Eavesdropping as a Writing Research Skill By Karen McCullough

I frequently give talks and workshops on writing dialogue and among other tips for learning to do it well, I include a suggestion that you eavesdrop on various conversations to get a feel for how people really talk.

I know your mother taught you that eavesdropping was rude and even wrong—at least my mother did. But this is important writer research so go ahead and do it.  But, please, be discreet about it.

Restaurants are a great venue for eavesdropping, as are movie theaters, stores, almost any public place. Pretend to be reading or watching something else but listen to the way people talk. If you can do it discreetly, take notes and write down snatches of dialogue.

Yes, I’ve done this myself. A few things jump out at you.

A lot of conversation is pretty bland and fits into the category of social nicety. Most of that can be ignored in your writing unless there’s something unusual or compelling about it. 

Then there will be some that is completely incomprehensible. Can be useful in certain situations in a story where your character is in a particular situation, such as a job or mission that include specialized vocabulary and terminology.  But it has to be done carefully or it can lose the reader entirely when they don’t understand what’s going on.

In the rest of the talk, you should find your inspiration. Listen carefully to how different people talk, the rhythms of their speech and the actual words used. It can be fascinating. I like to sit in a booth and try to identify the ages of the people in the seats behind me just from their conversation. Sometimes it’s worth trying just to listen to the words and ignore the tones or rhythms, because word choices are so key in making dialogue ring true.  But those word and sentence sounds, rising and fall inflections, and emphases also play a part in making your dialogue soar.

Finally, read the dialogue aloud yourself and you’ll begin to hear if it works or not. Sometimes the very words will force you to read a sentence in a certain way. When that happens, you’ve nailed it.

And when readers are sure they’re listening to real people talk, you know you’ve done your job as an author.

Karen McCullough is the author of a dozen published novels and novellas in the mystery, romantic suspense, and fantasy genres as well. She has won numerous awards, including an Eppie Award for fantasy, and has also been a four-time Eppie finalist, and a finalist in the Daphne, Prism, Dream Realm, Rising Star, Lories, Scarlett Letter, and Vixen Awards contests. Her short fiction has appeared in several anthologies and numerous small press publications in the mystery, fantasy, science fiction, and romance genres. She has three children, six grandchildren (plus one on the way) and lives in Greensboro, NC, with her husband of many years.

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/KarenMcCulloughAuthor

Blurb for Wired for Murder: Most of the time, Heather McNeil loves her job as assistant to the director of the Washington DC Market Show Center. Because she’s a good listener and even better at solving problems, her boss assigns her to handle a lot of the day to day issues that arise during the shows, exhibits, and conferences being held there.  When Heather becomes an unwilling audience to murder during the Business Technology Expo and later finds the body, she’s willing to let the police take care of it. But she soon learns more than she wanted to know about the victim and all the people who really didn’t like him very much.


Kindle: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01F81SNDQ
·         Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/649290


jrlindermuth said…
Eavesdropping and people watching--excellent tools for any writer.
HI Marilyn -- Thanks for letting me visit your blog!
Maggie King said…
I agree, I'm an eavesdropper from way back. So was my mother ;-)But eavesdropping has taken somewhat of a hit with texting and smartphones. One time I was in a room that was full of people, but totally silent. They were scrolling through their phones. I
I loved having you visit, Karen! And I love to eavesdrop. It's even more fun when people talk on their phones, it's like they don't realize that anyone can hear.

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