a resource you have to be careful with

I really love the Overheard websites. People post things they’ve heard strangers say on the streets. It all started with Overheard in New York, but now there must be twenty or thirty such websites. Mostly Overheard in (insert city name, from Berkeley to Athens), but also Overheard at the Beach, Overheard at Law School, etc.

Here’s a lovely example from Overheard in New York:

Those who Bootleg History Are Doomed to Profit From It

20-something Chinese guy: You know what? Chinese people discovered America.

20-something Black guy: Bullshit.

20-something Chinese guy: It’s true! There’s an article on CNN showing we discovered America, there are maps. Chinese were here first before everyone else. Chinese people did everything before everyone else. White people take credit for everything, but now it’s coming out that Chinese made all of these discoveries first. Don’t you see a pattern? We’re the shit.

20-something Black guy: The only pattern I see is that you motherfuckers pirate and resell every DVD, and now you’re trying to bootleg history.

–Chinatown

Overheard by: Ricky

The danger for fiction writers is obvious if you spend any time reading Overheard. Such great dialog screams to be used in a fictional setting. Some of what you come across is so pitch perfect, it feels wasteful to just let it sit there with no purpose but to amuse the occasional passer-by.

In general, I feel comfortable using things I personally overhear in public to jump-start a scene or a story. I write things down and save them and once in a while those little bits of human interaction blossom into something bigger and more complex. But I’d be less comfortable adapting things somebody else has overheard and put up on a website. I’m not sure why, except it feels a little like cheating.

Any thoughts on this?

3 Replies to “a resource you have to be careful with”

  1. haha!! That’s hysterical!!

    I’ve been guilty of seeing people on the streets and wondering what their lives are like, when I travel by train and we go by homes at a fast speed I always choose one home and imagine what goes on in that particular homes kitchen, livingroom, etc…

    The other day I was driving and noticed a beautiful woman a good 8 months pregnant, with european features walking along the boulevard with her coat wide open and looking sad, all I could think of was what is her story, why does she look so sad when she’s carrying a brand new life inside of her and many thoughts and ideas popped into my head and I started to create an story around this one woman. Was a death of a parent, spouse, pet, aunt etc… was she in a unhappy relationship, surrogate mother, why was she so sad, it took everything I had to not stop the car and ask her.

  2. I agree that I wouldn’t want to use tidbits that someone else overheard.
    This is one of my personal faves:
    While at the King Tut exhibit at the Field Museum in Chicago, I was standing behind 3 women as we were all looking at a display of canopic jars. The women were discussing the division of an aunt’s ashes amongst several family memebers. The lady telling the story said that her husband brought in a spoon to divide the ashes, but she thought that was too ordinary to use and sent him for something more “appropriate.” He came back with a garden trowel, but she refused it as it was “used” and sent him to buy a brand new trowel. As they were finally dispersing the ashes with the trowel, their 10 year old daughter came in and wanted to know what they’re doing. When they explained, she said she wanted some of the aunts ashes. They gave her a little vial of ashes that she then put in her jewelry box. The teller of the story said that this had been years ago and her daughter still keeps the ashes in her jewelry box.

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