“That’s an eagle. Aren’t eagles, like, America’s bird? Like, its top bird or something.”
“I’m done looking around. The only thing I want to explore now is my ham sandwich.”
“I wish I had earlids so I could stop listening. That would be the time of my life.”
These are some things I overheard while chaperoning my third-grader's field trip to Mystic Seaport. (The latter two are from my girl and 5-year-old boy, respectively.)
As a writer, I catch myself capturing snippets of conversation like Polaroid pictures, cataloging them for future use. A thirty-something mom writing in the point of view as a teenage boy or a fourth-grade girl has to work to keep dialogue authentic. So I steal it whenever I can.
Here’s an excerpt from my work in progress in which I stole bits of conversation from my son (for Scrappy’s dialogue) and reaction to said conversation (from Lucy, in first person perspective) from my daughter:
Scrappy sort of made me realize why April only talks in bursts. It’s really the only way she could ever be heard. The kid never stops talking. Ever.
“One time I played tennis. Guess what? Some guy at preschool said ‘buns.’ I told him buns are butts and he laughed. Sometimes I try to lie and I can’t. What are the things on roofs that aren’t chimneys? I had a nightmare last night.”
I realized my mouth was hanging open just like April’s.
“I heard you had a baby sister, Lucy,” April’s mom called across the table when Scrappy paused in talking long enough to swallow a mouthful of cake.
“Right now, she’s basically a lump,” I said.
“Lucy, I’m sure—“ But whatever April’s mom was sure about was cut short by Scrappy.
“My favorite color is orange. I’m going to be six someday. I’ll be a police. And I’m going to live in a barn with cats and a wife.”
“You’re allergic to cats!” I felt a little proud of April for getting a sentence in, even if it was in her annoying everything-with-an-exclamation-point way. “We’re all allergic to something!” And, almost like she planned it, she sneezed.
Scrappy tugged on my sleeve. “Pirates are for real. Did you know that? One time I bit my tongue and bleeded the color blood. Dogs love me.”
My mouth hung open again.
I don’t keep my thievery to just conversations, though. On this field trip, I also filed away how one kid wore bulky snow boots despite the muggy weather and smugly trudged straight through puddles while everyone else in sandals and sneakers sidestepped them.
I noticed how when it began raining heavily, some of the third-graders immediately and without self-consciousness put on ponchos, while another group refused to even pull up their hoods. This is the age where fitting in and looking cool seeps into decision making.
I know I’m not the only writer who steals situations and conversations for her writing. A friend of mine is always listening and observing.
Fellow writers, how do you keep your dialogue authentic?