How Harriet the Spy took my writing to the next level

Recently I revisited an old favorite from grade school: Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. This classic children’s book stands out in my memory as one of the first books that made me want to be a writer. In case you aren’t familiar with the story, Harriet M. Welsch is a spunky sixth-grader with literary ambitions. Her New York City neighborhood was worlds away from my sedate corner of Midwest suburbia. I envied how she clutched her notebook to her chest and scribbled within its pages everything she saw, simply because she was a writer. She spied on her friends, family, and neighbors without shame.

I liked Harriet because she was my age, wasn’t as well-mannered as Nancy Drew, and, most of all, she had the chutzpah to crawl into a neighbor’s dumbwaiter to gather intel. Forget the realities of breaking and entering and juvenile delinquency. In my immature mind (which conveniently forgot the second half of the story where Harriet’s notebook falls into the wrong hands), I lamented the fact that nobody in our neighborhood had a dumbwaiter for me to explore.

If I called myself a writer, I theorized, I could listen in on people’s conversations. It wouldn’t be rude, no sir. It would be research.

Like Harriet, I was determined to fill notebooks with observations that might one day become a story that would shake the world. Unlike Harriet, I never seemed to have my notebook with me. I left it on my desk or under my chair or, heaven forbid, in the backseat of the family station wagon. It’s hard to reconstruct conversations if you can’t find paper and pencil. The last pages of my notebooks remained pristinely white because I had nothing to write about.  Eventually the Jiminy Cricket on my shoulder whispered that eavesdropping on strangers’ conversations was bad manners, so I dropped the habit and grew up.

In grade school, I didn’t know that peoplewatching and eavesdropping would make my writing better. As an adult, I think they’re two of the best tools in my writer’s toolkit.

If you’ve been writing for awhile or even if you’re just starting out, you may have heard that eavesdropping is a good way to tune into dialogue. It’s a classic bit of advice because you never know what strange turn of phrase might spark an idea.

For instance, it’s been a few years since I’ve spent time with preschoolers and my story includes a 3-year-old. How can I ensure that my character will feel like a flesh and blood toddler and not a toddler cutout that talks like a preteen? My friend has a child that age, so I hung out with the family for a few hours. Near my house is a playground that swarms with preschoolers several times a day.  I slow my pace and listen as I walk by, waiting to write any observations in my notebook as soon as I’m around the corner (I don’t recommend standing around the playground unless you want to be labeled as suspicious). Now my toddler character, even though it is not the main character, acts like a 3-year-old.  Observation and eavesdropping make your writing come alive.

Hanging out in a busy coffee shop is another way I keep my dialogue and characters fresh. I’m lucky enough to live in a tourist town and at certain times of the year, our historic area is filled with people from all walks of life and all corners of the world, making it a target-rich environment for an eavesdropping writer. Armed with my notebook and a caramel macchiato, I settle into a corner booth near the counter and open my eyes and ears. For as long as I can nurse that coffee and sugar bomb, I scribble down details about clothing, voice inflections, personalities, and, yes, dialogue. Sometimes the most intriguing dialogue happens when I overhear only part of the conversation.

“Do you think Rick will love me more when I die?”

“She said the party was Thursday. Think I can bring my weasel?”

“I’m tired of being touristy.”

Try being a fly on the wall, if that’s not already part of your writing routine. In the beginning, keeping tuned into the people around you might be a challenge. You might wonder if something is worth writing down (it doesn’t matter, write it down anyway). You might get antsy and your mind might wander. If you keep with the exercise, eavesdropping will get easier, observations will find their way into your stories, and your characters will thank you for your time.

Who knew way back in sixth grade that Harriet M. Welsch had the right idea? Now if I could find a house with a dumbwaiter….

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