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?

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 leaving on that jet plane?

If there is a better summer moment than floating on a freshwater lake, red-winged blackbirds trilling in the background, watching a jet lay its fleeting signature on an azure sky, I can't name it. As I bobbed on Stowel Lake, Salt Spring Island, last weekend it occurred to me that the contrail fading into blue was like so many of my creative sparks: ephemeral and quickly forgotten.

Word count: 378            Reading time: 1-2 minutes

Which brings me to the subject of notebooks: Why have one? Why have only one? What should a notebook include anyway?

I have notebooks in my car, in my purse, in my night stand. They come in all shapes and sizes: small spiral ones that fit in the palm of my hand, efficient steno pads, beautifully bound journals with elegant covers, and binder-sized exercise notebooks, one (at least) for each novel. There’s an electronic notepad in my iPhone with a whole raft of entries: song lyrics that inspired, conversations I’ve eavesdropped on, details of the sounds and smells on a wharf on a chilly spring morning.

My physical notebooks have lots of words. They are a shotgun approach to ideas and experiences, scribbled down in passing moments. They also house a few of my rough drawings, along with pictures, cartoons, and quotes cut from magazines and newspapers.

Does every entry inspire a story or a scene in my writing? Not by half. But if I don’t capture them as they flash across my mind, they will likely disappear forever.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn. I like to hope that within my copious notes there might be an acorn or two that will lead to my next story or novel. One word or sentence might create a thousand more.

Have you ever had an inspiration make your heart pump at the time it flared into being? Did you forget to write it down, only to have it disappear like contrails on the summer sky? Conversely have you ever scribbled a note only to look at it the next day, now fully awake and/or sober, and wondered what on earth you meant by Marie Antoinette’s dog?

What do your notebooks look like? What do they say about your writing life? Where have they led you?


Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Contrails_001 by G. Larson

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 

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