Monday, February 4, 2008

Watch Out! Writer Lurking

I'm a writer, among other things. And those other things include "unrepentant eavesdropper" and "spy." Yes, I admit it. I listen in. On the bus, walking down the street, at a restaurant for lunch. If I can hear you, I hear you. If you take my meaning. And, yes, I'm paying attention.

The author in me says it's research. Yeah, that's it. Research. And maybe it even is, a little bit. Certainly snippets of overheard conversation have shown up in my writing at various times in my life. For instance, in Lost Dog there's a brief exchange between the main character Peter and a girl outside a coffee shop:

“Darla? Hi…I’m Peter.”
The girl gazed at him from under coal-black bangs and took a sip of her drink. “So? You want a medal?”
Peter felt the dull ache of his wet feet and the chill of rain on his neck. “Wait a minute. Are you—”
“I’m not Darla,” the girl said. “Go hassle someone else, dickhead.”

Technically, I observed that little scene at a pizza place, and, of course, the names are different. But the exact wording is pretty close to what was actually said. I admit I felt bad for the guy, but I also reproduced his embarrassment in print for my own (and hopefully my readers') benefit. Sorry about that, fella.

Now to be sure, when you do your eavesdropping in eateries and drinkeries, most what you hear is boring stuff like, "I'd like a tall latte, please." Or, "A cup of vegetarian chili and a house salad." Yeah, them's some whoppers, no doubt. Will they go for the balsamic vinagrette or maybe bleu cheese dressing? The suspense can be palpable. Still, every now and then even a drink order will make it into my collection of eaves-droplings.

"Decaf soy six-pump sugar-free vanilla latte, extra foam, extra hot." Yes, a real drink order faithfully quoted. As I have Skin Kadash say in my follow-up to Lost Dog, I'd need a tattoo to remember that.

But the real coffee and scones of eavesdropping can be found in those deeply personal conversations which are none of my damn business, but which I can't help but overhear because, let's face it, decibel-control is too often in short supply among the general public. Especially among cell phone users.

Of course, a cell phone means more often than not I'm snooping on only one side of a conversation. In a way, that's almost better than hearing both parties talking. It leaves lots of room for imagination.

"I like the name Oleesia Raylene. . . . Hell, no, I don't know how to spell it. What's that got to do with anything?" (To be fair, I'm guessing at the spelling myself.)

"I realize we haven't met yet or anything, so I won't hold you to your answer, but would you ever consider reversing your vasectomy?"
And then, a little later in the conversation, "I just want to see your picture. . . . No, I don't care if you're dressed or not. Either way." Pause to listen. "That big? Sweet."

That conversational snippet evaluated as an eaves-dropling? Sweet, indeed.

Another good one, also a cell phone call by woman sitting about three feet from me, yet oblivious to my obvious fascination: "When people hear about me, they always think I'm older than I am. Probably because I have so many kids, plus being married so many times. Plus, being a widow. It starts to add up, let me tell you." She listened for a while, then she said, "Oh, sure, 35 is young to be a grandmother. You don't have to tell me."

It's not all cell phone conversations, of course. There are plenty of opportunities to spy on couples and families.

"I'm kinda like that weird kid in that movie. I see the spirits of people and animals."
"Yeah, like dead dogs and shit. I mean, when I see them they're walking around, but they're all misty like."
"No kidding?"
"Yeah. My neighbor's cat hung around for like a year after she had it put to sleep."

"You look like you taste salty."
"What, I look sweaty?"
"No, just salty and delicious. I want to lick you."
"Oh. Well, that's all right then."

(These two left very quickly thereafter...)

The thing I've learned over the years is that I have to not want it. A few days ago, when I decided to write about my shameless spying, I started listening consciously to everyone around me, determined to snag some hot, steaming snippets fresh outa the oven. Nothing. It was, "House coffee, room for cream," for days.

The lesson for us spies is you have to relax and go with the flow. Discover the Zen of snooping. Sooner or later, "The next time I catch him drinking from the orange juice carton I'm gonna put a fork through his eye and set his car on fire," is bound to come along, in one form or another. And if that isn't raw material for a mystery novel, I don't know what is.


Mark Combes said...

Don't forget to read the bathroom graffiti. One of my favorite doodlings was on a lid of a toilet that read: "For emergency exit only." Some of these people should be the writers!

Bill Cameron said...

haha, yes!

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

On the flip side of that, how many of us have been in restaurants or other public places with fellow mystery authors and realized the people next to us are hanging on our every word. There's something about overhearing people talking about body disposal and blood spatter clean-up that makes one stop mid-chew and listen.

The last time this happened, I realized the pre-teen girl sitting at the next table was fascinated with our chat. I nudged my dining parter and we toned down our discussion until the family left.

Mark Terry said...

I do this all the time, although more inadvertently. I find a lot of options for eavesdropping at the gym where I work out, although some of it's just watching people while I'm on one of my endless bike rides to nowhere.

A year or so ago I watched one of the young women who worked at the gym giving one of the clients a bump-and-grind boob-shaking dance in response to something he said. Interesting, thought I (seems to be a shortage of women in my life, wife or otherwise, doing similar things in response to my jests). Then a few months later she was gone.

Now, my wife works out at the same gym and because she hangs out with the women, she gets more gossip whereas I, being a guy, hang out with the men (a little bit) and tend to get bullshit. Like, say, today, when the 72+ year old guy who's in better shape than anyone in the entire state came in to change and I realized I forgot to bring a pair of socks for working out. He commented that they might smell, but he'd never had a nose for things like that--only pussy. Then he went on a bit...

Anyway, I mentioned the girl who had done the little dance to my wife and she said, "Oh, she was sleeping with the clients."

Well, duh, I suppose I could have figured that out myself (probably just as well I didn't), but I do like to notice that there's a whole world of things going on underneath the surface of the world I see.

G.M. Malliet said...

I never overhear stuff like that. Where in the world are you hanging out, Bill? Wait, don't answer that.

A lot of what my husband says does end up in my writing. That's because he knows everything...I mean, really; he knows everything. I call him Mr. Google.

Keith Raffel said...

Maybe I'd better find a better place to hang out and write than the business-oriented cafe I now frequent. All I overhear are pitches to venture capitalists and interviews.

Bill Cameron said...

Maybe I'm just lucky. Or maybe I'd write financial thriller if I hung out in a coffee shop down in the financial district.

Felicia Donovan said...

Last week, a friend of mine from another PD and I went to the movies and prior to the start, were discussing an unattended death where the poor sucker had been dead for several weeks. You can use your collective imaginations as to what led them to finally discover the body, but we were having a hearty discussion about the state of the body when we realized that several people around us were hanging onto every word.

Generally, I much prefer to be the quiet observer hanging onto every word, every glance of the eye and every gesture of the body.

Christa M. Miller said...

Transcribing the salaciousness is my revenge on those who stick their dirty laundry (usually underwear, going by the conversations) in my face. But I'm cranky that way.