Get Thee to a Party

Photo by Tyler Rutherford from

 I have a quick fix if you are out of dialogue ideas and/or characterization elements.

Go to a party. 

That would have been hard advice to follow a few months ago but the genie is out of the bottle now. Folks are throwing soirees for all sorts of reasons. There are mask-burning gatherings, graduation parties, birthday celebrations, and all sorts of other gatherings. No matter how social-adverse you are (and I’m in the redline there, I assure you. I just fake sociability. For awhile.) someone is going to invite you to a gathering somewhere. Go. Observe. Listen. Heck, with graduation parties you can just follow the signs and balloons and enter, whether you are invited or not. 

Photo by NIPYATA! from

I went to a graduation party last weekend for a young woman I have known for many years who has finished high school. She is part of one of the best families I have the pleasure to know. Each and every member of the clan is instantly memorable, for different reasons. . We live in the same city in a similar neighborhood. Their home is wonderful. It puts mine to shame. I have a backyard. THEY have a nature preserve.  It has a small barn with a fenced-in corral in which a mini-pony cavorts and takes apple slices from your hand while trying (though not too hard) to avoid stepping on a couple of Flemish rabbits that hop around while merrily depositing chocolate chips, or something like them. There is a separate chicken coop next to the corral, where a rooster and a few chickens warily eye a calico cat who wanders about gazing wistfully through the chicken wire at them (Buddy…I know how you feel). It’s all wonderfully maintained and beautiful. One could spend hours there, just watching.

Photo by Levi Guzman from

It is the family’s friends, however, who received the primary focus of my concentration last week. Imagine if the characters of Twin Peaks and Fargo came together for a party, all knew each other, and were benevolent, without a woodchipper in sight. That’s what it was like. I wandered about, aurally dipping into conversations and taking mental notes. I occasionally noticed individuals sitting more or less alone. I beelined over. If people are sitting alone for no apparent reason there is probably a very good one that will eventually manifest itself. You should find out what it is without directly asking. I always check to make sure that there is not a mechanism labeled “Point in Direction of Enemy” within their reach before I fully approach and strike up a conversation point like, “Pretty good ice cream, isn’t it?” 

They are going to say something

It might be anything from “No” to “That isn’t ice cream. I had an accident” to 

“Well, it was okay, but we had this Isaly’s in Wadsworth when I was growing up and my dad had just left us and the waitress knew the story and would give us a little extra because it was tough on my mom and everyone knew we didn’t have much and we’d get lunch for free sometimes too but what nobody knew was that Mom ran the Pain Clinic on Medina Street and was making money hand over fist but it was all in cash so we had to be careful, hee heh!”

Now…I did not have that conversation. I did, however, have one with an elderly-looking gentleman (who was actually younger than I am) who appeared unapproachable at first but quickly warmed up when we found a bit of common ground. He noticed the guitar pin on the Santana Mohican fedora I was wearing. It seemed he had played guitar for some time before turning to truck driving. My response to the truck driving information was, “You probably have driven more miles backwards than most folks drive forwards.” He liked that and proceeded to tell me all sorts of stories that were easy to remember because they were extremely interesting and for the most part probably true. I also encountered an individual who I have not seen for awhile and who I am convinced will develop notoriety as a serial murderer within the next five years. He may have started already and just hasn’t been caught yet. That is an entirely different story for another time. 

Circling back…I finished up my conversation with my new friend, said goodbye to my hosts and the guest of honor, and then sat in my car for several minutes while I recorded everything that I could remember of what I had heard and seen (yay, Easy Voice Recorder app!).  Everything, because that which might seem inconsequential and uninteresting on a Sunday afternoon might be of use the following Wednesday, in the same way that one might dual-purpose a screwdriver handle for a hammer, or use a party in general for a TKZ topic. 

Photo by Dallas Reedy from

I hope that your current weekend is as good as the one I had last week. In the meanwhile…have you ever overheard a conversation that developed into dialogue within your work-in-progress or provided inspiration for a new work? If so, where did it happen? Thanks in advance. 

Photo by Hedi Alija from

But wait, there’s more! I would be sorely remiss if I failed to note that TKZ’s Elaine Viets is named on the cover of the new Mystery Scene magazine (Number 168, Summer 2021) and contributes the article “My Book: Death Grip,” in which she discusses her new novel and dive bars. Congratulations all around, Elaine!


37 thoughts on “Get Thee to a Party

  1. Great column, Joe!

    And congratulations, Elaine!

    The most memorable conversation I ever eavesdropped on was when we were stationed in Japan. I was in the dressing room at the BX when I overheard a teenage girl in the next cubicle. She hated her stepfather and was plotting on ending his career. She was a wild child who had been allowed to run free until her mother recently married a master segeant. He was having none of that behavior. He actually expected her to go to school, study, and not stay out all night as she was used to doing. Oh the horror! Her plan was to tell everyone he had raped her, thereby ruining his career, getting her mother to divorce him, and leaving her free to run wild once again.

    When her friend said “But that’s not true” Wild Child said “Who are they going to believe, him or me?”

    I was chilled to the bone. I tried to get dressed and get out in time to spot her, but they were already gone.

    I haven’t used that yet, but I’ve often thought of them over the years. I prayed that Wild Child straightened up, Friend with a Conscience spoke up, and the brave man who married into that hot mess of a family emerged unscathed.

    • Cynthia, thank you for your kind comments and particularly for that chilling account which is also tragic and sad. You know that if the little she-demon got into trouble the first person she would run to would be her MSG. I wonder where her biological father was, and how she turned out. There are a number of potential stories there and I appreciate your sharing. That one is going to haunt me all day. And maybe beyond.

  2. I have and still am avoiding social gatherings. If we go anywhere and conversation with others ensues, the Hubster always says, “Be careful what you say. She’s a writer.”
    I do recall one time when a woman was checking her calendar (notebook variety, so it’s been a while), and she said, “Thursday? No, we have to take our cow to be butchered.” These are the kinds of conversations one hears up here in the boonies.
    Haven’t put that into a book yet, but since I’m working on a new Triple-D Ranch, it might find a home.
    Happy Saturday, and congrats to Elaine.

    • Happy Saturday to you, Terry! Thanks for sharing. That’s a great vignette. It might turn me vegan (very little chance of that, but…) but I’ll remember it.

  3. Great post, Joe!

    Congratulations. Elaine!

    I loved your advice for “socially-adverse” party attendees. That would be me. I love social gatherings with people I know. I freeze-up when it comes to making small talk with people I don’t know in large settings. My thought at those gatherings is, “What’s the point?” But, now I know. Collect ideas for dialogue, characters, and plot. I’ll be ready for the next ordeal. Do you suppose I could carry my notebook with me? Or maybe take along my Dictaphone? Heck, if I’m collecting ideas for my writing, shouldn’t the expenses incurred for attending the party be a business expense? I know, “Check with your tax consultant.”

    I can’t think of any good conversation I’ve overheard at a party that I’ve been able to use in a story, but this whole idea of “party with a purpose” has given me some ideas for plot in a WIP. I’ll send them down to the boys in the basement (my wife always says it should be “girls in the attic”).

    And maybe, this would be a good weekend to get out and follow some signs and balloons and crash a party – for business purposes, of course.

    Thanks for the great ideas, Joe. And have a wonderful weekend!

    • “Girls in the attic” made me think of Emily Dickinson… which might NOT be a bad thing… creatively speaking… ?

    • Thank you, Steve! While you may not have heard any usable conversations at a party, I bet that you have heard scads of them in your office and examining room…which, of course, you would be averse to using. I know the feeling.

      Have a great weekend following the balloons!

  4. Another good posting, Mr. H… and kind of you to offer the shout-out to Elaine (congrats, too, by the way, Ma’am…)

    I’ve often semi-eavesdropped and picked up bits-n-snippets of conversational lines that seem like good song-hooks, but not so much that I’d re-purpose them whole-hog (but edited, of course), into a story… though why not is a mystery to moi… I have plenty of opportunities on elevators and in corridors and during staff-beatings and such at the day-job, not to mention waiting interminably in check-out lines at the big-box… And with three lawyers in my immediate clan (brother and two sons), I can’t get a word in edgewise, so I might as well take/make notes, right? Plus, family gatherings with my father-in-law’s brothers are full of riotous tales of growing up country in what is now semi-urban Atlanta…

    But given the coming festivities (and feastings), around our youngest’s upcoming nuptials the opportunities to do just this will be many… especially given I don’t yet know most of the in-laws-to-be – yet…

    Seems my fields are full if I’ll just get to harvesting…

    Hope you’re having a joyful and joy-filled weekend, Sir…

    • Thank you, George. Re the upcoming nuptials…I at one point in my life spent a lot of time in a room on a professional basis with an extremely well know television personality known for presenting somewhat off-the-wall people in unusual circumstances. I learned a lot by observing him. When he was with a group of people in a social gathering he would be so quiet and still that he almost became invisible. He was ALWAYS listening. I am sure that the conversations provided fodder for some of his shows.

      Congratulations on your child’s upcoming nuptials! You should have enough material for a trilogy.

      Please have a great weekend as well, George. I am spoiling the granddaughter this weekend and letting her have a sleepover here, a sure sign of dementia. I plan to sit back, put the headphones on and play Greta Van Fleet songs until my ears bleed…

  5. Joe-
    You have me on edge about the potential killer- eager to hear that story.
    And congrats, Elaine!
    Regarding overheard conversations – a group of retired paramedics that I worked with in the capacity as an emergency physician for many years allow me to join them in occasional beer or coffee social gatherings. At one of these meetings pre-Covid the topic of “dignitary protection” duty came up. When a US president or other major official is in our city an ambulance and select paramedic crew is assigned to shadow the dignitary and respond to any emergent illness or injury.
    One veteran medic (Cory) had been on that detail for four different US presidents. I joined the conversation and said it must have been exciting to be so close to each of these world leaders.
    Cory explained they strategically maintained distance from the person being protected because “if we get shot or blown to shit” by an attack on the president they “wouldn’t be able to help anyone.”
    The matter-of-fact commitment and gritty authenticity of what Cory and others shared inspired me and became the starting point for my newest book (“Insurrection” released this week as noted in June edition of ITW’s e-magazine)
    Great post. Thank you, sir!

    • Thanks so much, Tom! And thanks for the advance copy of INSURRECTION, which I thoroughly enjoyed and devoured all too quickly. That’s a great and sobering story you told us and you used it to great effect in the book.

      Hope you are well, my friend!

  6. Congrats Elaine! I read “Dog Eat Dog” last night and loved it.

    As for my story, I sat in an ICU waiting room once between visiting times and eavesdropped on a nearby family. They were talking about the person in ICU and one of them said, “He’s crazy as a road lizard.” I did use that one once.

    On another front, a writer friend and I were at a restaurant brainstorming her latest book and a woman approached us and said, “You two are writers, right? You’re not fixin’ to kill nobody?”

    • Thanks for sharing the analogy and the conversation, Patricia. I had a somewhat different experience in a restaurant. A guy at the next table was telling some people a story involving questioning by torture. I thought for a minute or so that he was relating a personal experience until I realized that he was describing the famous scene in the movie True Romance involving Dennis Hopper giving some Mafia guys a history lesson. Gotta be careful!

    • I would imagine that a hospital waiting room would be a great place to hear conversations and listen to how emotion affects what people say, cuz if you’re in a hospital waiting room, you’re sure not there to party.

  7. Congrats, Elaine!

    Yes, Joe, in my WIP I’ve included an “overheard” conversation between two of my adult children. I overheard it in a text thread in which I was included, but didn’t contribute. They do that to me sometimes. When they were younglings, I had to stand outside the playroom door to eavesdrop. Now, I’m sort of an ex officio participant.

    The discussion in the text thread had to do with faith and how people sometimes don’t measure up to what they think others should measure up to…the whole hypocrisy thing.

    The essence of that conversation fit nicely into a scene toward the end of my WIP, a discussion between parents and two teenagers.

    All we have to do is listen… 🙂

    • Thanks, Deb. Text threads are great! I had one sent to me inadvertently a couple of years ago when a woman \ laid into her husband (a friend of mine) and his family for paragraphs and paragraphs without realizing that she had sent it on a group thread which included his family, her family, and his friends. Lawdy, Lawdy! There are STILL repercussions coming out of that one!

      Good luck with your WIP!

  8. Joe, you brighten my Saturdays. Thank you for being you. Now, let’s discuss this budding serial killer. Maybe you can get me an exclusive if he takes the plunge. 😉

    I’m constantly jotting down one-liners from the Coletta men. They’re hilarious. I’ve also been known to stalk…I mean, eavesdrop on conversations in the grocery store. Better yet, in Walmart.

    Wishing you an amazing weekend!

    Congratulations, Elaine!

    • Aw, Sue, thank you for being YOU! You’re easy to please.

      Maybe someday you’ll share those Coletta one-liners.

      Thanks again, and I’m wishing you an amazing day for every one that ends in ‘y’!

      • I’ve used them all. They’re scattered throughout my two series. One of the more recent one-liners is “the juice ain’t worth the squeeze.” I couldn’t get it into my WIP fast enough!

  9. My husband was career law enforcement. He had to transport a female prisoner across the state and no matron was available, so he asked me to go with him. I never go anywhere without small notebooks and several pens. During the trip, I scribbled furiously trying to capture everything I could from her almost non-stop, four hour tirade, much of which my hubs had to explain on the way home. I also learned why he needed a matron when the woman began peeling off her clothes because she was “being boiled alive” and had to get them away from her skin. Haven’t used any of it in my writing yet, but it was an interesting education.

    • Thank you for sharing, Becky. And please thank your husband for his service. People don’t understand what law enforcement personnel deal with on a daily basis. I’m sure that disrobing incident would get filed under the heading “Things you can’t unsee.” I’m glad you were able to preserve her soliliquoy, however!

    • My dad was a good friend with a county sheriff. One of the stories he shared was about transporting duty to the state mental institution for the criminally bonkers across the state. He said you can tell the police cars on this duty because their windows are open, music is blaring, and the car’s doing 90 with all the lights and sirens going. They do not want to hear what these crazies who appeared to be demonically possessed were saying.

  10. Joe, your posts always make my Saturday mornings more fun, and this one was no exception. I envy your memory for conversation–I rarely recall the words that were actually spoken, but rather what was conveyed or implied. The same goes for remembering a quote–it takes some work. Of course, that’s where pen and a paper can come in handy (or a smart phone’s note function 🙂

    I was pretty social pre-pandemic, but two months after being fully vaccinated, my socializing is with likewise fully vaccinated friends and family. The big social gathering of the week for me is Thursday night gaming in “the War Room” (a friend’s basement with two large gaming tables), where we’ve been playing out a Civil War battle with 15mm painted miniatures and terrain, just like old times. Some great conversational tidbits are tossed around, but with eight of us there, it can be hard to keep track.

    Thanks for another enjoyable post! Have a wonderful weekend!

  11. Dale, thank you so much for your kind comments. I really appreciate them. Sometimes just getting the implication can be enough. Enjoy your Civil War tabletop reenactments. I am amazed at how many people I know who quietly engage in that and similar activities, including the Avalon Hill games of old. Have fun!

  12. Love this post, Joe. But then I love all your posts so that’s nothing new.

    Congratulations, Elaine!

    I’m a lifelong serial eavesdropper, stuffing overheard conversations into my subconscious like a squirrel hoarding nuts. I rarely remember where I heard those bits and pieces or who said them but the line pops up when the WIP needs it.

    • Thanks so much, Debbie, you’re very kind. I feel the same, so back at you, fondly.

      I always eavesdrop in public. I sometimes have to resist the urge to ask someone else to dial it down a notch so that I can hear what is going on. Bad on me!

  13. If you want interesting conversations, go to writer or science fiction conventions. Most of us here have been at that restaurant table where mayhem was discussed straightfaced, and the neighboring tables look decidedly nervous. He he! A table full of romance writers can empty a family restaurant.

    The most interesting conversations I’ve heard which I would never, ever repeat was at a restaurant on the North Carolina coast near a major military base. Mom and I were at breakfast in a hotel where there must have been some kind of very big-wig meeting of the various military branches. High-ranking officers were scattered through the mostly empty restaurant, and, boy, were they talking about things that they really shouldn’t in those booming leader voices. This was pre-9/11 so I hope things like this don’t happen anymore.

    I also didn’t mention for many years that I saw a Stealth jet flying low and slow over the winter beach I was walking on at a time when the military said they didn’t exist. I imagine people who aren’t knowledge geeks would have called it a UFO because it was seriously freaking different from the standard military jets booming by.

    • Thanks, Marilynn. Agreed on the conventions. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, “You can hear a lot just by listening.”

      Re: the Stealth jet…I would be willing to wager that you might have wondered if you really saw what you saw. I was walking very late at night through a courtyard in a New Orleans hotel several years ago when an EXTREMELY large spider came out of the vegetation, saw me, and scuttered back for cover. It was so big that I initially assumed that I had imagined it. The next morning I heard someone else talking about it. Anyway, thanks for sharing.

  14. Thank you for your post, Joe, and for the shout out. I love to eavesdrop. My favorite moment was when I was in a “girly” restaurant, sitting in a pink booth. Behind me was a man with a strong country accent who said to a woman, “I can’t see you anymore. I promised my wife I’d spend more time with the children after I got out of jail.”

  15. You’re welcome, Elaine. Best of luck with the new book and the award nomination.

    Thanks for the great story involving the girlfriend of the month and the dad of the year. The setting makes this great story even better.

  16. Ah, Joe, your post and the comments have reminded me how I enjoy an afternoon of gentle eavesdropping somewhere air-conditioned. Bonus points if that place also serves homemade pie and hot coffee.

    Congratulations on the new article, Elaine. You’ve had a winner week all the way around!

    • Suzanne…that place, wherever it might be, sounds like a winner with or without the entertainment. Hope you find it soonest!

  17. Here’s a conversation collector: drive rideshare. As a driver you do not exist to the people in your backseat. The snippets of conversations can be priceless.

    • Thanks for the suggestion, Catfriend. That goes double if you are driving a group of teenagers. We are talking old-school Chesterfields: no filter at all!

  18. I so love the fact that you “make a beeline” to any loner in a crowd. As an ex-shy-person who used to hate parties and such, I now keep an eye out for anyone who looks a little lonely. This started when I began going to writers conferences (which can be notoriously clique-ish) and had no one but my sister to talk to. Now, if we see a newbie hanging on the perimeter, we always tell them to come join our table.

    Enjoyed the post; kudos Elaine! And yeah, it’s good to out among folks again. I don’t even mind all the traffic up here in our little town in northern Michigan. We’ve got a lot of “fudgies” in this weekend. That’s what we call our tourists. 🙂

    • Thanks, Kris! I hope to see you and Kelly at a conference sooner rather than later.

Comments are closed.