Wednesday, February 12, 2014


For several years, I have had difficulty concentrating on or hearing a single voice in a crowded room. It doesn’t make it easier to tolerate to be told by an audiologist that such loss of auditory discrimination is a normal part of aging. Making it even more difficult to tolerate is the idea that I may lose a main source of my plot development ideas: eavesdropping.


“I … found myself eavesdropping on a cell phone call of a young-sounding woman. She was whining, ‘But, Mom, I have only thirty-four dollars left in my account. I can’t pay my bills.’ I opened my eyes to see a waif, all large eyes and prominent cheek bones and feathered hair. She looked to be in her early twenties. A five dollar cup of something frothy was on the table in front of her. I didn’t see her with anyone who might have treated her to the drink, so I wondered about whether she had started the evening with thirty-nine dollars or if she now had only twenty-nine left. I also wondered about her priorities, and noticed she hadn’t touched the drink. It must have been window dressing. It certainly wasn’t for the calories. The phone in her left hand was pressed to her ear, and she was so thin that her watch had slid past her elbow and up to her bicep. She obviously hadn’t finished many of those drinks, if any.”

I really did overhear that call. I was at Border’s in Marlton, NJ, working on my laptop at the time, and transcribed the young woman’s words and physical description as best I could. She never developed into a major, or even minor, character, and isn’t even mentioned again. All she did was provide a segue for my protagonist Rabbi Aviva Cohen to follow a chain of thought about anorexia that eventually helped her solve the mystery.

Just this morning, I observed two women sitting near me at a diner. Unfortunately, not only was there a fair amount of background babble, but they were speaking softly. I’m sure I will be able to provide dialogue to fill in what I did overhear:

Bleached blonde #1 (cute, chubby, wearing too tight clothes, wedding ring, thick hair blown out straight but frizzy, eating eggs, toast, potatoes, sausage): “So, the baby is like six months old and he decides marriage isn’t for him. Walks out.”

Bleached blonde #2 (nose and lips too large for thin face, wearing tight clothes that fit, roots in serious need of touch up, hair limp, no wedding ring, eating fresh fruit salad): “Really?” [mumble mumble mumble; eyes brighten, leans forward eager to hear more] “But why would he (mumble mumble mumble) … available?”

#1: “Dating … Saw him at bar mitzvah ...”

Unfortunately, the server came over then, and by the time I was able to tune in again, they were talking about the weather.

Another time, I observed a man sitting near me at a Barnes and Noble in Boynton Beach, FL. I was unable to overhear anything he said, but his looks intrigued me: “The guy looked like a Mafioso, or maybe an extra on The Sopranos: mid-forties; slicked back black hair shot (pun intended) through with gray; mirrored sunglasses worn indoors at night; buffed and manicured nails; deliberately casual clothes, consisting of a black mock turtle neck topped with a black blazer, pressed jeans, expensive looking leather loafers with a tassel, and no socks. He wasn’t wearing any gold jewelry, but when he spoke to his companion, an older man sitting with his back to me, I heard a New York accent that would have made Fran Dresher sound upper-class British.

I didn’t actually hear his voice. His accent was supplied by my imagination. But he did become a major character in UNLEAVENED DEAD.

These are just two example of how an overheard conversation made it into my writing, with a third that will most likely show up at some point (with the “mumble mumble mumble” filled in with whatever will move the plot along).

My caveat to all of you: If you see me in a public place, and I seem to be staring into space, I’m not deep in thought. I am trying to memorize your physical characteristics. If my eyes are closed, I’m not napping (or deep in thought). I am trying to concentrate on your conversation. And remember, if you think you recognize yourself in one of my books, it’s fiction.


Sharon Arthur Moore said...

LOL, Ilene! This is a great post because it reveals more of you, it ties to your books and how you write them, and it gives a great writing tip for authors. We, too often, focus on what we're eating rather than chewing on the words of others! Thank you for a delightful read.

jrlindermuth said...

Yep. Eavesdropping can be a writer's best friend. You don't have to be a gossip to benefit from one.

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

I love to eavesdrop. And people talking on cell phones are amazing, I've heard men tell business info that shouldn't be broadcast all over and silly women talking about love affairs.

MaryAnn Diorio, PhD, MFA said...

I always joke that writing is the only profession in which eavesdropping is not wrong, but absolutely necessary. :)



Beryl Reichenberg said...

Yes Marilyn, it is amazing what people will say on cell phone and not worry about being overheard. After reading this blog post, I'll stop being annoyed by their loud conversations and pay attention. Who knows, their comments may appear in my next children's book, disguised as a rabbit talking. Beryl

Mary Montague Sikes said...

Wow! I'll have to be more aware of those apparently disinterested souls around me! Thanks for sharing.

Mary Montague Sikes

Bookworm said...

Ilene, you always make me smile :) And I, too, will be doing a bit of eavesdropping myself! ~ Suzi

Fikri Ikhtiyaarullah said...

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Eileen Obser said...

Oh, Ilene, you and I share the love of eavesdropping. If we ever sit down for a meal, half of me will not be with you. I can be a lousy dinner companion. And yes, those words, those scenes, those people we observe have a great chance of being immortalized in our writing! Thanks for a great blog.