Pancakes with Pete

When MEH (My Engineer Husband) and I go to a restaurant, he says there’s a certain look I get on my face when I’m accidentally overhearing purposely listening to other peoples’ conversations.

We’ve been married a long time so he’s used to it, and he never gets annoyed—the truth is sometimes he’s as interested as I am—little known fact about MEH: he’s a snoop! (My kids aren’t always ever so understanding.) I say I have to do it—for one thing, I might hear something really important, like about an imminent danger, like a hurricane evacuation (we live on the coast, right?). 

But mostly? It’s a requirement for the job. I think it helps me write better, more realistic dialogue. And it certainly gives me fun things to write about (for example, this blog post).

So it was the other day when we went out to breakfast at our local café. As it turns out, our waiter Pete (I’ll call him Pete because that’s his real name) was someone I’ve gotten to know over time. He’s a gregarious fellow, Pete. And he always sits down to chat. In fact, last time we were there, when we first sat down, I scooched over to one side of the booth, joking with MEH that I was making room for Pete.

Indeed Pete sat down (if there’s room he does this with everyone, not just me) and had a long conversation with us about our menu choices. For instance, when we explained that in addition to what we were each ordering, we’d also share a “shortstack,” Pete shared his latest business idea: a restaurant with tables that rotate so diners can share meals…..a great idea, but I digress… onto the more important matter at hand… the listening…

As we were winding up our meal, having just one more cup of coffee, a couple sat down in the booth behind MEH (they were obviously “outer-staters”… one of the affectionate terms Mainers use for tourists “from away”). Pete approached them and sat.

“What can I get you folks?” Pete always has a big smile on his face.

“I’ll take the pancakes,” The woman said, perhaps only moderately taken aback that Pete was now seated on the bench seat next to her.

“Is that plain, banana-walnut, or blueberry?” Pete asked, going on to add: “The blueberry of course is the best choice here, being in Maine and all.”

“I’ll have the blueberry, because I am in Maine!”

“Great choice!” Pete happily agreed. “And what syrup would you like with those pancakes?”

“What syrups do you have?”

“Well, you can have the house syrup, that’s basically Log Cabin, from the bottle, or the maple syrup—that’s the one from the tree.” 

“We’ll take the maple. That’s the pure maple, right?”

“Oh, of course, from the tree!” Pete agreed. (At this point I wondered if MEH was also listening because I saw a small smile forming on his face.)

Finished with the woman’s order, Pete turned to the man. “And for you, sir?”

“What about your homemade oatmeal, what’s that?” The man asked.

“Well, that’s your oatmeal… in a bowl,” Pete said, forming a cup with his hands. “And you can add raisins or nuts, like the menu says.” 

“Oh, oh,” the man said, “real oatmeal.”

(Again, here I’m wondering if MEH is listening, as he was suppressing a laugh. I’m wondering if he’s wondering the same thing I am… what other kind of oatmeal is there?)

“Yes, it’s the real deal,” Pete said. “Is that what you’d like, sir?”

Unfortunately I never heard what the man ordered because just then MEH broke in….

“The line, Julia,” MEH said (hissed, really).

“Huh? Sssshhhh!”

I looked up and MEH was gesturing to go. We exchanged a glance—MEH knew I was listening—although this time I’m pretty sure the fact that I was furiously scribbling in my notebook gave me away.

“The line…” MEH said again, “of people…” 

I looked over toward the entrance. A line of people snaked out the door. I took one more sip of my now-cold coffee, looked reluctantly at Pete—his back still to us, chatting happily with the outer-staters—and got up to leave. 

As I walked away I heard the man ask what kind of muffins there were, and the beginning of Pete’s reply: “The blueberry is your best choice here, being in Maine and all…” and I couldn’t help wondering what other great dialogue of Pete’s I’d miss by leaving when I did.

Do you ever eavesdrop overhear listen in on other peoples’ conversations? Do you think it helps you write better dialogue? 




  1. Ann says:

    Oatmeal….you know in a bowl?! Oh, Julia…he’s a KEEPER!! Next time you see Pete, give him a hug from his Auntie Ann! That way, when I go up to Maine and order blueberry pancakes, I’ll know they serve oatmeal in a BOWL!

    OMG – I would have been GLUED to my seat! Positively glued….

    This was laugh-out-loud funny… made my day!

  2. Ann, So glad to help you start your morning with a laugh. Yes, that oatmeal in a bowl comment was hilarious! (Honestly, what will they think of next??) I can absolutely guarantee that Pete will be very happy to see you! (And I can’t wait for you to visit, either!!)

  3. I do listen to some conversations, but mostly I’m a people-watcher. I observe their behaviours (I tend to think it has something to do with me being a very visual/descriptive person). Dialogue just comes to me when I’m writing, but you can get some absolutely amazing mannerisms from listening to others’ speech. I also really enjoy a well-made film/anime that has realistic characters and dialogue from an assessing perspective, see what works, see what feels really forced or stilted. Pete sounds like someone well worth hanging out with. XD


  4. Cynthia Robertson says:

    Yes, I love evesdropping. Especially at work. My office is right beside the breakroom. You wouldn’t believe the stuff I’ve overheard.
    Writers are, by nature, observers of other people, I think. Goes with the territory. 🙂

  5. Oh, I’ve eavesdropped plenty, but I never had a notepad and pen handy to document everything. Often times, listening in on someone’s conversation has led to new ideas, rather than capturing specific dialogue. However, it’d probably do me good to jot down the conversation, as my biggest struggle with fiction is dialogue.


  6. Suddenly I’m hungry for pancakes! And, yes, eavesdropping IS part of the job requirement. And I’m going to keep on doing it. But I confess, I need to get more organized about it; jotting down on napkins, etc. doesn’t help, because then I can’t find them later! I recall one crazy line of dialogue that I just “HAD” to use in my novel, and I’ll be damned if I can find where I put it (It’s on a Word document … somewhere … in my computer… You know, I put it there “so I wouldn’t forget where I put it.”)

    Great post, as always, Writer Woman (think Wonder Woman superhero)!

  7. I eavesdrop all the time! My favorite was when my husband and I went to San Francisco. We were at a restaurant on the Wharf and two woman sat at the table next to us. One obviously did not want to be there, while the other kept talking on and on about her very particular tastes in things like yogurt and men. It’s amazing the things that come out of people’s mouths sometimes!

    Pete sounds like a real character!

  8. CMSmith says:

    Entertaining post as usual, Julia. When I was taking fiction classes, I used to do the same to collect dialog. It’s a great and helpful exercise. I got a lot of character descriptions that way too. I need to get back to that. It was fun.

  9. Nancy Kelley says:

    When I was at the coast last weekend, I overheard a customer ask the clerk which Mo’s (a seafood establishment)was the original. She gave the wrong answer, so I stepped in.

    “Oh, in Newport? We didn’t see it, but it was so busy we just drove through without stopping.”

    “I’m not surprised,” I said, pointing out the window. “It’s a beautiful Saturday.”

    “Is it? This is a bit windy, isn’t it?”

    “Well, yes… but it’s not raining and the sun is shining.”

    “Is it USUALLY like that here???”

    Um… this is the Pacific Northwest, ma’am. Yes. Yes it is.

  10. Ashlee, I also love watching and observing people! So I can definitely understand what you mean — and it’s so interesting you mention mannerisms, what a great way to pick up on them: by watching people!

    Cynthia, You are so right about the workplace being a good place to overhear things….or at Target, where I swear this morning I heard THIS from a man walking by, talking loudly on his cell phone: “Where is the bathroom, if I don’t find it soon, I’m going to p** my pants.” REALLY????? OMG. Do we need to know this? Yet, yes, here I go, writing it!

    Barb, I absolutely never leave home without a notebook — I’m not even joking… although sometimes now I use my iphone, either as a recorder or to type in a note on the notepad. I also once recorded my elderly uncle telling a story… (without him even realizing it!) PRICELESS!

    Melissa, Writer Woman here (really?… LOL) I know what you mean about getting more organized. I have notebooks upon notebooks of ideas and dialogue and then even more transcribed notes that I’ve typed up. UGH. I recently found a small notebook of “kid dialogue,” conversations with and overheard of my kids when they were little. SOOOO FUNNY! It is, as you say, however an organizational nightmare!

    Natalia, It’s so weird and funny isn’t it to hear some of the conversations people will have in public? (see comment above to Cynthia) My personal theory (especially about cell phones) is that some people are just exhibitionist in nature…. so difficult for those of us just trying to have a pleasant evening like you and your husband! (Especially when we can’t tear ourselves away!)

    Christine, Glad you enjoyed it! Honestly, listening to peoples’ conversations is quite entertaining and also greatly educational. I never thought of it as collecting dialogue, but that’s exactly what it is!

  11. Nancy, That’s priceless! You are braver than I — I usually am willing to listen but too introverted to chime in. Fun to hear and shape the comments first hand, though! Your story reminds me of one I told once before in this blog, so you may remember it: Sometimes Casco Bay (that we live on) is very very placid, even glassy and lake-like. When we first moved here, our realtor told us that he was driving an “outer stater” around who was looking for a house, and they were headed out to an island that was connected to the mainland via a long bridge. Our realtor friend said as they crossed the bridge, the outer stater asked: “What lake is this?” (Mind you the realtor had JUST TOLD HIM that they were going out to an island to look at properties….) too funny, just like the Pacific Northwest surprise!

  12. Love it! I don’t know how much I consciously eavesdrop, but I definitely pick up sayings and mannerisms from those I interact with, from relatives/friends to random people in stores and at gas stations. I particularly love listening to people from other countries– my BFF is from the UK and I cannot tell you how many great sayings I’ve gotten from her. I call them “Flora-isms.” And yes, I do steal them for my stories. 🙂

  13. Stephanie, So interesting that you pick up mannerisms and sayings from relatives/friends! I love the Flora-isms! One of my best friends was born in Germany and I LOVE her expressions. She’ll often say one then translates it back to German for me because she says it sounds so terrible when she says it in English. And I think needless to say, I steal those for my stories too…not to mention my friend’s lovely way of talking about her expressions!

  14. One of the best things about working in a school was getting to here my students (my target age group) talking. It really helped me keep my dialogue realistic. Observation is a great way to research. And “observation” sounds better than eavesdropping. 😉

  15. I love to listen to conversations when I walk along the beach. I figure they want me to listen because usually they speak way too loud. One day I heard a guy who was swinging his VERY young toddler on a swing. The father was on his phone when he said, “So how is the D-I-V-O-R-C-E going? I don’t know if he thought he was raising Einstein but I was pretty sure that kid couldn’t say Mama and Dada…let alone spell divorce. Totally cracked me up.

  16. Kelly, I can imagine the wonderful conversations you heard while working in a school! Honestly, that was one of my favorite parts about volunteering at my kids’ schools — listening to the other kids. As for the terminology, I gotcha, from now on it’s *observation* all the way 😉

    Annie, I agree, beach conversations are so interesting…. I think the same thing about grocery stores: these are definitely exhibitionist types! Or they think they’re way too interesting so of course we’re all interested! As for the D-I-V-O-R-C-E guy, that’s hilarious… 🙂

  17. Julia, I love this! It’s hysterical. I laughted out loud at Pete’s description of Log Cabin syrup vs. maple syrup from the tree.

    I wish I listened in on more conversations. I agree that you can get great material for writing. Unfortunately my hearing sucks. Really, it is my worst sense. You may have inspired me though. I kind of feel like going to a coffee shop and working on my listening skills. 🙂

  18. Sounds like we are ALL a bunch of snoops! 🙂 I actually think it is just human nature to listen in. I wish I could do it more but there is usually a drone going on at my own table and I can’t hear much else.

    How did you not giggle out loud? How did you not make faces at Pete as he was explaining oatmeal?! You have got to use that in your writing. Priceless.

  19. Jen, Glad you enjoyed this post — I have to admit we had a hard time not laughing at the syrup line from Pete, too! I’m sorry about your hearing…. but then I think you’re right to start at a coffee shop: close quarters make listening even easier!! (hint: start with people on cell phones, for some reason they talk really loud 🙂

    Hallie, Sometimes I tell myself it’s human nature to listen…. but there’s no doubt in my mind that I’m worse than others (my friends know “that look” too) 😉 I envy you your busy full loud table! As for how we didn’t giggle out loud? It was very hard not to make faces, but luckily Pete was sitting with his back to me! Beleive me, we were making faces!! 🙂 Glad you enjoyed!

  20. “Well that’s your oatmeal… in a bowl.”

    I had already thought this was hilarious, and then he cupped his hands. Magnificent! Love when people remain oblivious even in the face of thinly veiled sarcasm. Simple folk must know something.

    Anyhow, thoroughly enjoyed this post, which is the first of yours I have read. As to my eavesdropping, I do it sometimes, but only when it’s inane (such as the conversation in your example) and never when it’s running on high emotions of any sort. I think it helps with my writing, though I think heavily-stylized movies are the best source for tweaking your dialogue ear.

  21. Great post. As for eavesdropping? You bet I do! It is one of life’s great pleasures as a writer, don’t you think?

    One time, I was in a Starbucks, and these two guys, mid-twenties, sit down next to me. The one says to the other, “So I’m having a problem with monogamy lately.”

    Needless to say, I could not help myself.

  22. Lynn Benoit says:

    Yes, I eavesdrop too..this fun post makes me realize I must start taking notes…

    Gotta go and have some blueberries!

  23. Michael, I know, the cupping of the hands — what really did it. I had a very hard time keeping a straight face! So glad you enjoyed the post; so agree that any high-emotion conversation is no fun to eavesdrop on. I am going to check out the dialogue in some highly-stylized movies, as another resource, …. thanks for that great tip! Thanks for the comment & visit to my blog; nice to meet you!

    Karen, Glad you enjoyed the post; yes, listening and interviewing and observing — three of my favorite writer activities! As evidenced by the conversation you overheard, Starbucks is a GREAT place to overhear all kinds of crazy things! Thanks for the comment!

    Lynn, Yes, for me notetaking is the key — I can never remember later, try as I might. This conversation was much too priceless to not jot down, and I’m so glad I did! Thanks for your comment & visit to my blog, nice to meet you — and wish I could offer you some blueberries from my bush out back…. 🙂

  24. Susan says:

    I think it’s a writer’s duty to eavesdrop! We have to be observers of life if we are going to write realistically about it, so I don’t feel bad in the least. I’m just gathering material. Of course, I’m wondering what other writers are lurking around observing me. What story ideas have I given them? Hope they remember to change the names to protect the guilty! Great post, Julia!

  25. Susan, I like how you think: a DUTY!! Definitely so true. I never thought of other writers gathering information while watching *me*, however…. you’ve given me something to think about. Now I’ll need to start editing the dialogue as I SAY it. Great comment; glad you enjoyed the post! 🙂

  26. Erika Marks says:

    I love when I see your spots and know exactly where you’re talking about (without saying, of course–you actually got a table there!!? What’s your secret? Maybe not going on a Sunday morning in July?:))

    Let’s come clean here, all of us–I think writers ALWAYS eavesdrop–we love stories, we love characters, we love secrets, it’s just what we do! That said, I eavesdrop every chance I can:)

  27. Erika, I have to admit that is definitely adding fun to my blog — wondering if you’ll know the place I’m talking about 🙂
    That said, no we would never go to *that particular cafe* during tourist season except before about 7 a.m. (which it was!). Eavesdropping or observation, whatever we choose to call it, I AGREE it’s a MUST DO! 🙂 (p.s. where will I write about next? suggestions?)

  28. Lisa Ahn says:

    Julia, this is hilarious! I eavesdrop all the time, but I need to get better at taking notes, like you. Metros/subways are great for people watching, but restaurants and coffee shops are better for listening.
    (And now I’m also hungry for blueberry pancakes and real oatmeal . . . in a bowl.)

  29. Lisa, It was so hilarious to see it in person, so I’m glad I was able to capture the hilarity of the situation in this post! I agree that metros and subways are a great place for people watching, but you can only hear if the people are talking pretty loud (which can be obnoxious or scary!)… hope you were able to get ahold of some pancakes or oatmeal.. in a bowl 🙂