Listening by Misha Herwin

Take me to a café or a restaurant, put me on a bus or a train and I’m the quiet one in the corner, the one with seemingly not much to say. It’s not because I’m shy, or don’t like being with people, it’s because I’m watching and listening to the people around me.

For me, this is as vital as reading. It’s the way I get my dialogue right, the ebb and flow of the language, the non-sequiturs, the sentences that trail off into what is assumed is a shared understanding. Of course, all this will be edited. Real speech with its hesitations and repetitions doesn’t work in fiction, but the feeling and the flavour will be there.

Dialogue too reflects character and life story. Language too is constantly changing. Words like “cool” and “wicked” are current one year, tired and dated the next.  Which is one of the difficulties when it comes to writing for children or young adults.

When I was working in a middle school it felt natural to write for the age group I was teaching. After all I spent my time with 9-13 year olds. Once I left, however, I found it harder to key in not only to the way they spoke, to adults and to each other, but also to the things that worried and concerned them.

I’d lost a source of stories, because that is another of the benefits of listening. From the smallest snippet of conversation can come the germ of an idea that will grow into the novel, the short story, or the play.
“Picking up thePieces” my latest novel, which is for adults, not kids, started with a single sentence and this one was reported back to me by my husband. He was standing in the supermarket queue, after a long day at work, when the somewhat harassed woman in front of him exclaimed, “What I really need is a wife.” 

And from that came a novel how Liz, Elsa and Bernie women, of a certain age, whose lives suddenly and unexpectedly fall to pieces, have to find new ways of earning a living.

One of the strands of that novel comes from an incident that happened during my teaching life. It isn’t my story but I did ask if I could use elements of it in the book, because I feel there’s something wrong about using this sort of material without the person’s permission. 

Of course how much I hear actually goes into the sub-conscious and reappears without my even realising it, it’s difficult to say. One of my readers told me that she thought Liz, in Picking up the Pieces” was me. I didn’t think she was, but then who knows what we inadvertently reveal about ourselves in our writing.

The other side of listening is to listen to your characters. I find that once I’ve got the way they speak, the dialogue flows and the story goes in the way it should and not necessarily the way I originally thought it would.

It’s all part of the process. As is reading the Work in Progress out loud, which can be both helpful, when it’s going well and painful when it’s not. Even writing this blog I’ve been reading it out aloud. So, while in public I might sometimes appear quiet, walk past my office door and you’ll hear me talking and I’ll be listening intently to every word I say.


Umberto Tosi said…
Insightful, to be sure, Misha. Thank you. I teeter between awed and envious reading masters of dialog, able to characterize, inflect and put us in the moment with every distinctive quote.

It's always been a challenge for me. I struggle to overcome childhood admonitions against eavesdropping, staring, and mimicking -practices that sharpen abilities to echo the nuances of mood, background, age and personality that make our characters come to life.

Your post serves as a strong reminder to perk up my ears and keep at it.
Jan Edwards said…
Inveterate listeners!

Popular posts

A Few Discreet Words About Caesar's Penis--Reb MacRath

A writer's guide to Christmas newsletters - Roz Morris

Margery Allingham and ... knitting? Casting on a summer’s mystery -- by Julia Jones

Irresistably Drawn to the Faustian Pact: Griselda Heppel Channels her Inner Witch for World Book Day 2024.

Got Some Book Tokens? -- by Susan Price