Stolen Conversations

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if you write historical novels...

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Paul Whybrow

Full Member
Jun 20, 2015
We writers are magpies, senses alert for what interests us, shiny objects that can be used to feather the nest of our book. That's rather unfair on magpies, for recent research showed that, if anything, magpies are more likely to be scared off by shiny objects, rather than attracted to them.

Perhaps the American term 'pack rat' is more accurate. These rodents certainly steal anything that takes their fancy.

Seeking ideas to include in a story, I recall memories from years ago, of things that happened to me and to others, including conversations. Sometimes, it's just a fragment of speech that lodges in my brain, a throwaway comment by a friend.

I was once chatting to a social worker who did great work for charities and the arts, and she said something about friendship that astonished me—that she was only friends with people who were of some use to her, and she thought that most people behaved this way. I was stunned, without showing it, as she didn't appear to be that calculating and manipulative, but it made me examine my own motivations as she'd opened a deep chasm into how human relationships work. Initially, what she said sounded cold, but, thinking about it, I acknowledged that we are only friendly with folk we like and who like us, forging useful alliances to get through life. I'm not sure yet how I'll use that way of thinking in a story, but it will appear.

More humorously, I was heading for a Cornish charity shop to browse their books. Standing in the road, ahead of me, were two elderly ladies deep in conversation. It was impossible not to hear what they were saying, as Pipewell Lane in Liskeard is narrow and flanked by tall Victorian warehouses and grain stores, that amplify sound:

First Lady: "How's your son Adrian doing? Is he still working as a florist?"

Her friend: "Ooh yes, I wish that he'd start dating a nice girl, settle down, get married and give me a grandchild, but he can't find anyone special enough."

First Lady: "Is he still sharing a flat with that ballet dancer—what's his name?"

Her friend: "Melvin, you mean? Yeah, they've been sharing a flat above the florists for five years now. There's only one bedroom, but they take it in turns on the sofa-bed. Melvin can't find a girl either, but they're good company for one another."

Neither of the two ladies appeared to be aware of the truth of the situation, and I wondered how they'd handle it if Adrian and Melvin ever declared their sexual orientation. I just about made it inside the charity shop before sniggering. I'm not homophobic, the humour came from the blissful ignorance of the women. I stored the anecdote for future use in a story.

One example of an expression I have used in a short story was heard in a rough pub in the East End of London. The Blind Beggar is a notorious place, mainly because the criminal Kray twins used to drink there.

I was working as a motorcycle dispatch rider at the time and popped in for a quick drink while I waited around for another job to be radioed through on my walkie-talkie (this was the mid-1970s). I got chatting to one of the regulars, who mentioned that the chap playing pool used to be a dispatch rider in WW2. I watched a tall, handsome man potting the balls, and was shocked when he turned around as the left side of his face bore a dozen slash scars. My drinking companion said," Yeah, he was diced and sliced in a gang fight with a cut-throat razor. He later killed the man that did it. He's called Razors if you want to have a chat."

I swiftly drank up and left, but remembered the disfigured gangster and used him as the basis of a henchman in my Cornish Detective novel Sin Killers, along with the phrase "diced and sliced".

I would never use anything that could be recognised by the person that said it, so most of my stolen speech is from years ago.

Have you ever used overhead conversations in a story?

My daughter came out with one Saturday that I'm going to have to use (I write middle-grade):

"It's so annoying! I don't have long sleeves on, so I can't blow my nose."

The writer in me recognised the statement's value; the mother in me cringed and wondered where I'd gone wrong in that girl's upbringing.
Great thread. I always carry a small notebook on me along with a tablet phone thingy on which to input notes. I jot down little things noticed and overheard.

Airports are good places for eavesdropping. They are liminal places filled with the noise of arrivals and departures: people are in transit, delayed, anxious or hurried, leaving messages on voicemail, reminding loved ones of unfinished tasks or chores, calling ahead to AirBnBs, gulping down drinks, eating snatched meals, saying goodbye, arriving sleepless and disorientated. Neither here nor there.

At the time, I am one of those travellers, distracted, bothered, keen to get moving, wondering if I remembered to log off the pc, lock the side gate, etc. In retrospect though, my jottings take on this wonderful random significance.

Sample pasted from notes:

OR Tambo international airport, Johannesburg, 6.15am, flight to Rome boarding now.

Woman in black leather jacket says, 'If she's had the tattoos removed, I won't recognise her. That's who she is.'

The shorter stocky woman beside her: 'She looked like some punky drug mule. Sleeves of bats and roses.'

Flights landing from Addis Ababa, London, the Emirates, Hong Kong. The biggest airport in Africa, as the announcement keeps repeating. Smell of hot coffee and toasted chicory. We'll be heading into an electric storm up north, severe turbulence they say. They say dust storms. Overhead on screens the MTN advert featuring the Commodores' Nightshift playing over the intercoms and people start singing along as they did on the shuttle from Cape Town International Airport.

You found another home
I know you're not alone
On the nightshift

Woman in dreadlocks and red lipstick seated next to me, tears in her eyes. 'I'm homesick already, you know? And we're not even out of here.'

Tswana assistant at Information Desk: 'You need to be Terminal A or B, mama. Do you have a loyalty card? There's a Baobab Lounge, a Cycad Lounge and the Menzies Shongololo Lounge.'

'Before Rome there is Schiphol and that is like ambulant death. Don't argue with me, Erica. If you can squeeze it, pump it, spray it, spread it, smear it, spill it, you can't take it on board.' [This from a tall man in wrap-around Raybans, pushing a loaded trolley.]

'Watch out, you heard me. Watch out.' A disembodied voice behind me. Sudden rush of fragrance, Yves St-L's Opium.

In the queue, unshaven academic in crumpled jacket talking into his Smartphone: 'For such a dangerous place, it's always friendly. I couldn't get over the staff waving to me through the shuttle window. Tell the god Hermes I'm heading out now. Winged sandals, anyone?' [Me scribbling away in amazement.]

Hungover businessman at boarding gate: 'If you say Rome, then we will stop over at Nairobi, isn't that so? For Asia, we turn left at Réunion Island and fly over the Indian Ocean into the setting sun. For Europe, we fly over the Sahara and drop down to Nairobi in the dark. Ocean, desert, all the same. In the old days we flew up along the breadth of the Congo River and that looked bigger than the Gulf of Mexico. Humour me, I'm getting old.'
If you listen hard enough, it's not so much the words people use that are fascinating (though many a Bon mot goes in my notebook) -- it's the rhythms and cadences of language, particularly in local dialect speech. Careful thought over these means you can avoid the patronising phonetic writing of accents, and I speak as one with just such an accent! Transcribing Hull speech was never gonna be easy...
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Face-to-face pitches

if you write historical novels...