is it underhand to eavesdrop?

bat ears

The write Eudora Welty said in an interview with The Paris Review that writers should think of their ears like magnets because …

” Once you have heard certain expressions, sentences, you almost never forget them. It’s like sending a bucket down the well and it always comes up full… Once you’re into a story everything seems to apply—what you overhear on a city bus is exactly what your character would say on the page you’re writing. Wherever you go, you meet part of your story.”

And while it may feel like we writers are helping ourselves to other peoples’ conversations, she says it’s more a case of helping out. That said,  I still feel a tad underhand pinching someone else’s words but I can’t resist it. I like my bucket to be full ;o)

WHS Image ID 81729

I heard two things recently, which I know I will use in my writing one day.  The first thing was said in a hospital, by an older woman, who was very ill in bed. She was being visited by her granddaughter-in-law and her three great grandchildren, who were laden with flowers and fruit and good cheer. The first thing the older woman asked the mother, in front of her children, was: “Who is the favourite child?”  What a loaded question. I can’t forget it, especially as I was brought up by parents who solemnly swore they never had favourites. I know I will use this snippet of conversation one day.

The second comment was not so much a phrase as an idea, prompted by a friend who was talking about when she was a teenager and how she used to go to the museum (better known as The National Museum of Scotland) to chat up boys! What? I knew “chatting up” happened at the ice rink, and the pictures, and even at the baths, especially Portobello open air pool (at least this is what I’ve been told, I was way too shy for all that stuff.). But the museum? This was in the 70s. The museum was a very solemn, even, dare I say, a pompous place then (unlike now!). I often went there when it rained because there was nowhere else to go and it was free – when you don’t have a lot of money, this is very important. How could I have missed all that excitement going on around me? I love the idea of cheeky teenagers kissing between stuffy hieroglyphic cases. I don’t know how, but this will be a scene in a story one day.

The Kiss

Two questions:

do you think it is underhand for us writers to eavesdrop like this and help ourselves to (or pinch bits from) other peoples’ conversations and life experiences?

am I the only person in all of Edinburgh who didn’t know young people used to go to the museum to chat each other up? (Do they still do it?). Is there anywhere else that happened that I don’t know about?

portobello beach, edinburgh

*A big thanks to Alex Derr, Oregon USA for the bat ears photo and to Wisconsin Historical Society for the hospital bed photo, and Alyse & Remi (Bolt of Blue) for the pic of The Kiss.

**And don’t forget, to thank you for leaving a comment, I’ll put your name into a hat and on the 30th June and one lucky winner will a copy of the Blue Suitcase 🙂



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6 Responses to is it underhand to eavesdrop?

  1. Isobelle Lauder says:

    Unless you eavesdrop to find out and pass on gossip I don’t see anything wrong in using phrases, words or expressions you hear by accident – usually you hear something completely out of context and that’s why it sticks!

    I knew about the Museum as a “meeting place” as it was the only place open on a Sunday. Princes Street Gardens was a summer hang-out.

  2. Marianne Wheelaghan says:

    Thanks for the comment, Isobelle. Yes, I try to think of reusing comments you overhear as recycling. Gossip is altogether something else. That said, as long as it’s not malicious, which I absolutely hate, it can sometimes be the only way of finding on what is really going on – that is, of course, as long as what you are listening to is actually true.
    I didn’t know about Princess Street Gardens either! I can’t believe it! I’m trying to think what I was doing when everyone else was “meeting up”. Possibly being a sultry, pain-in-the neck loner?! Ha ha!

    Great to hear from you :0)

  3. john gray says:

    Great Blog Marianne. I am always listening in to conversations, it’s amazing what you can learn.
    “In some South Pacific cultures, a speaker holds a conch shell as a symbol of temporary position of authority. Leaders must understand who holds the conch—that is, who should be listened to and when.” — Max De Pree

  4. Marianne Wheelaghan says:

    Hi John, thanks for dropping by and thanks for the quote. I could do with one of those conch shells at home 😉

  5. Louisa says:

    You, shy, Marianne? I don’t believe it! 😀 Great post — I often hear interesting tidbits, but my problem is I can never remember them for very long. Usually it’s when I’m in the middle of shopping or something like that, so I can’t get to a pen and paper. And it would seem a bit odd to have a tape recorder in my pocket! Will have to start training my memory better!

  6. Marianne Wheelaghan says:

    I know, hard to believe how anyone with a big mouth like mine could have ever been backwards about coming forwards but I was, I was! ;o) Yes, the trick is to write everything down, cause like you, I forget so much so quickly. But, also like you say, it’s not always easy to do that! I’d like to think I am getting better at it, but probably not. Great to hear from you and looking forward to your next blog post:)

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