The Importance of Eavesdropping

As a writer, I am an eavesdropper and make no apologies for the enthusiasm with which I stick my nose into other’s business. Long before I became a writer officially, the term was ‘nosy’. Nosy meant I possessed the tendency to ask uncomfortable questions, blatantly listen to private conversations, and peer into windows to see how others lived. I still do these things with slightly more subterfuge.

Mother used to warn me that ‘curiosity killed the cat’. The best that I could figure out was that curiosity empowered the cat, sent her climbing farther up that tree and, in rare instances, allowed her to solve crimes in certain mystery stories. Besides which, she had nine lives.

My curiosity has always been unsatiable and, as a child, I truly didn’t get why adults hesitated from telling me the intimate details of their lives. As I grew older this tendency only intensified. I recall asking a friend why her marriage was breaking down: what were the first signs? Was her husband having an affair and how could she tell? Of course, all this was couched in sincere support and sympathy but I still wanted to know every detail possible, including how the individuals reacted, how the dialogue played out, preferably from both points of view. When she stopped one of my prying queries by telling me it was none of my business, I was truly shocked. How could anything be none of my business? I understood intellectually but not emotionally that people craved privacy while simultaneously longing for the details that would allow me to create fully-fleshed human beings. And I’m not talking just about ‘real world’ stories with Homo sapiens as the key players, necessarily. One of the most compelling humans I’ve ever met in fiction was couched in half-lizard form and inhabited an alternate world.

We recognize the truth regardless of the setting or the plot. 

Writers are observers by nature, and what we don’t know for a fact, we’ll happily invent. Fiction writers are not like reporters who are sometimes required to shred a person’s privacy in order to craft a story. We can change the names, the circumstances, and the settings, and yet every story we write, every character we give birth to, is usually based on either a real person or a composite of many we’ve known. 

We wrap truth in fabrication but the best stories, whether they be genre or literary, are fueled by a core of human nature accurately observed and nosily plumbed. If we weren’t such a nosy, eavesdropping bunch, we’d never be good at our craft. We couldn’t catch the nuances of different dialects, understand the motivation behind human action, or grasp the complexities of cause and effect on the human condition. In other words, we’d have nothing to write about. Guilt is not an option. Spy like your life depends upon it.


JO said…
One of the great things about being an older woman is becoming invisible, which is how I managed to scribble - word for word - an eavesdropped conversation between some young mums in California who were competing for who had the most wonderful children, demanding boss ...
Wendy H. Jones said…
I do this all the time. I was once sitting in a hospital cafe. someone at the next table was talking about a dream they had the night before. I just happened to have my laptop open so wrote down the gist of it. A slightly embellished. version made it into on elf my books
Fran B said…
I often 'hear' voices as I am writing so that the dialogue will emerge with unexpected dialect or vocabulary that I had no conscious plan for. Then I know that my subconscious has !made a note' of a conversation overheard, person encountered or situation observed. Sometimes I know or remember where it comes from, sometimes not.

I think a novelist's subconscious is wired in this way. I can often recount a remarkable amount of detail about someone else's hazy memory, although I had no conscious memory of it myself until it was (hazily) mentioned.

So no, no guilt or shame. It's just how we have been created. As long as we are discreet and trustworthy, writing with integrity, acknowledging sources as far as we know them and thanking those who have (often unwittingly) inspired us.
Jane said…
I feel totally shames less, too. My business really is about everybody else's with plenty of fictional license!

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