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Recently I was sitting at my local coffee shop, brainstorming ideas for blog topics, short stories, and bestselling novels. Since I was drawing a complete blank for all of the above, my attention began to wander. I found myself tuned into (okay, eavesdropping on) the conversation of the two women “of a certain age” who were sitting a couple of tables over from me. They both had every hair in place, perfect manicures, and wore tidy sweater sets and tasteful jewelry. They were sipping their Earl Grey tea, and sharing details about the endearing quirks of their pets: their silly and mischievous antics hiding under pillows and rolling around on beds, and how they loved to have their bellies scratched (the pets, not the ladies.) I pictured these ladies doting on their fluffy Angora kitties or puff-ball Pomeranians, and was just about to tune out the conversation and get back to work. Then one of the women asked the other if she’d been having any trouble getting her ”little fellows” across the U.S. /Canadian border.

Well,” her friend answered, “I don’t have nearly as much trouble getting the brown Norway rats across as I do the Gambian pouch rats…”

SAY WHAT?! These two buddies were swapping war stories about their pet rats?!

TONS of questions careened around my mind: When/why/how did they first fall in love with rats? And why in the world were they bringing their rats back and forth across the U.S./Canadian border? Were they involved in daring international rat rescue operations? And did they really let the rats roll around on their beds? I tell you—my imagination was fired up. I was quite delighted at this totally unexpected revelation about these (seemingly) genteel women. Not that I particularly care for rats … but I loved having my preconceived notions about these “characters” blown apart by this tidbit of information—I started imagining all sorts of backstory for these two, quite intriguing, women.

The whole incident reminded me that, as a writer, there is much to be gained from listening. And watching.

As Anne Lamott said in Bird by Bird: “If you are a writer, or want to be a writer, this is how you spend your days—listening, observing, storing things away, making your isolation pay off. You take home all you’ve taken in, all that you’ve overheard, and you turn it into gold. (Or at least you try.)”

Along the same lines, Janet Evanovich in How I Write talks about how she creates characters: “All writers are people watchers. If you want characters that ring true, take a really close look at the people around you…Begin with them, and then let your imagination run wild. Also, keep your ear to the ground and develop an ability to listen…Just store all this stuff up in your brain and retrieve it as you need it.”

Artful Listening Photo

Maeve Binchy, in The Maeve Binchy Writers’ Club advised writers to keep a small notebook with them at all times- that way if you happen to “hear a conversation with something marvelous in it” you can jot it down. As Maeve said, sometimes the snippets you hear are so good “…it would be positively criminal to waste them..”

Obviously, as we writers do all this observing and jotting and storing away, we need to keep in mind that we are writing fiction… about fictional characters and fictional situations. As Steven King says in Stephen King-On Writing: “ The job boils down to two things: paying attention to how real people around you behave and telling the truth about what you see.” But then he bluntly warns us: “Are fictional characters drawn directly from life? Obviously not, at least on a one-to-one basis—you’d better not, unless you want to get sued or shot on your way to the mailbox some fine morning.”

So, I guess we might also want to store that little nugget away somewhere!

I might also add that you don’t want to actually fall out of your chair if you’re leaning over, straining to overhear a particularly juicy conversation– the “International Rat Smuggling and Tea Drinking Society for Ladies” would not approve!

Do you keep a notebook with you to record your ‘writerly observations’ and snippets of overheard conversations? Are there any particular spots you’ve found that provide the best people-watching?