inspiration.

Writing is an all too often solitary job, and for all writers the ideas sometimes stop flowing. It goes with the territory. And sometimes the best thing to do is to get a breath of fresh air, grab a cup of coffee and sit down in a busy café, listening to the words filling the air around you.

I’ll admit that I’d never considered using eavesdropping as a source of inspiration until I was required to do so for my writing course. So, with notepad and pen in hand, I visited my local town on a market day to give it a go. Once you’ve gathered the courage to break a social etiquette, it actually turns out to be quite easy.

Initially I tried eavesdropping on people who were walking as they talked. Big mistake: listening, following without being noticeable and scribbling notes are three things that just won’t combine. Next, I lurked in a doorway while listening to a couple of guys chatting outside a tailor’s, and that worked better. The trick is to look inconspicuous; pretending to text or talk on your mobile phone works a treat, or bring a book you can pretend to be reading.

The best territory, though, is when you find somewhere you can sit down and have a reason to be; a pub or café is perfect. It’s perfectly normal for a writer to grab a drink and make notes at their table, so nobody suspects a thing. Pretty soon, I’d jotted down enough of a conversation to complete my assignment, and a few weeks later I’d transformed that conversation into a short story that I felt pleased with.

If you’re really unhappy about going out and having a listen, there are alternatives. The Eavesdrop Writer Blog, based in America, has transcripts of all kinds of overheard conversations and is well worth a look. And – forgive me for saying so – reality television can sometimes offer you a way to listen in to strangers chatting from the comfort of your own home.