If you are a person who likes to write - whose thoughts are full of the lives, habits and quirks of others - a fat, juicy, overheard comment laden with potential is like (I imagine) a hit of crack cocaine. Once those words, so rich with ideas, images and outlines, reach your sensitive ears you are hooked. Many a short story or piece of flash fiction has been launched into life by an overheard phrase or conversation. I expect that there are more authors than care to admit that the dialogue in their latest novel was lifted directly from their local café or bus stop. Is this wrong? An invasion of privacy? I don’t think so. The overheard words and sentences are generally used as a starting point, a prompt for the mind of a writer to start doing what it does best; creating other lives. The finished product will be a far cry from the snippet that began its creation. The words are usually changed to protect the innocent.
Some overheard remarks have stuck with me, still make me shake my head in wonder or chuckle with amusement. Some I have already used – a drunken conversation about the futility of life features verbatim in the second chapter of my novel - some are still ruminating in my head, ready to spring out at the right moment. Like the time I visited the catholic Disneyland that is Lourdes, France a few years ago. We joined the flowing sea of people heading towards the Grotto in a steady drizzle, passing endless souvenir shops crammed with every conceivable incarnation of the Virgin Mary as a 21st century knick-knack: key rings, t shirts, framed holograms, water bottles with detachable head, snow globe. I heard the soft Irish accent of two women behind me.‘Ach, it’s a pity about the rain,’ one lamented.
‘Ah,’ the other admonished, ‘but we only came to pray.’
The very different agendas of those women’s visit to France was summed up so succinctly in those two sentences that they live on in my head seven years later and one day I shall enjoy writing their tale.
Of course, generally it’s not so much the words these people speak that writers are caught by, but what they reveal about the speaker. If you ever struggle to ‘show, not tell’ in your own writing, imagine you are sat with your back to someone, listening to them speak. Their words can reveal enough for you to create an entire scenario, relationship or life for them: if that can happen without you seeing them, their thoughts or their gestures, then you can recreate that on paper.
Travel offers great opportunities for eavesdropping and people watching the mass of humanity. One of my fellow Café Aphraite’s lives in Spain and speaks several languages. Train journeys packed with tourists are rich pickings as, believing themselves cloaked under a language barrier, they are less guarded with their conversations. She once sat transcribing every word of a British mother and daughter, who thought themselves surrounded by Spaniards, onto her laptop. The conversation was awkward, painfully stilted and exposed a complicated relationship that my friend could not understand. It gave her plenty to think about, though, and the birth of a short story.
Sometimes it’s not so much what you overhear as what you observe that grips your imagination. I recently took a train trip myself – a mammoth thirteen hours travelling from one end of the UK to the other. And then I came back. For people watching opportunities I highly recommend it. I was treated to an endless procession of men, women, families, single parents, students, disgruntled grandparents, jolly uncles, well behaved children, badly behaved children, excited people going on holiday and sweaty, tired looking people coming home. Around Yorkshire I was particular fascinated by three very different families sat on opposite sides of the carriage. On one side was a stout, elderly woman who had been visiting one of her four sons and his family. A divorced man who had had his three young children to stay with him for the holidays sat beside her as his children sat squashed in the row behind him. The woman told the man about how awful her sons wives were, all of them, none of them wanted her to visit and were rude to her when she did. Then it was his turn; his ex-wife was very difficult, he hardly got to see his beloved children, she chopped and changed the custody agreement to suit her. Whilst they exchanged their woes, his children were running riot and his sorry tale was punctuated by yelling at them to shut up. Across the carriage was another family of a grandmother, her two granddaughters and their Uncle. He got on to help them with their bags but before he could get off the train left the station. All four of them found it hilarious, despite the fact that, as the man said, he’d left his car on a double yellow line outside the station. The broad range of dynamics and outlooks was fascinating.
All this is wonderful fodder for fiction. Any one of those people or the sentences they said to each other could be used to create a character, to flesh out one you have already invented or to fuse some vague elements that you feel could become an individual. We, as writers, need to learn to take what we can from what we observe and use it to feed our imaginations.
Sometimes, you are lucky enough to overhear some real gems that will keep you chuckling for years. A friend from my writing group was once stood at a bus stop, listening to two elderly women chatting about their friends ‘lovely wee doggie’.
‘Well,’ said one, in a broad Doric accent, ‘it’s nae bonnie ony mair.’
‘Oh?’‘It’s as flat as a bannock ‘cos it was run o’er by a bus.’
What have you overheard?