The Importance of Eavesdropping

The Importance of Eavesdropping

Welcome to my first blog post here on Austen Authors.

Years ago I sat on a bus in front of two women who were discussing the colour of the Mother-of-the-Bride outfit one of them had bought the week before.

‘What colour is it?’

‘Hard to say. Orangey?’

‘Like a tangerine?’

‘Oh no! Not so vivid. When I say orangey, really it’s more orangey-pink.’

‘Orange blossom, then? That’ll be nice for a spring wedding.’

‘N… no, not really. That’s really pale, isn’t it?’

‘More of an apricot?’

‘Mmm. But pinker.’


‘No! Not as pink as that.’


‘No. Not so bright.’

I was hooked; crucially invested in establishing the colour of the frock. ‘Peach?’ I muttered into the damp air of the bus.

‘Peach?’ they took my suggestion up.

The Mother of the Bride considered. ‘On the peach side of apricot,’ she agreed, at last.

I relate this incident because it illustrates a lot about why I am a writer and the writing process. Situations like the one on the bus are meat and drink to a writer. All of life is material to her ever-eager eye and attentive ear. I am a terrible eaves-dropper, as demonstrated above, and I am very nosey; I have a knack of turning a conversation until it’s all about the other person ‘What have you been up to?’ I ask. ‘Where have you been?’ And then, ‘Really? Tell me about it. How did you feel?’ I ferret story out of the least snippet of overheard chat. I embroider story from encounters briefly glimpsed in the supermarket aisle. For me, they are laced around with narrative potential. What’s the back-story? Why is he looking at her like that? Where will this meeting lead? It loops and coils and draws me in, ensnaring me in its possibilities. Before I know it I am inventing dialogue, defining character, conjuring a world of history from the peculiar slouch of a hat over an eye or a stretched-out silence over a neighbouring restaurant table. The two women on the bus got invested with character. I invented back-story. You can read the result in the Priceless Prose section of our Writer’s Block Forum.

I mention this because I am certain that Jane Austen used the situations life offered her in the same way, as source material for her characters and plots. Imagine her, the unmarried sister, the spinster aunt, sitting in a corner stitching at a sampler, seemingly absorbed in her task but actually hanging on every word of the conversation in the room. I see her casting sly looks to assess facial expressions and body language. I catch her smiling wryly to herself as the company reveals their ignorance, their prejudices, their naivety and hubris to her all-observing eye. I’m sure she listened in to snippets of conversation. Whispered gossip about a widow and three daughters, perhaps, forced to move to a far county by the machinations of an over-bearing daughter-in-law. A new gentleman in the neighbourhood, so insufferably proud he refused to stand up for a single dance at the local ball. Then, like me, she spun those threads into a tale.

Writing is my way of coping with the fragmentary nature of life; we never see everything, we never know the whole story. In my case the things I can never be sure of are trivial – they don’t really matter, in the scheme of things. I’ll never know where on the colour spectrum that lady’s outfit belonged, or how it looked when it was on, or whether (as I rather suspect she did) her neighbour turned up to the evening reception in something very similar (‘if you’d said yours was cantaloupe, I’d never have worn this old thing.’). Jane Austen’s life was different. We take for granted a certain autonomy but Jane’s life would have been subject to changes over which she had little power. She moved around as the exigencies of her life demanded, at the behest of relations. Simply being a woman of limited means made her whole future uncertain – like the Bennet girls, Jane Fairfax and the Dashwood sisters. She could not know what the end of her own story might be but in her books she could make a seamless entirety, know the end as well as the beginning and the middle. How satisfying that must have been!

In my writing I strive for truthfulness, to imbue characters and situations with truth which makes them vivid and credible, giving them a life of their own. Those women, honing the idea of ‘orangey-pink’ are a brilliant illustration. They boil it down, distil to its essential truth, dismissing orange-blossom, apricot, shrimp and coral to arrive at it. Writing without truth is artificial and unsatisfactory, like that squirty cream you can buy in aerosols. It looks good for about two minutes but after that you just have a pool of greasy white liquid which is unappetising and doesn’t taste of anything. My favourite aspect of Jane Austen’s writing is her truth. I believe in her characters, in her stories, in the worlds she creates. I don’t mean I believe they’re real – of course I know they aren’t real – but they have veracity.

I am so looking forward to being part of the team here at Austen Authors, and to celebrate this, my first post, I will be discounting my anthology ‘The Book’ which features the story of the two women on the bus, a longer version of this article and other short stories, excerpts and travelogues which will introduce me as a writer.  Hop over to Amazon to find it in print and digital form at half its usual price, but don’t forget to say ‘hello’ first in the comments section below.

In future posts I will continue to share my love of Austen with like-minded readers and, if it’s allowed, I may also mention my other writing heroes Anthony Trollope and Henry James.

Please take a look at my profile page, my website and my profiles on Goodreads and Facebook, liking and sharing and all those good things.





10 Responses to The Importance of Eavesdropping

  1. Loved your post and I have enjoyed your “Jane Fairfax” prequel series. Your writing style is so authentic to the time. I, too, enjoy “eavesdropping” in a waiting room, a cafe, in line at the post office. Life gives us much to work with as writers.

  2. “Where do you get your ideas?” might be the most common question writers get, and you answered the question so well. I really enjoyed your post. And welcome to Austen Authors!

  3. Delightful post. And, may I say, welcome to our party. I already have your other books in my library so I was excited to get your book of short stories as well. Thank you for the reduced price. I am always intrigued when I ‘people watch’ and wonder about their story/back-story. May I wish you much success in your endeavors. Enjoy your time at AuAu.

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