Being a writer (like many of you who are seeing this post), I read a lot of advice for writers. One of the things I see over and over is, when we find it challenging to write dialogue we should go out and listen to how people talk to each other.

I’m not a recluse. I go grocery shopping. I go to Starbucks. I go clothes shopping for my 14-year-old daughter. I do the same for my 18-year-old son. I talk to my husband. I talk to my two older sisters.


But when I’m told I should go out with a notebook and really listen to how individuals interact with each other I have to admit I’m stumped. Without looking like a stalker (and I’m not hard of hearing), I can’t usually get close enough to listen to people’s conversations. My grocery store isn’t crowded enough to be in close proximity to another shopper. Starbucks is too noisy to hear others’ conversations. Clothes shopping has the same two attributes.


I’d love to hear your suggestions for where I could go to overhear interactions between people without me appearing like a weirdo.

You have the floor.

Posted on February 22, 2013, in Blog Posts and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 29 Comments.

  1. Patti, I find one of the best places is a restaurant. Not only do I get out of cooking, I get material for new characters.:)

  2. Patti,
    Type notes on your phone. It looks like you’re texting and not eavesdropping. 🙂

  3. I think a restaurant is a great idea…or like a football game on Friday night at the local high school.

  4. oh Patti, lol, I just listen in my head.

  5. Patti, I’ve been people watching and listening since I was a kid. It’s just something I always do. Luncheon counters where you can hang over a cup of coffee. I usually have more fun listneing to the wait staff and the short order cooks.

    I’d sit in the park and listen to people walking by, or in the baby playground and listen to the moms.

    And what I get from watching people all the time is non-verbal communication … the inflection in people’s voices or the hand language (body language) that speak volumes. It’s just a fun thing I’ve always loved to do. Go anywhere and start observing. How about when you are standing on line in the bank or on any line? Have fun 🙂

  6. I have a really good memory, so I pretend to do something while listening (does that sound as creepy to you as it just did to me??? LOL) then I write it down as soon as I get home. For the record, I don’t actively decide to go out and do this. People are just fun and weird and sometimes they say the darndest things and have the most bizarre conversations. I can’t imagine what people think when I’m with another writer and we’re talking how to plot a murder, etc. 😉 Anyway, I sometimes pick up something good I can use in a WIP later or I’ll note an unusual way people talk. Hopefully it all comes across as unique voices.

  7. As a reporter / photographer, I had to deal with getting quotes all the time, so remembering dialog isn’t hard for me. I can look at a picture of Mutt, standing under a coal tipple in Southern Ohio, and saying, “When the mine blew, it put black crepe on every home in town,” even though I met Mutt in 1968.

    I love to read body language. My brother and I used to sit in restaurants and try to figure out if a couple was on a first date or in an established relationship. The guy who lost the coin flip had to go over and ask them.

    I spent a pleasant couple of hours stranded in the Houston airport by sitting with a perfect stranger and trading made-up stories about the people who walked by.

  8. I’m in the same boat as you, Patti, uncertain just how to do it without looking weird. So I’m loving everyone’s suggestions. 🙂

  9. Kathleen Rockwood

    I suppose it all depends on where you live & the places you frequent.

    My #1 people-and-conversation listening places are on public transportation, followed closely by waiting in line at a cashier’s (I deliberately try to pick lines that have people carrying on conversations, rather than the shortest line)

    One of the best places in outside the local convenience store (privately owned) where the good ole boys gather every morning outside for coffee (even when it’s 20 degrees out) Sometimes I engage interesting-looking people in conversation, which I guess goes beyond observing.

    Some of the most astonishing coversations can be overheard easily in the hallways outside courtrooms and in prison visiting rooms or while waiting to enter them (but there you have to have friends of a certain, shall we say, interesting background to go visit. You can’t just hang around.)

    Union meetings are another great source. The ones I attend, as a union rep, move so slowly that most of the group is carrying on all kinds of side conversations whenever the people running the meeting are conferring among themselves or trying to figure out what they are doing.

    I never take notes. Even if I tried, I’m sure I would get engrossed in the conversations and forget. And my hands were injured in an industrial accident years ago–I need to concentrate very hard to write anything down. I figure I’m in it for the flavor and flow, not the exact wording anyhow.

    Kathleen Rockwood

  10. Too bad cell phones have gone digital. In the old analog days, you could pick up the conversations with an off-the-shelf scanner. Once the law was tightened up, you had to clip one diode to make it cover the cellular freqs.

    All it proved was that there’s lots of cheating and stealing going on, and that most telephone conversations are mindless.

    That was back in the days when the cost per minute was high. Now that everybody has one glued to their ear during every waking hour, it has to be worse.

    That would have been a great place to capture a wide variety of dialog.

  11. As a news photographer, police radios were part of my background noise. I had at least two in the car and one in practically every room of the house, including the bedroom. In small towns where there wasn’t a lot of traffic, I’d keep it on all night and only wake up if the dispatcher had an urgent tone in his or her voice.

    Cop and fire radios tend to have conversations that are of the laconic “1 Adam 12, see the woman” flavor.

    It’s only late at night and in small towns that they go off-script from time to time:

    Car: “Athens 1, HQ. Call me a wrecker.”
    Dispatcher: “OK, Athens 1, you’re a wrecker.”

    Dispatcher: “HQ, Athens 2.”
    Car: “Athens 2, go ahead.”
    Dispatcher: “Is this 101 (the chief)?
    Car: “10-4”
    Dispatcher: “Athens 1, there is a dead dog on the side of Route 33…”

    There’s one more cop / dispatcher story, but you’ll have to follow the link to get to it.

  12. I’m a TERRIBLE eavesdropper! The coffeehouse is a great place to work, which is why I like it so much (a little quieter than restaurants as far as noise carrying…) I also have a husband who provides me hilarious one-liners. And i work with some really intelligent people who also give me fodder. I used to suck at dialogue. But by consistently practicing, I’ve gotten quite good at it. By practicing, I mean, holding my breath and diving in, thinking “what’s the most hilarious/obnoxious/character-filled way that I could say this?” It usually works. 🙂

  13. and Ken, that’s hysterical. Cops and their strange senses of humor.

  14. Interesting topic. Eavesdropping, 101!

  15. Lots of comments! I didn’t poke through them all. Maybe you could find a nice spot in a busy mall, and catch commentary as busy people pass you by? I like Tracy’s suggestion about using a phone’s memo function, too.

  16. I can’t follow conversations very well because my peahead brain is wonky – so I just have to go by instinct, or by experiences that I have and my brain takes a snapshot/video of them.

    But one thing I have learned with dialogue – whatever I originally write, I know I must often delete at least half of it. It works for me!

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