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.”

“Seriously?”

“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?

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

Is your filter on?

Next week I’m going to a BBQ with a Western theme. The invitation arrived weeks ago and since then I’ve tramped through thrift stores and flea markets from North Vancouver to Packwood, Washington. I’ve assembled enough pieces to pass muster: a pale blue cowboy hat, a darker blue fringed jacket and a pair of black cowboy boots. In design, leatherwork and condition, my boots are very similar to this picture. Turn them upside down and they tell a different story: they have been re-soled and re-heeled many times.

Word count: 440                                                                     Reading time: 1-2 minutes

I’ve started wearing the boots around the house to get used to the feel of them. When I pull them on, a strange thing happens: I walk differently. I channel their former owner. I feel the way the arch of her foot shaped the vamp of the boot. I close my eyes and press down on the ball of the sole and see dusty paddocks, smell the sage-scent of horses, and feel the burn of the desert sun. My own filter turns off; I start taking photographs of her life.

Then I turn the tables and try to see my life as she would. When I boarded the Queen of Oak Bay ferry on Tuesday I imagined the previous owner of these well-worn boots clapping eyes on the huge car ferry for the first time. To me, BC Ferries are just part of the highway system: a route that connects BC’s islands to its mainland. To travellers unaccustomed to the busy-ness of the ferry terminal and the power of the ships, it’s an exciting part of the journey, fraught with joys and risks that habituated users often fail to see. Tuesday I looked the vessel with fresh eyes.

That made me realize I need to turn off my filter more often. I need to walk in other people’s boots more often. That can only help me find the excitement in everyday life that is necessary to improve as a writer. I need to be more like Edward Gorey and find the floor that opens:

I really think I write about everyday life. I don't think I'm quite as odd as others say I am. Life is intrinsically, well, boring and dangerous at the same time. At any given moment the floor may open up. Of course, it almost never does; that's what makes it so boring.

Are you like Edward Gorey? Do you see the floor opening up underneath you, sweeping you into another world? Or is your filter on and all you see is the ferry line up and another delay between you and your destination?

***

Photo from Wikimedia Commons by: Ealdgyth