By Pat Remick
While lounging in the sun on the deck of Holland America's M/S Eurodam last week, I seized the opportunity to listen to some of the dialogue around me because even though I was on vacation, I believe in taking advantage of any opportunities to enhance my writing and also that "it's all novel material."
But by the time the loudest of the ongoing conversations in my vicinity finally concluded, I was ready to act out my own murder mystery involving one of the participants -- a woman who announced in a nasal New York accent that "they took my hat" and then proceeded to discuss this development with a female companion for at least another 43 minutes straight.
"They" was a cruise ship employee who, according to the story, likely scooped up her black and white cap obtained during a cruise to Bermuda and did so when he removed a used towel from her chair after she went to the restroom. Her husband, Meyer, apparently was supposed to have been guarding said hat but also didn't notice the incident precipitating the crisis, which eventually involved chasing down several deckhands, trying to gain entry to the cruise ship laundry, and making two trips to the ship's main desk. I know all this because it was recounted in excruciating detail, with every other sentence repeated for emphasis. The other woman's role in the conversation seemed to be to mumble "really?" at appropriate moments.
I wanted to scream. I imagined how the other passengers might react if I leaped up from my deck chair and yelled, "Just go buy another hat, lady. It's gone. Give it up. Hell, I'll buy you another hat if only you will just please, please shut up!" But instead, I kept my eyes closed and prayed that Meyer's wife would disappear like her hat.
Then I thought about some of the other mundane and sometimes seemingly endless conversations I had eavesdropped on during this cruise -- in the buffet line, on the elevators, in the hallways, etc. and it reminded me again that much of what people say to each other is extremely boring to those not involved in the immediate discussion (but sometimes also to the direct participants, as well).
And yet, when we write our stories and novels, dialogue plays a key role and we work hard to make it realistic. But we really don't want it to be realistic, do we? Who would want to read the entire conversation about Meyer's wife's missing hat or that Ellen should not be eating eggs for breakfast or the details of how the Eurodam's onboard casino compares to every other casino in America?
Even most of our telephone conversations are too boring for our books: "Hi, is this Jack?" "Yes, it is." "Well, Jack, this is Joan. How are you today?" Who wants to read that?
When it comes to dialogue, we're told to use only the good stuff and only if it advances the story. But that's not how people really talk, is it?
On the other hand, have you ever overhead a conversation that you felt you absolutely must steal for your work in progress? Did you whip out a notebook and jot the must-have phrase or conversation down? What about the boring conversations ~ are any of them useful to your writing?
By the way, I spotted Meyer's wife at the beach in the Bahamas a few days later and she was still hatless. I'm wondering if Meyer threw it overboard in the hope she would spend the rest of the cruise searching for it and therefore, leave him alone. And maybe it was all a nefarious plot designed to send her into the ocean after it, which he might have hinted at in a conversation with a fellow traveler who turned out to be his mistress.
Now that's a conversation I would have liked to have overheard.