Carolyn grew up in New York’s Catskill Mountains, graduated from the University of Arizona, logged two years in Arkansas with Volunteers in Service to America, and spent 25 years as a television news researcher, writer, producer, and assignment editor in Arkansas, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington. Now getting her quota of stress as a substitute teacher, she lives in Vancouver, Washington, and founded the Vancouver Writers’ Mixers. Her hobbies are reading, gardening, and not cooking.
The Etiquette of Eavesdropping
Carolyn J. Rose
As a writer, I’m always on the lookout for unique characters with distinct voices, characters using the language in new and different ways, bending, folding and mutilating it into fresh and interesting similes and metaphors.
Fortunately for me, potential characters are everywhere—in grocery stores and at the mall, in the rec center pool and walking in my neighborhood. They’re where I work, in restaurants and coffee shops, at highway rest stops and in movie theaters.
More fortunately, many of those characters are having conversations—face-to-face, or on phones. Often—and perhaps this is a sign of our social networking age—they make almost no attempt to keep those conversations private. There’s no turning aside, no hunching over, no cupping hands to contain their voices.
Unless I walk away, it’s almost impossible not to hear at least part of their conversations. And because I’m always looking for raw material, I don’t want to abandon a fresh mine of characterization.
That’s why I’ve decided to set aside the “it’s rude to eavesdrop” rule laid down by my grandmother.
But, in the interests of being at least a little subtle, and not drawing the wrath of eavesdroppees (let’s pretend that’s a word, okay?), I established a few Okay and Not Okay guidelines.
*Jotting notes to yourself if you can successfully pretend you’re making a grocery or to-do list
*Cuing friends with your eyes or a discreet thumb gesture so they can help you remember
*Dialing your answering machine and quietly leaving the information in a message
*Racing to the restroom and scrawling details on a paper towel (Note, a look of urgent desperation gives this verisimilitude, but as more restrooms go to those hot air blasters, towels are harder to find)
*Making eye contact
*Commenting on their conversation
*Asking if they could repeat something you didn’t quite hear
*Being obvious about taking notes, texting, or tweeting
*Pulling out a recording device and pointing it in their direction
*Calling a friend and loudly proclaiming “you’ll never guess what I’m listening to”
Some of the most amazing things I’ve overheard include:
I’m taking my truck and those quaaludes. That’s all I need.
And then the chicken attacked.
The DNA didn’t match either of us.
The safe is hidden behind the baseboard in the corner of . . .
An unregistered gun, two cans of beef stew, and . . .
And there I was, halfway to Seattle without my underwear.
If you’ve heard anything interesting or have some rules about eavesdropping that you’d like to share, please leave a comment. We’ll put your name into the drawing for a copy of A Place of Forgetting.