April 16, 2009

Out of Context

Some of the most engaging bits of conversation are the little snippets you hear while eavesdropping. If you were listening to the entire conversation maybe a particular comment would make perfect sense, but out of context the overheard phrase is often very amusing and memorable. Sometimes it can also become the perfect piece of dialogue...maybe even the first line of a manuscript or at least a writing exercise. Two recently overheard snippets:
"Ralph didn't care for the halibut"
"The Dalai Lama is giving my husband a headache"

Not among my favorite lines, but I can see the possibilities. They could even be captions for clever New Yorker cartoons.

I love to eavesdrop. As a little girl, and youngest child, I developed quite a knack for entertaining myself by listening and observing others. My mother did not appreciate this particular talent. The problem was that I also liked to share the information I acquired. The phrase "little pitchers have big ears" was often spoken in my presence to remind everyone that they needed to watch what they said when I was in the room.

I never really thought too much about what that expression actually means. But a quick Google explained it.
"LITTLE PITCHERS HAVE BIG EARS--Children hear and understand more than you think they do. The play here is on the resemblance of the ear to the handle of a pitcher. It is an ancient saying, having been recorded by John Heywood in 1546: 'Auoyd your children, smal pitchers haue wide eares.'" From "The Dictionary of Cliches" by James Rogers (Ballantine Books, New York, 1985).
I might have to disagree a little with Mr. Heywood. While my ears are high functioning, I wouldn't describe them as big. I think they are rather nicely sized and quite in keeping with the scale of my head. I do have rather big lobes, but I simply view those as the perfect platform to show off my earrings. But I digress...

I wonder if most writers are similarly gifted. Eavesdropping skills seem like part of the job description, and frankly, fiction writers might be hard pressed to improve on an overheard real world conversation. We just need to stay alert, keep listening, and keep our notebooks close by.


Laura said...

So true, Maggie! It's the little bits of conversation can really capture the imagination, huh? Keep up the good work:)

Solvang Sherrie said...

My kids have given me some of the best lines for my books. And if anyone wants to argue if a child that age would actually say something, I've got the living proof!