Posted by: kimberlysullivan | August 24, 2012

Don’t eavesdrop! Unless you’re a writer

Eavesdropping is rude, or at least that’s what your mom always told you. And it’s good advice… except when it isn’t.

For a writer, overheard snatches of conversation can provide a wealth of material. They can spark a story idea, just when you need inspiration. They can provide insight into the thought patterns of people who can be very different from you. They can offer useful examples of how people really talk in certain settings and under given conditions.

And let’s face it, in our brave new world of constant connection and – alas – too little silence, strangers are mind-numbingly forthright in spilling out their woes to a captive audience. How many times have you overheard a cell phone conversation that never should have found its way to a public square or amongst strangers in a train cabin.

As writers, we can’t help but catalogue some of these snippets away for future use. And they help us to file away new ideas for stories and new character voices.

So, no doubt about it. Eavesdropping is still is rude, and it’s what I teach my own children. But for a writer, it’s still an ideal way to gather material. After all, it’s not my fault if, even with all my best intentions, the people on my subway line or in my hotel lobby insist on screaming out their most intimate secrets to the world. What’s a writer to do?

So, writers, are you eavesdroppers? Do  overheard conversations or situations find their way into your work?


  1. ‘Talking in hushed tones’ belongs to a bygone era; everyone wants to be heard now – it’s not my fault I just happen to have a keen ear, a notebook and pen. (I get away with it though because most people recognise a mobile phone but not a pen).

  2. Of course. Everything around us can fuel our creativity. Even news and people’s opinions and comments can be the spark of a new story. A writer’s mind is like a fertile soil and the events around are the seeds that will give rise to the plant, the story. The soil needs different things (our creativity, personal experiences and emotions, knowledge on the subject, etc).

  3. Oh, yes absolutely – terrible eavesdropper. And I have superb hearing, so I get lots of little snippets sitting in restaurants and so on. I have a writer friend and together we giggle as we pick up bits of conversation which we were definitely not supposed to hear.
    And they are worth their weight in gold to a writer.

  4. Thanks for all the great comments! Guess I’m not alone with this guilty pleasure and, like Julia, I often find that overheard snatches of conversation provide me with ideas for stories.

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