Remember that old cliche about eavesdroppers? They never hear anything good about themselves. If you're a writer, you're not interested in hearing people talk about you. You want to hear what they have to say about other subjects.
Are you as guilty as I about eavesdropping on strangers' conversations? Actually, in today's world when people discuss the most intimate details of their lives on cell phones, in loud voices, it's impossible not to eavesdrop.
Never Off Duty
Writers are never off duty. We're tuned in to conversations, subconsciously noting the cadence of voices, word usage, pronunciation, and the fascinating things people say on cell phones or when standing in line and talking to strangers. We constantly mine the mother lode of experience for writing inspiration.
I carry a notepad everywhere. I've even been known to take notes of conversations when I'm forced to stand in a long line. In fact, I never enter the time dilation field - you may call it the post office - without a paperback book and pen and paper.
Some of the best characters I've created have been inspired by strangers in line.
Here are notes from a DMV line experience a few years ago.
Valley Girl & Goth Boy
Teenage Asian girl, very cute, with expensive purse, shoes, and cell phone. In line behind teenage Goth boy. She's a valley girl. He's a typical boy despite his Goth appearance, and he typically checked her out when she walked up.
Goth boy: So what are you here for?
Girl: Oh my God! You wouldn't like believe it. I like hit a car from behind. The cop was like so mean. I told him it wasn't like my fault that the car in front was like going too slow. Would you believe he gave me the ticket? Now my dad's like so pissed at me that he wouldn't like buy me another car. He's making me drive his old Dodge Intrepid. It's like so not fair.
Goth boy: Bummer. So why are you here?
Girl: I've got to like get some kind of form filled out. I can't believe I have to stand in this line with all these people. You'd think they'd have like a special line for people like in a hurry.
Goth boy: Yeah. You're right. They should.
Girl: Oh my God. I'm going to like be here like all day. Would you like my phone number. (giggle) If you let me cut in front of you, I'll give you my cell.
Boy: (Laughs. Shifts feet awkwardly.) No, that's okay. I'm in a hurry too. I have to go to work. In my Dodge Intrepid.
I almost fell on the floor laughing. Writing a teenage character? Great dialog examples for that age group, and a great put down.
Bigot In Church
This conversation is from a woman sitting in the pew in front of me at church a couple of years ago. It was staggering in its bigotry of which she seemed unaware. She needs to pay more attention to the sermons, don't you think?
Woman: You know I can't stand Texans and particularly native Texans. They think because they were born here that makes them somehow more Texan than someone else. As if being Texan in the first place is anything to brag about. I can't stand those rednecks in Louisiana either. They're as bad as those people from Kentucky. Kentucky and Indiana. I don't know which is worse because Hoosiers are dumb as posts. The only ones dumber are from Mississippi or maybe Tennessee.
I was completely repulsed. The woman looked normal, but her conversation indicated otherwise. My goodness. I really wanted to ask her from what state she hailed.
So if you see my scribbling furiously while standing in line, you better make sure you're minding your conversational manners or you may find yourself in a book.
Listen not just to what people say, but how they say it. You'll fine-tune your ear for dialog, and that will help your writing.