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.


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?