Listening for great snippets of dialogue, by Michele Weber Hurwitz

Our blog topic this month is about field trips; more specifically, where we like to write. But here's the deal: I write and revise at home. Routine and familiarity suit me and my work. I've found, through trial and error, that coffee shops are too loud and distracting, and have the inherent risk of hot beverage spills and muffin bits that get stuck in those temperamental laptop keys. Anywhere outdoors is always fraught with assorted dogs/bugs/humidity/sudden thunderstorms that crop up out of nowhere. Airports, hotel rooms, the lakeside cabin porch where I thought I would be able to concentrate - nope, not happening.

My cozy home office overlooking my backyard and filled with photos and inspiring sayings, my giant screen desktop computer, and space to spread out my piles of notes - now we're talking. And even better, it's exactly twenty-three steps to the kitchen pantry.

But! When it comes to dialogue, I emerge from my cocoon, go somewhere, and listen. Great snippets of dialogue can be overhead anywhere and everywhere, be it a restaurant, store, sporting event, or family get-together (those are usually a gold mine). More than one overheard gem has found its way into one of my books!

Here are some of the recent snippets I've overheard:

"No, not that. I told you. We're not looking for a bathtub."

"I sprinkled Wheat Thin crumbs on his car."

"This thing ran outta juice. They didn't charge it enough."

"Oh, you knew! You most certainly knew!"

"Did you feel safe there? I mean, like, here safe."

"Don't go anywhere, I'm getting the pineapple."

"They said to get zip-off pants. You know, the kind that zip off."

"She's not totally mean. She's just, like, partially totally mean."

I first learned of this simple but effective dialogue exercise while taking a summer course at the University of Iowa's Writer's Workshop years (and years) ago. The instructor asked us to sit for one hour in the open-air Ped Mall and jot down bits of conversation we heard from people passing by. Afterwards, we returned to class and wrote a scene with these bits of conversation. The results were hilarious and in some cases, made no sense, but all of the resulting scenes reflected how people really speak to each other. It was a lesson I never forgot.

Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of four middle grade novels, from Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster. Her newest, Ethan Marcus Makes His Mark, publishes on November 13. Visit her at


Post a Comment