Dialogue, Novel Writing

Adventures in eavesdropping: Take One

Conversations at Vermillion
Coffee house conversations can be very interesting, but difficult to record. | Conversations at Vermillion (Photo credit: JeanineAnderson)

I’m working on a novel-writing assignment that is turning out to be far more difficult than I had ever imagined it would be. The assignment is to go to a public place, listen in on a random conversation, and write the conversation down word-for-word, being careful to capture the inflection in the speakers’ voices and imbue the dialog with the mood of the “scene” without the use of description. I thought writing the dialogue would be the hard part, but it turns out that eavesdropping on random conversations is extremely hard when you set out to do it on purpose for a school assignment.

After class Wednesday morning, I decided to stop by a small coffee shop near the school where I teach. I had never been in this particular coffee shop before and did not realize it was a Christian book store/coffee shop until I was halfway in the door.

“Oh well,” I thought. “As long are there are conversations going on, I don’t care what they’re talking about.”

While I stood at the counter and agonized for a few minutes over what I wanted to order, I glanced around the coffee shop to see what I had to work with. There was only one table occupied in the entire place, which seemed like a good sign considering I had worried earlier about keeping up with competing conversations.

I could hear the two men conversing from where I was standing, so I thought I should have no problem keeping up with their conversation long enough to write down a few lines. I took a couch seat about two feet away from them, and they immediately lowered their voices.

“Great,” I thought. “They didn’t mind the entire shop listening to their conversation when they thought they were the only customers, but as soon as I sit next to them, they decide their conversation is private.”

I pulled out my notebook and tried to capture some of their conversation anyway, but one guy’s voice had lowered to an indistinct mumble, while the other guy talked so fast, I just couldn’t keep up. This was no good.

My next strategy was to download a voice recorder app to my smart phone and attempt to record the conversation. By this point, judging by what I was hearing from the fast-talker, these guys were having an intense conversation, and I wanted to hear every word of it. It sounded as though Mr. Mumbles was going through some sort of life crisis, and Fast-talker was a minister trying to give him some direction.

I downloaded an app and shoved my phone as far over on the couch seat as I could, hoping that it would pick up what I was missing from where I was sitting. Plus, I figured if I could get it on tape, I could play it back as many times as I needed to make sure I was writing down every word Fast-talker was saying.

I sat back and flipped through a magazine, drank my coffee, and waited for the recorder to do its business. I worried the Christian music playing in the store might be too loud and considered asking the lady at the counter if she could turn it down. But I worried that might be rude of me.

Finally, the two men said their goodbyes and left, and I was the only customer remaining. I took my coffee to go and headed out to my car to play back my recordings only to find out the only thing I had managed to record was the sound of the barista washing dishes in the back. The voice recorder hadn’t even managed to pick up the music that I’d worried was too loud.

So now I need to think of a different public place where I can eavesdrop on random strangers’ conversations. Where would you suggest I try next, and why? Please comment below.

~Mandy Webster

2 thoughts on “Adventures in eavesdropping: Take One”

  1. I’ve never had much luck listening in on people’s conversations in coffee shops… but somehow when I am trying to get work done in the gym’s waiting area during the kids’ practice I have to listen to every word of every conversation around me. 🙂

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