When I visit friends in car-centric places, I’m always struck by the private time people have when they go directly from their homes, into cars and on to their offices — and back again. It’s not that I envy this private time, or even that I think people in the suburbs never interact with strangers — I know that they do — it’s just that in cities where people walk and use public transportation (like New York) there’s a dance between the public and private, with private conversations often taking place in public.

As I walk around my neighborhood I hear snippets of people’s lives. Sometimes I hear only one side — the typical mobile phone on the street situation — and other times I hear the give and take, as two people talk while walking by me.

Sometimes what I hear is simply funny.

“I’m at Union Square, in the farmer’s market. I’m wearing black — like everyone else.”

But often, I overhear a sharp-edge shard of a terrible — even MONSTROUS — interaction.

“You stayed after that! You can’t stay with him — not after that!”

“And then she told me I was too passive aggressive. The queen of emotional vampires… She called ME passive aggressive?”

“Your realize that’s a felony!”

And the dreaded…

“We really need to talk.”

Overheard comments are like magical scraps, opening lines for stories of all kinds. When I hear a choice bit of dialog it’s very hard for me NOT to start writing stories in my head. They are the best “writer prompts” I’ve ever encountered and you never know when a good one will spark a story.

Listen up!


  1. Agreed! And sometimes just striking up conversations yourself with strangers will spark things. I was plotting a murder mystery recently, and had all my subplots but couldn’t figure out who to kill and why. Then a near-perfect stranger told me a weird story, and I had it. Great stories are everywhere!

  2. On my way to the top of the Empire State Building there was a little old lady who needed a walker to get around. She kept asking, “Is the ride starting yet?” I swear one of these days I’m going to write a story inspired by a woman like her.

  3. I live in a small town. The only way to get anywhere is by your own car, no public transportation anywhere. Looking at things in your view here it puts a different spin on the common occurrance around town. During the summer roads can be blocked by two cars each going there own way. But they aren’t moving, instead they are taking up the entire street as they have stopped to have a conversation.

    It can be maddening, specially if you are in a hurry to get somewhere.

    • Candy

      Your story reminds me about a trip I took a few years ago to Umbria. The road leading up through the hills was so narrow that when two Fiats came from different directions they called it an Umbrian traffic jam. Of course when I was in a car it was to head toward one of the small towns where we would spend at least an hour at a cafe over coffees and paninis. If my Italian was a bit better, I’d have been listening to the locals conversations.

      Surely there must be a bar or a cafe or… someplace to overhear wild bits and pieces. One of my friends who lives in a classic suburb usually has stories from the hairdressers. I can attest to that one too. You overhear some pretty strange things. Maybe not fodder for science fiction, but murder and romance — in abundance!

  4. I’m both a hermit and a car driver so I rarely hear such interesting snippets of conversation. However when I am out and about, I unintentionally read ‘body language’ and that can be almost as interesting. 🙂

    • Candy

      Body language! Very interesting!

      Movement is telling on so many levels. Years ago I did some serious research into psychotic killers. The best book I read was by a psychiatrist working with a neurologist. The neurologist identified lesions on brains that indicated early abuse or accidents in the scans of these killers — which was interesting. But the thing that stayed with me was his ability to see something wrong with a brain by watching the person’s gait.

      In addition to physical indicators, we reveal things about our inner lives in the way we move.

      Really interesting stuff!

  5. I suspect if you’re anything like me. when you hear one side of a conversation like that you immediately start trying to put the other side that garnered the response. It’s quite fun trying to imagine someone else’s life from the scraps you hear. However I’m sure it takes a particular talent that I don’t have to place a story round a captured few words.
    Nadolig Llawen a Blwyddyn Newydd Dda Candy. May you have a wonderful time.
    xxx Cwtch xxx

    • Candy

      Of course… and sometimes the myriad of possible characters on the other end of that conversation. I’m not sure if it’s placing that story around those overheard words so much as a starting point. Who is this person saying that and why? If it’s a particularly outrageous statement — something criminal or wild — the story just rolls from the dialog.

      “You’re not telling me that house is haunted? Are you?”

      “The police took her to Bellvue (public hospital with famous psychiatric wing).”

      “And all the money was just GONE!”

      All of those just scream… make a story of me. Now, I just made them up, but they are not far off from things I’ve heard on the street in New York City.