I’ve been hearing quite a bit recently about a technique to help writers improve their ear for dialogue and gather a plethora of shiny new ideas for stories at the same time: eavesdrop on private conversations in public places.
Now, the first thing I want to make clear to you is that this whole idea goes against all my natural instincts. When I’m alone in a public place, I would prefer not to be able to hear other people at all. If there was such a thing as a portable cone of silence, it would be tucked away in my handbag right now. My usual first move when entering a cafe is to look for the table that is as far from the nearest actual human beings as possible. I don’t want my valuable coffee-drinking/reading/ writing/Twittering time interrupted by random bursts of conversation that have nothing to do with me.
However, never let it be said that I am not willing to suffer for my art. And therefore, I embarked upon another Writing Mini-Experiment this week, with the aim of visiting two cafes, listening to as many random conversations as possible and scribbling any interesting bits down. Here are my results.
The cafe: busy, old-fashioned, comfy, not the least bit trendy or edgy, but good service and a nice view of the park.
The time: 3.45pm
The order: Warm and Spicy Tea (apple, orange peel, rosehip, hibiscus, cornflower, clove, cinnamon, anise, pepper)
Notes: I chose a table between two already-occupied ones and almost immediately realised I had made a newbie error. Whitney Houston was warbling from a nearby speaker, asking me how she’d know if he really loved her. She was getting quite worked up about her dilemma and hers was the only voice I could make out clearly. I strained my ears and hoped the next selection would be a soft ballad, but alas, Dolly Parton seemed determined to put her case to someone named Jolene, and she wasn’t being quiet about it. I had also sited myself too close to both the kitchen and the coffee machine. Sounds were emanating from both.
While I waited for my tea, one of the grey-haired ladies at the table to my left momentarily raised her voice:
The hardest year I ever had was my first year here, and I kept thinking, I’ve been teaching for ten years, why is this so hard?
Teachers. I know all about teachers, having been one myself for decades. Nothing new for me to work with there.
I drank my pretty pink tea from my pretty floral cup (delicious, by the way, good choice) and kept my ears open, trying to tune into the conversation at the table to my right, which was occupied by a teenage girl in a school uniform sitting opposite two women (mother and aunt, perhaps?)
During a blessed break in the music, the teenager said, clear as a bell,
I’ve noticed when I’m feeling really nervous , really scared, you know, my feet cramp up.
Well, it was an interesting bit of information, but did it take me anywhere?
The music started again just as one of the two women answered her phone. She raised her voice slightly and I listened avidly to what seemed a promising beginning. Unfortunately, she lowered the volume again and all I caught were short snippets between lengthy pauses.
…why would he even say that?… why not just let me have a go and … awful place to be … it all comes back to … and then why did he lie to me … and then he said … I’ll stand back and …”
Now this sounded like the real deal – who was “he”? What had he lied about? Where was the “awful place”?
Could I do anything with this? Sadly, I concluded I could not.
And now Leo Sayer was declaring that I made him feel like dancing. I finished my second cup of tea and left him to it.
Result: disappointed but still hopeful about tomorrow’s foray.
The cafe: quirky, arty, a slightly younger, professional crowd.
The time: 10.30 am
The order: a Flat White Coffee on Almond Milk and a late breakfast of Zucchini and Haloumi Fritters with Labneh (hey, it’s for science, all right?)
Notes: This was more like it. I settled onto a banquette seat in a corner, surrounded by closely packed tables, three already occupied. The music was appropriately subdued and the kitchen and coffee machine were far, far away.
A man and a woman in their thirties were chatting right in front of me and I could hear every word. I took out my notebook. The man was speaking.
When they get into that situation, don’t get me wrong about this, the thing is, like, that’s the thing, you know, that happens.”
Okay, real dialogue, unscripted, sure. But not otherwise terribly useful. I stopped taking notes and kept listening. They were work colleagues, having a conversation about arranging shifts, rosters and break times. And yes, it was every bit as boring as that sounds.
I turned my attention to a second couple, middle-aged, wearing workout gear. They were talking animatedly, in tones too low for me to hear a single word. Why did people have to be so considerate of others, I thought with irritation. Where were the colourful loudmouths when you needed them?
My order arrived. The fritters looked a little overdone, but in fact weren’t. They were delightfully crispy on the outside, moist and tasty inside. Sharp, garlicky labneh, perfectly oozy poached egg, delicate sprinkling of dukkah… but I digress.
Work-out gear woman stood and walked out. Had they had an argument? Or was she simply on her way to do a little shopping? I would never know. Casually glancing over my shoulder, I saw her erstwhile companion take out his phone and begin scrolling.
The occupant of the table diagonally opposite me was alone and typing on his laptop. A fellow writer perhaps. I wished him well, but he was useless to me.
Ah, now, someone was being led to the final unoccupied table in our little enclave. An elderly man. Perhaps he was waiting for someone. Perhaps his advancing years had resulted in partial deafness and they would both have to shout. But no. He gave his order to the server and unfolded a newspaper. I may have sighed.
I finished my food and drank my coffee, both excellent, and my only consolation for another fruitless hour.
Result: an even more promising start, but in the end a washout.
1.Overhearing other people’s private conversations is harder than you might expect
2. Even when you can hear them, they are mostly boring
3. In the unlikely case they are even slightly interesting, you won’t be able to hear them properly
4. Warm and Spicy Tea is the bomb and Zucchini and Haloumi Fritters are an outstanding choice for breakfast
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR FURTHER ACTION
When visiting cafes alone in the future, embrace previously preferred option of sitting in splendid isolation and pretending no other humans are present. Alternatively, invent portable cone of silence.