What is it anyhow?
I'm inspired today by Kerry Madden's recent livejournal post about her Bug Man. I love how she hears what he says and translates it to the page. Even in a blog.
I hear voices all the time. In my head, reading, listening, talking—I’m surrounded by voices just like Kerry’s Alabama bug man.
But I type the V Word with great trepidation. Because I'm struggling with a voice I can't quite hear yet.
I’m speaking now of a character’s voice in fiction, how to nail it, why to bother. Everybody wants to understand it. Hardly anyone seems to be able to truly explain it. For some it comes as easily as breathing, and that may go double for anyone writing a voice we’ve heard since we first tried to talk.
The Voice Thing hit me this week when I was I shopping in a large, non-descript department store in New Jersey. (So you won’t think the good folks of my adopted state of New Jersey are all this boring, this was not Snooki’s or even Bruce’s Jersey. This was middle-of-the-state, filled-with-transplants NJ.)
Here’s a bit of that conversation:
Woman on NJ cellphone: The service was beautiful. The people were happy. The sun was too hot but we brought out folding chairs.
See, that's just so deadly dull I almost couldn't type it without "revising." I listened as long as I could to that woman in the department store. Long enough to find out she was the Preacher at that funeral. Some preachers are better at things other than speaking, I guess.
If I'd been eavesdropping in the Memphis Airport, a Jackson Piggly Wiggly, almost any other Southern place I've been in my life, the conversation would have sounded like this:
Woman on cellphone in the South: Honey, that service was just downright beautiful. You never saw such happy people. Uncle Joe looked like he could 'bout sit up and smile right out of that white satin lining the coffin. Uh Huh. Just beautiful, I tell you. But hot? Oh, lands, it was hot. And people- so many people. Had to pull out the folding chairs from last week's Dinner on the Ground so as to have a place for everybody. Didn't want them falling out from the heat, now did we.
If we depended on hearing voices like NJ Cellphone Lady to inspire us, I don’t believe anybody would read past paragraph one. Fortunately, most writers have better sense than to listen to lady preachers in the middle of a New Jersey mall.
I once heard esteemed editor—think Harry Potter— Cheryl Klein say “Voice is like air. You can’t do without it but nobody can explain it well.” (Or something close to that--I paraphrase!). The Voice is like air part made me sit up and listen. She’s written more than I can share and spoken about it often. But if you’re interested, click here for a quick run-down of some of her thoughts on Voice in fiction.
We Southerners might have an advantage when it comes to hearing characters. First off, we share a language filled with words that defy defining. Nobody has to lean on dialect or improperly spelled words to convey the rhythm and sound and flavor of Southern speech. In fact, I mostly hate when that happens, don’t you?
At her website at USADeepSouth.com, my writer friend Beth Jacks maintains an exhaustive list of words and phrases her readers tap into, comment on, and add to. Words long gone from contemporary speech most places. Corporosity and nary. Fixing to (wait, that one’s still in my vocabulary!). Swaney. A whole host of food items folks outside the South might not understand, including my own favorite road food: Nabs (No, that’s not somebody grabbing you.)
My own list of Southern Speak is endless, even after I’ve lived in the north most of my grown-up life. Words swirl around me like those Sunday dinner-time stories of my childhood.
When it came time for a character in my forthcoming novel for kids, set in Mississippi where I was “born and raised” to speak, and she said “Pure-D good” (try to get that one by a Yankee editor…) and doodlebugs and a lot of other things that sounded just right, I heard it so plainly her Voice just tumbled out.
I heard it because that’s all I knew growing up. But how do writers who’ve never lived in a place manage to nail the characters voices?
I asked my writer friend Kimberley Griffiths Little, whose second middle-grade novel, set in the Louisiana Bayou country has just been published, how she did it. How she wrote so well of that place when she’s from the opposite side of the country.
Having an emotional core about a particular character or situation that is driving us to write that story will bring out the passion and natural voice that we possess. It’s easier to lose the self-consciousness writer within us when we are passionate about our topic… When I first visited Louisiana thirteen years ago, my heart pounded in a way it never had before. I instantly felt the power and the magic of the bayou/swamp country. I returned again and again, read everything I could get my hands on, visited every small town between Lafayette and Thibodeaux, museums, graveyards, old homes, researched at the State University, talked to folks in shops and restaurants and on the street, and ventured deep into the wilds.
I wrote with love and passion and authenticity... It took patience. But all good things do, and they are always worth it.
It’s tempting here to roll to the grand finale of this piece by saying something I hear in my head a lot. An English teacher of mine used to end almost every poem she read aloud to our class with “Truer words were never spoken.” She’d pause and look up to a ceiling glowing with fluorescent lights as if it were the Good Lord in heaven. If I ever create a character like that, I have her nailed. She’s in my head. Her short, punctuated sentences. Her eye rolls, her hand-over-ample-breasts sighs, her earrings—even her desk filled with books lined up in perfect rows. And her distinctive voice.
But I think Kimberley’s onto some true words. All good writing takes a lot of
patience and hard work, among many other things. I imagine Kerry’s patiently turning over that Bug Man’s stories, listening to his voice in her head till he’s ready to spring forth on the page.
We all hear voices. With a capital V.
And for writers, that’s a good thing.
Truer words were never spoken.
AUGUSTA SCATTERGOOD reads and reviews books, works hard at perfecting her craft, and is eagerly anticipating the debut of her first middle-grade novel, GLORY BE, coming in January from Scholastic.
But right this minute, she's working hard at hearing voices.