Listening in on other people’s conversations is one of my favorite writing activities, especially if the situation is such that you can take out a notebook and write down what you’re hearing. There’s no better way to figure out how people really talk, and it’s invaluable if you’re trying to capture dialect, accent, jargon, and even rhythm.

Back in the days when I had to write on clay tablets, this kind of eavesdropping was hard, and almost always due to luck. Diners were always a good bet, or anywhere large groups of people were close together. But folks are often guarded about what they say in public.

Now we have this wondrous thing called the cellphone. People will say things in phone conversations in public that they never would otherwise. I’ve heard people place buy and sell orders on the stock market, argue with exes over child custody, and make heartfelt apologies for what they did last night in a drunken stupor. It’s all priceless.

While I was at the beach last summer, for example, I jotted this down:

  • Young man talking to two young women: “I hate those net things in men’s swimsuits. I get all sweaty up in there.”
  • Husband: “Look, honey — more T-shirts!” Wife: “If I see another T-shirt, I’m going to scream.”

A somewhat related phenomenon is that sometimes people will tell you their stories at the drop of a hat — and all you have to do is ask and listen. A conversation about my T-shirt at a beach bar allowed me to hear about a couple’s plans for the birth of their first child, for example. And making a purchase at a local business gave me 20 minutes of stories about living on the island in the off-season.

Stories and characters are all around us. All we have to do is look and listen.

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