Earjacking anyone?

Fog rolled around the cold acres of the Tsawwassen terminal. Two thin lines of cars and trucks waited for a ferry that costs thousands of dollars an hour to run.

In the toilet stalls in the women’s washroom, a conversation bounced off the shiny tiled walls, like ricocheting bullets:

“He’s really mature for his age.”

“I know but he still gets on my nerves.”

“I think he’s a nice boy.”

“He’s driving me crazy. He wants things his way all the time.”

“I could take him off your hands if you want.”


“I really like him. I could get him moving nicely.”

Silence from the nearest stall.

“You know...if you didn’t mindI bet I could get him to stand still for brushing.”

“Cool. And that would give me more time to work with Esme.”

When I emerged to wash my hands two young women stood at the sinks, dressed in the winter uniform of horse riders everywhere: waterproof jodhpurs, fleece vests, and muddy, knee-high boots.

As soon as I got back to the car, I wrote up the earjacked conversation in my notebook. Thus one writing task for the day drew to a close, proving once again how important it is for a writer to always carry a notebook, and to keep her ears and eyes open.

Where have found gems like this? Did you seek them out or were you simply a prepared opportunist?

What are the signs?

In Australia my husband and I adopted a series of abandoned cats. Our vet said there was a mark on our front gatepost that told the animals our house was a good place to find food, shelter, and safety—like the hobo marks of a bygone era.

The internet is that gatepost now. Whatever a person wants to do, the directions are laid out, marks carved or chalked, by those who have passed that way before. Naively, when I set out, I didn’t look for those marks. I thought writing was a solitary journey. It would be an understatement to say I made mistakes—but that’s one way to get an education.

Word count: 481                                                                                                      Reading time: 1-2 minutes

Some of the marks I wish I’d seen earlier in my writing life were these:

  • Be prepared for the long haul. It takes can take years to develop proficiency as a writer. In his book On Writing Stephen King says that commitment is one of the six essential tools in the writer’s toolbox.
  • Writing a novel can seem overwhelming. Concentrate on what is in front of you and move the story forward one paragraph or one page at a time. Or in the words of Anne Lamottone bird at a time
  • When it gets really frustrating, do something else. Agatha Christie said The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes Get away from it—for a while.
  • Don’t try to do it alone. Yes, writing is a solitary occupation but there are benefits to sharing with trusted readers or writing partners. You may not find the right person (or people) to share with immediately but keep kissing those frogs. When the match is right, your work will soar.
  • Become a ruthless self-editor. Put down everything that comes into your head and then you're a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff's worth, without pity, and destroy most of it. Colette
  • Don’t send work out too soon. Impatience can close doors.
  • Don’t hang on to your work too long. Perfectionism can leave it in limbo.
  • Go to writers’ festivals, book launches, and readings at your local libraries.
  • Read books on the craft of writing. Try to absorb some of the vast wisdom available. It can be your secret—It’s none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way. (Ernest Hemingway)
  • Go into the universe with a friendly, non judgemental soul. It’s easier to observe that way.
  • Get an online presence. It doesn’t have to be flashy but agents and editors want to be able to find you when they put your name in a search engine. They want to see what a reader will find with the same search.


What would the hobo marks look like for the points above? What other reminders should be on this list for writers new and old?

What does your reader's eye behold?

In The Canterbury Tales the Wife of Bath lectures on gentility: “To do the gentil dedes that he kan; taak hym for the grettest gentil man.” (Gentility in Middle English meant  nobility of character, refinement.) Over the centuries this morphed into the homily handsome is as handsome does, which first appeared in Oliver Goldsmith’s novel The Vicar of Wakefield (1776).

Word count: 386                                                     Reading time: 1-2 minutes

Stephen King says Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader's. It’s the writer’s job to make the reader feel the heat of attraction. Flat adjectives like handsome, beautiful, sexy, lovely mean the writer is making the reader do his job.

The day my husband and I met, I carried my own scuba gear – all eighty pounds of it – to and from the beach. It never occurred to me to ask for help because my usual dive buddies didn’t offer it. My husband had only dived with women who thought he was there to make their experiences easier. Then he met me: I drove myself to the dive site, unloaded my own gear, and dived in the frigid water of the Pacific Northwest in a forty-pound dry suit. Where other men might have seen someone unappealingly independent, my husband saw the most attractive woman he’d met in months. How lucky we found each other.

So if a character finds another sexy and attractive, I want to know why. The reasons say as much about the attractee as they do the attractor. Does the hair on his neck stand up when he hears her low throaty voice? Does she have a foot fetish and adores him in Blundstones?

Like so many rules of craft, it’s simple in principle and much, much harder in execution. Here are some points that I try to remember:

  • If food is delicious, will the reader’s mouth water?
  • If the character is crying, is the reader’s heart breaking?
  • If the character is beautiful, is the reader captivated?
  • If a fire is burning, can the reader smell the smoke?
  • If someone is singing, can the reader hear the tone of the voice?
  • If a character picks up a cold drink does the reader feel the sweat of the glass?

How do you draw a reader into your world?


Pictures from Wikimedia Commons: Four Great Beauties by Xi Shi, Wang Zhaojun, Diaochan, Yang Guifei

Did you hear right?

Writers’ events usually feature many uniquely-dressed people whose quirky styles leave me envious and almost regretting my own pedestrian fashion sense. Almost. If I could have one super-hero power, I’d choose invisibility.

Word count: 465            Reading time: 2 minutes

The problem with wearing a smart or unique outfit is that people notice you. When they notice you they tend to stop talking and that ruins the very best part of being in a public place: the delicious opportunity to eavesdrop. Fortunately I possess well-honed secret agent skills. Because I dress plainly and I’m a woman past middle age, being unobserved is part of everyday life. So much so that in my desk drawer sits a fat file of conversations earjacked in public and transcribed at the first available opportunity, sometimes right as the conversation is going on.

In 2010 The Guardian encouraged writers to create new poems, stories and plays based on overheard conversations. The winners were honoured on a website and in an anthology, called Bugged. I call that basic writer training.

My favourite places to eavesdrop are these:

  • Public transportation: You can’t beat the bus and its equivalents for picking up really interesting conversations. Sometimes it’s only half the story as someone blathers away on their cell phone. Imagining the other side of the conversation can be great fun
  • Coffee shops, restaurants, fast food joints. Coffee shops are particularly good because they usually host short stays. If one conversation isn’t interesting, wait until the people at the table beside you change. It won’t be long.
  • Parks and public trails. Walk slowly. Let other hikers pass you. You may only get a nugget of what they are talking about but sometimes it will be pure gold.
  • Any line up anywhere. Sure there’s may be grumbling but some people can’t resist filling in the waiting time with personal stories and anecdotes.
  • Supermarkets. People have unbelievably candid cell conversations while picking out their frozen dinners.
  • On planes and trains, in airports and ship terminals: listen to fellow travellers as they exchange stories and life histories. Listen for the gentle lies, the slight exaggerations, the improbable victories, and the wistful memories. People give freely when they never expect to see strangers again.

I’m about to go out now. Before I leave the house, I’ll get my sunglasses and my notepad and pen. With luck no one will notice me slip into the back booth of the coffee shop. If someone I know comes and joins me, you can be sure I will keep my conversation quiet. I’m not about to give away some of my best lines.

Where do you go to find inspiration for fresh dialogue and story ideas? Have you ever based a character on someone you’ve heard or seen in public?


Picture from Wikimedia Commons: Secret Agent by Ben Crowther

What's in store?

Around 10:30 Monday morning I walked up to the line of carts outside the supermarket, quarter in hand. The next available trolley had two beer cartons in it. I hesitated. If I didn’t want that one, along with the job of removing someone else’s garbage, I would have to walk halfway across the parking lot to the next row of carts. I shoved my coin in the slot, the locking mechanism released, and I tugged the cart. It did not move with gentle effort.

Word count: 483                                           Reading time: about 2 minutes

The boxes were full. One carton held two dozen bottles of beer, the other two dozen cans. I looked over my shoulder for a hidden camera. I surveyed the parking lot to see if anyone was frantically tearing his hair looking for lost treasure. Then I pushed the cart into the store and ferried that heavy load around as I shopped.

That type of ordinary beer has a shelf life of 3-6 months and only a total collapse of the brewing, spirits and wine industry would induce us to drink so much of it so fast. So I wheeled my cart over to customer service and a smiling supervisor relieved me of the found fortune. She promised to take it to the staff picnic if it remained unclaimed.

Regardless of the fate of the beer, I had the reward of imagining who, how, and why it ended up in that shopping cart. My storylines, as always, started with questions:

  • Had someone decided impulsively to stop drinking?
  • Had someone decided for them and stolen and stashed their beer?
  • The Liquor Store* had opened only at 9:30. Was the purchase abandoned within an hour of being made?
  • Had people been partying near the shopping centre the night before and did they drunkenly forget their last brews? If so, who pushed the shopping cart up the small slope and locked into place? 
  • What were my rights of salvage if I decided to keep it? Did the losers-weepers rule apply?

From these I conjured a number of stories and resolutions. I imagined a grateful beer owner being handed back his or her prized bottles and cans. I imagined someone thanking me, then learning I’m about to have a book published. I imagined this person saying, “I’m a movie producer. I love your story! I must buy the rights to your book.”  

One of the joys of writing is the infinite number of stories in the universe. One of the frustrations of writing is the infinite number of stories in the universe. Some, like this one, appear like cottonwood seeds on the breeze. They blow in and out of view quickly. While they’re in our sight, they give our imaginations an intense five-minute workout.

Have you had a dull day brightened by an unexpected story recently? Has yours been transitory and forgotten or did it develop into something more lasting?

* this is BC after all and we cannot be trusted to buy our alcohol at a supermarket.


Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Reihe_Einkaufswagen by 4028mdk09 

Do you see what I see?

Word Count: 382                   Reading time: 1-2 minutes 

In an interview for Writers Almanac, Marge Piercy explained her recommendation that the best gifts for writers are field guides to rocks, stars, birds, amphibians, and wildflowers:

Imagery comes directly out of your own core. It comes from how you perceive the world, how carefully you look and listen, how well you remember, how your mind works. What we have to draw on is largely dependent on how much attention we've paid to what's within and outside of us. Learning to pay attention: looking at shades of green. Not all trees are green, and even those that are differ wildly. How many birds can you identify? In other words, how many times have you looked carefully at a bird? Can you tell by the weeds and wildflowers growing in a meadow if it is dry or wet, good soil or scanty, sweet or acid? How does the bark of a beech differ from the bark of an elm? The bark of a black cherry? The bark of a Scotch pine from that of a pitch pine?

As I leave Salt Spring Island after a week’s visit, I can say that I’ve observed a lot. However if I told you I could pick the difference between the trunk of a birch and that of a poplar, I’d be lying. Throw an alder in the mix and I’m more confused than ever. Still, I’m curious and this is good according to Piercy who added:

The wider your curiosity ranges, the more interesting metaphors will rise. Memory and observation can be trained to precision and retention.

In the past week I have learned that of the three species of blackberry here, only the Rubus Ursinus (Native Trailing Blackberry) belongs. The other two (Himalayan / Armenian and Cutleaf) are highly invasive. I can also name the tiny dragonfly that hovered over the lily pads as we swam in Stowell Lake (blue dasher). That’s modest progress.

Piercy encourages writers to broaden their general knowledge. So now I’m going to try to identify the gold-banded spiders that just spent twenty minutes mating outside my window (watch the video here). If I don’t surface for a day or so, please unplug my modem.

What quirk of nature has intrigued you recently? Where has that taken you with your writing?

Attention, please.

 Word count: 370            Reading time: 2-3 mins.

“Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans,” John Lennon sang in Beautiful Boy.

Our house in Sydney, Australia perched on a ridge overlooking the Forestville Ferrets Junior Rugby League Football Club. A wide border of cliffs and eucalyptus forest separated us from the clubhouse and playing fields, one hundred feet below. We spent many evenings sitting on our deck, watching the faraway games. One Sunday morning, as we worked in the garden, cars started to arrive at the clubhouse: normal weekend activity at a sports club. Half an hour later voices, strong and melodious, rose from the valley.

Throughout the day the parking lot filled and the choirs swelled. Rich Māori voices serenaded us as we built an orchid rockery, hung out laundry, washed the dogs, ate lunch and then dinner. The haunting music drifted up to us until the next morning. Then car doors slammed, tires crunched on the gravel of the parking lot, and silence slipped over the world.

We lived in that house for fifteen years but the Māori singers gathered at Forestville Park just once. When I close my eyes, I can see the groups standing in circles on the playing field. Still I wish I’d paid more attention to the different choral exchanges, to when the singing was the strongest, to how many children were in the crowd, and to the aroma of the food wafting up from the fire pits. I wish I’d been living more and making plans less.

In an interview in the Fall 1965 edition of Paris Review, William S. Burroughs said, “Most people don't see what's going on around them. That's my principal message to writers: for God's sake, keep your eyes open.” 

How is your writing life going? Are you busy making plans or are you living each day fully? When you ride the bus or drive your usual route home every day, do you stare into the far point of the tunnel, to your destination? Or are your eyes wide open? Do you see what is going on around you? Are you ready to seize the day when life delivers a free Māori concert when you expected the grunt and clamor of a rugby game?


Photo by: Alan Bolitho, LM