Soaking up Local Color
“Writers are nosy. I say this without apology, as nosiness is a requirement of the trade. For writers, as for actors, observation fuels invention. Our natural aspect is that of a fly on the wall, our patron saint Harriet the Spy.” – Barbara Rogan (“A Dangerous Fiction”)
I’ve known author, teacher and former literary agent Barbara Rogan online for at least twenty years, beginning in a CompuServe Literary Forum of another era. I’ve learned a lot from reading her posts. Her post (in the link above) about the vicissitudes of hearing loss and eavesdropping as author get older struck a chord.
First, until I read her post about eavesdropping, I hadn’t thought much about the fact that I tend to listen to people around me, soaking up all kinds of stuff. I started doing this when I was in high school and college and became a night owl with long drives down dark roads between one late night diner and another. Typically, I sat there alone with a cup of coffee or a plate of bacon and eggs and listened to the stories of the people in each neighborhood when they stopped for coffee.
Second, like Barbara, I have problems with hearing loss. It seems to impact mainly my ability to hear many of the tones and pitches associated with speech. I can hear lawn mowers. I can’t hear my granddaughter or my wife, much less people at the next table. While I’m sorry to hear Barbara is also beginning to experience this problem, I did appreciate reading another author’s thoughts about the importance of random conversations in movie theaters, restaurants, lines at the DMV and the park.
If I were a gossip, I would probably feel the need to apologize for this. But I’m not. Furthermore, the conversations I hear are seldom, if ever, from anyone I know or know of. I’ve hear hundreds of stories, jokes, points of view and ideas. None of them are turned into short stories or novels. Instead, they are part of the local color that makes a place a place.
Some people joke about local color, viewing it as something filled with hicks, rubes, strange people and curious customs. What a shame. For an author, what one hears while eavesdropping in a Waffle House or what one sees while driving between small towns on a so-called “blue highway” is the stuff or memorable stories.
As our hearing fades away, we can’t overhear what we used to overhear, but we can still see and we can still read and surf Internet sites and uncover the myths, legends, pastimes, and life styles of the places we set our stories. It’s part of what we do.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the comedy/satire “Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire,” a story that relies strongly on the journalism yarns overheard as a child when the veteran journalists in the room didn’t know anyone was eavesdropping.