Saturday, November 26, 2011

Guest: Carolyn J. Rose

 Carolyn J. Rose is the author of 11 novels including A Place of Forgetting, a story about love, war, betrayal, and Thoreau, set in 1966. A cozy mystery, No Substitute for Murder, is due out soon. I convinced her that appearing here on Straight From Hel was a good way to launch her new book.

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)

Not Okay
*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.


  1. Those are awesome snippets! I want to know what happened when the chicken attacked! :)

  2. I bet you'd hear all of those things and more at a Southern Waffle House!

  3. The "not okay" list is hilarious. People really do that?
    I've heard that some authors spend hours at the airport where they pick up lots of conversational tidbits.

  4. Southern Waffle House -LOL - actually I heard some of those things on a vacation in the Tampa area.

  5. The other reason Carolyn draws such vivid characters is that people tend to open up to her. I've been in line with her at the supermarket, half-listening to a conversation between her and the female checker. Suddenly I hear "And I'm leaving the S*** of a B**** in the morning and see her comforting the young woman who is in tears and has abandoned any pretense of scanning the goods. Behind us, other shoppers are glancing at their watches, rolling their eyes and clearing their throats but my wife, show emanates compassion is hugging the distraught woman and handing her a series of Kleenexes. I would say she's spot on about the value of writer's eavesdropping though. I've been known to get up from a table in a restaurant and wander slowly to the men's room to better hear a bickering couple two tables over.

    Mike Nettleton
    Co-author and proud husband of
    Carolyn J. Rose

  6. Thanks for the "don't" list which made me laugh. I don't get to eavesdrop on strangers much since I moved to the mountain.

  7. Best one I heard was, "No, I'm telling you I don't lie anymore." I shouldn't have asked the last people to speak up because I could barely eavesdrop?

  8. Sounds like we need a post where everyone could leave their "funniest thing I overheard".

  9. Melanie - that wasn't me, was it?
    And Helen, I think that's a great idea - funniest or most amazing or weirdest - I'll give a book to the person you select as the winner.

  10. I was sitting in a booth with a tall seat back so I couldn't see the couple in front of me--but I could hear them murmuring, talking in low voices. Of course I listened more closely.

    "Shall we kill him with a gun or a knife?" the man said.

    "A gun," the woman answered with conviction.

    I slid out of my booth with the pretext of heading for the restroom, and turned around to glance at the two.

    "Oh hi, Elizabeth," said Dean Wesley Smith. His wife Kristine Kathryn Rush gave a little wave.

    Between them they have written well over 100 novels. Just brainstorming while out to lunch.

    Me? I was a bit disappointed. But had to laugh.

    Carolyn--it isn't fair that you quoted me about forgetting my underwear. (LOL)

  11. Two women are chatting at work. One complains about having to shave her legs. The other replies, "If I had legs like yours, I'd get a guy to shave them for me."

    A man at his wife's wake: "Well, I guess this takes care of the divorce issue."

    Eavesdropping isn't rude. It's research.

  12. Research, yeah, that's the ticket.

    And Elizabeth, where DID you leave that underwear?

  13. I used to go to coffee shops and write, but with the advent of the computer, I haven't been in quite a while. I'm now thinking I should unplug and head out to one.

  14. My coffee shop is full of Greek speaking old Cypriot men. However the tourist area gives me great fodder for character features.

    Interesting interview, thanks.

  15. This reminds me of a Mike Nicol interview I listened to back home in SA on this topic and he was as hilarious as you are Carolyn. I really loved this post:

    My new bookstore:

  16. I'm delighted to find so many of you share my passion for listening in. I'm off now to the grocery store to see what kinds of characters I can find in the frozen food aisles.

  17. amusing post. What's funny is my eyes first read "the chicken attacked" as "the children attacked". Must be having a Lord of the Flies moment.

  18. LOL - I'm not certain which one I'd find less threatening - I guess it would depend on the chicken - and the child.

  19. Its really weird when a total stranger butts into a conversation. I'm like, who the heck are you?

  20. "... the cough syrup kicked in, and then it got really weird."

    By the way, if you're looking for a source of bent, folded, and mutilated language ... I'm your man.

  21. Christopher - that reminds me a little of Hunter Thompson and what I think were giant bats.

    And Stephen - I agree - although once or twice I've had a stranger butt in and it worked out well. Once, waiting for a bus in New York City, a friend and I were talking about cookies and a woman waiting a few feet away broke in and mentioned knowing about an incredible bakery along the bus route. We got off to check out her recommendation, bought 2 dozen, and ate them before the day was over. Yum.

  22. My favorite overheard line was: I wish he'd told me that before I got the gun.

  23. We're headed to Tampa. I'll keep my ears open and report back.

  24. Oooh. Tampa would be nice right now. It's a frosty morning here in Vancouver, WA, and there's no one up yet so there's no one to eavesdrop on. But, I'm planning to hit the thrift stores later and those should be rich mines of material.

  25. Congratulations Carolyn. You also make me laugh, with that "asking the person to repeat" and "no underwear" thingy. I actually prefer to read newspapers to get inspiration. But your advice is great. I may give it a try. Start listening to conversations now.

    My Darcy Vibrates…


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