Listen: Let Your Ears Do The Writing In Ten Easy Steps

By: Kathleen Pickering

danDo you want to know a secret? I visualize a collective leaning forward with a hand to ear, to which I’ll whisper: “If you want to find a good story, listen!”

Where co-blogger, James Scott-Bell, spoke in his last blog about listening to your characters as they unfold to bring their story to life, I’ll discuss how listening to the world around you can uncover a story.

I can guarantee you that every published author you meet will tell you how something they heard triggered a novel. If folks wonder how an author can accept a multi-book contract without even knowing what they’ll produce, it’s because authors listen as intently as they write. Stories are floating all around you: in the news, eavesdropping on a conversation in a restaurant, elevator or train, chatting with  colleagues at work, conferences, with strangers, or for me the best source—family drama.

Sometimes I’ve spoken with people who tell me something they’ve never told others before, and they’re suddenly shocked that they’ve revealed their story. That’s because I have honed listening skills that make others comfortable in talking with me. Please understand, I don’t listen to folks to elicit deep dark secrets (though that would be nice!) but, because long ago, I discovered that I find people fascinating. No joke. I love to listen to what others have to say. If I’m talking with you it’s because I am genuinely interested in you.

A few years back, we were on vacation in Montana. From a single question I asked the cook at the dude ranch I learned that she was hiding from her drug dealer husband way down in New Mexico. This woman’s story spawned one of the proposals that Harlequin bought in my three book contract. Added bonus? A family member is an undercover narcotics detective who is telling me specific details to give the story life. Am I listening? You bet!

The next listening coupe was from my niece. She is an emergency room nurse who had a bout with cancer and survived. (YAY!) Listening to her recount her determination to outwit her fears and stay courageous during her treatment became book two of my Harlequin proposal. And, the love story that grew from her ordeal is so romantic it gives me goose bumps. I can’t wait to write the book based on her story!

The third plot hit me unexpectedly. I was discussing with friends the plight of rape victims who become pregnant and learned that several US states have no laws protecting women from rapists seeking custody of children born from their attack. Not only did this make me want to use some of Steven King’s horror tactics to stop such an atrocity, but hearing this information ignited the first of the three proposed novels I’ll be writing for Harlequin.

So, if you want to tap into a world of stories waiting to be written, then listen. And listen well. There are two approaches to good listening. One for business, one for empathy. I use both. Here are the first five steps offered by business consultant, Bernard Ferrari, to hone listening skills. These work exceptionally well when interviewing someone:

1. Show Respect. If you’re seeking information, let the person to whom you are speaking know that you value their knowledge and/or opinion, so are asking for their response. That way, they understand your agenda.

2. Listen to Everyone. Developing a good rapport not only with folks in the industry, but anyone in your sphere of existence lays the groundwork for “nuggets of gold” to surface in conversations.

3. Be Quiet! Even though as an excellent story teller, you can “top this” in sharing stories when someone is speaking, refrain! Let your conversation partner speak for 80% of the time. Use your 20% for thoughtful interaction. Remember, you are the one listening here.

4. Understand Emotions. Avoid having important discussions when you are tense, angry, upset or frightened. These emotions will distract you from listening. Sometimes it’s better to know when you should postpone and reschedule an interview (or listening) opportunity.

5. Ask Questions. When you are listening well, asking questions helps bring forward new facts. Even if you disagree with the speaker, phrasing your response with a question shows you are open, flexible and interested in their point of view. A well phrased question can also help the speaker think in a new way or reach different conclusions.

Now, for the second approach to listening, I have learned that in making an emotional connection, the most important fact to remember is to listen to others how you would want them to listen to you. Here are five additional steps to creating an emotional connection with your conversation partner:

6. Body Language. Face the speaker, sit straight or lean forward to show your attentiveness. (Actually, as a good listener, this happens automatically because you ARE interested!)

7. Maintain eye contact. You don’t have to drown in those limpid pools, but while someone is speaking stay glued to the discussion. Don’t let your eyes wonder over their shoulder, or stare at the floor or passersby as they talk. We all know what that feels like. It’s an instant turn off to the person speaking.

8. Create an empty space. This is my most favorite tool for listening. I start a conversation with absolutely no expectations of what my partner will say. It’s what I’ve learned to call an empty space between speakers. The response I get from my question can host a tapestry of answers; all from which new threads of conversation can be lifted. If you have expectations of what your partner will say, it clouds the clarity of information opportunities. You end up unconsciously steering the conversation, or worse, not fully hearing what was said.

9. Minimize external distractions. If your conversation is over a meal, or while giving a workshop, put down your fork for a minute to listen, or stop flipping through your notes while a question is being asked. Again, it’s the one-on-one message you give while listening that keeps the comfort level engaged.

10. Mirror the response. To ensure the speaker that you understood his statement or question, it helps to say, “So, what you’re saying/asking is . . .” and repeat their statement in your own words. This gives the speaker an opportunity to clarify a misunderstanding, or better yet, confirm that you understood. Again, mirroring shows your conversation partner that you are interested in what he/she is saying. It not only connects them with you, but enriches your understanding of the person about whom you’ve taken time to learn more.

Every listening encounter is a learning experience. Every listening encounter is a chance to connect with your world. Can you tell us here on The Kill Zone when a listening encounter spawned a story for you?

I am listening.

Write on, my friends!

xox, Piks

18 thoughts on “Listen: Let Your Ears Do The Writing In Ten Easy Steps

  1. Great post, Piks. So true. I’m usually starved for conversation when I take a break from writing & enjoy people’s company. I always want to listen more. When I come up for air, friends don’t always let me do that, but I really love hearing others tell me stories. Writing has contributed to my quality of life, but that comes in those quiet moments when I listen & observe & experience things that will eventually make it onto the page, so I can relive them in a different way. Write on!

  2. The other day I was writing in Starbucks and two guys in their 50s were talking at a table next to me. This is a public space, so what they said was public domain as far as I’m concerned. One guy started describing a friend of theirs, and told a story of divorces, making millions, getting a young girlfriend, buying a boat and encroaching angst. My writer’s mind kept taking over, thinking about those ex-wives finding this guy, about boats on fire, about loan sharks wanting their money….can’t help it. Life is material. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.

  3. These are excellent conversational tips. As for listening to other people, I once inadvertantly overheard a woman sobbing in a hotel corridor in the middle of the night. She was speaking on her cell phone, and the gist of her conversation became the inspiration for Perish by Pedicure.

  4. Speaking of phones, may I add one more item to the list? Interviewer and interviewee should TURN OFF THEIR DANG PHONES! Nothing annoys me more than to be talking with someone and have them blow me off while they answer their phone. Or read their latest IM or tweet. Talk about rude. (I think I understand the psychology behind the behavior, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.) And as an interviewer, it’s hard to see how anything could be more disrespectful of the person you’re interviewing than to send the clear message that they’re less important than your Aunt Tillie, who just called to say hi.

  5. I love hearing snippets of conversations as people pass by my table at a restaurant or when I am sitting in a public place. Sometimes you only need to hear a sentence or two for inspiration.

  6. What a fabulous post,Piks!
    Here’s the snippet I heard this weekend while having coffee on the inlet. The top on our convertible was down, and this big truck parks next to us, with his window down. Middle aged guy, giant black dog in the passengar seat. He’s talking loudly, yet with his hand covering the phone like it’s a secret, to someone about an upcoming business meeting. He wants to charter a boat – tells the guy on the other line to get the girls together. Same ones as last time.
    My hubby and I look at each other like, are you kidding me? Then the guy says,
    “And by the way, make them topless.” He paused then affirmed,”Yes, I mean ALL of them. if they want paid, they’ll do it.”

    My husband wanted invited to the party, lol.

  7. Piks ~~ How fun and how true! Makes be excited to get out of the writing cave and go listen. Hubby knows when I get the glazed over expression in a public place that I’m not ignoring him as much as getting into the listening zone and he can’t wait to find out what’s going on around us, and how I’d tweak that for a story line. Thanks for a great post!

  8. Awesome post. I love listening to the snippets when I go out.

    When I worked for legal aid, I developed a knack for drawing out stories. A woman would call in asking for rental assistance or child support and, if my radar pinged, I would pull a tale of (often horrific) domestic violence out of her. This doesn’t even count the days as a rural public defender. The non-privleged stuff is awesome. I passed on a tip that ended up with a fugitive being cornered and found hiding in a dryer.

    Life is weird and the stories it spawns are awesome.

  9. Its even more fun if you have extra languages under your belt, people speak more freely when they think no one can understand them. Especially if you’re the only white guy in a group of Koreans who don’t realize you understand Hangul.

  10. I once was on a train to NYC from Port Washington. I was with my now husband then boyfriend and we were going to watch the ball drop.We over heard a really narley looking dude discuss getting rid of his brother. He joked to his friend that we’ll get him outta the way so they could go ahead with “the plan”, we were all ears. This went on for quite awhile, each one suggesting how they could get rid of him. Turns out they were reading from a script…

  11. LOL, Mary!! Bet you were glad to hear that. 🙂

    BTW–Everyone, that photo at the top of the blog is my son. It’s good he’s listening to his Momma, eh? 🙂

  12. Kathleen, as long as I stick with the public record and what you hear in open court, I consider it to all be fodder.

    One of my trunkers is based on a real murder back when I was in law school and interning for the district attorney. Kids found a skeleton in a well. Two days later a young woman came to the cops and told a story. There had been a stoner party where they decided to hold a “seance” called The Goblet Game. One of the attendees freaked out, screamed, “the old man is coming to get me,” and ran out.

    And why yes, thank you for asking, he and his friends had beat the old guy to death, at his mother’s behest, so she could keep cashing his SS checks. The trial was bizarre. The prosecutor kept the goblet in his office for months.

    In my trunker, the old guy really did come back and help the prosecutor catch the killers. Just couldn’t get it to work though. I might revisit it some day.


  13. Terri! Woah! That’s some story. I’d certainly revisit that possibility. It’s amazing. Sometimes real life is stranger than fiction. There’s nothing left for us to do but keep writing! LOL!

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