Voice Lessons

By June 9, 2006Writing

You’re trying to write the GAM (great American novel), but you can’t concentrate. Why? Someone in an adjacent room sits clicking through Viagra ads. The surfing stops and you hear an announcer say something about a family network. When the commercial ends, you’re pretty sure you recognize the British-accented voice that’s saying, “spit-spot,” and “practically perfect in every way.” It has to be your favorite nanny.

The clicking resumes.

Now another nanny’s voice grates through the walls with a Jersey “Oh-h-h-h, Mr. Sheffield!” followed by a snorty little snigger.

Next thing you hear, Tony Soprano’s asking, “How you doin’?” before ordering calzone. Capisce?

The time you’ve lost may actually help you write better if you focus on how spoken voice is to TV what written voice is to novel-writing. “Voice” shows up in each character’s use—or non-use—of accent, pet phrases, favorite subjects, metaphor, slang, vocabulary, contractions, sentence structure, and even sheer quantity of words.

Maybe we can’t learn “voice” from books when it comes to music, but we surely can when writing the GAM.

One such “voice teacher” for me is Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. Adah’s character toys with palindromes and has funky diction peppered with phrases such as, “Walk to learn. I and Path. Long one is Congo.” Ruth-May uses words such as “a-struttin’,” while Leah likes to say “smack.” She might exclaim, “We were smack in the middle” or “He walked smack-dab into that door.” Each character has her own pet subjects and vocabulary words. One daughter obsesses over her appearance. Another focuses on what her father thinks. What each chooses to talk about, or even think about, is as important as how she speaks. The reader knows who’s talking without needing dialogue tags because of the combination of speech factors that identify each character.

In Dickens’s Great Expectations, if someone says, “Something is about to turn up,” we can be fairly certain it’s Mr. Micawber.

How this “voice” info translates to medical thrillers for me: A genius doc who speaks English as a second language rarely uses contractions. And his metaphors? He leaves it to the botanist to say, “She turned pale as a lily,” and chooses for himself, “She turned white as gauze.”

For the doc obsessed with research, words rarely veer far from petri dishes. But the antique-bottle collecting doc weaves eBay-speak into his conversations (“A ‘sniper’ nabbed it at the last minute”).

As I write this, I’m sitting in the Denver airport fixin’ to catch a plane to Yankee Country. Oregon, to be precise. (Now, I know Oregon was hardly involved in the Civil War, but anything north of the Red River is Yankee Country. Any Texan will tell you that.) I’m scheduled to sign books in the Coffee Cup Bible series tomorrow (Saturday, 10:30–12:30) in Canby benefiting the Pregnancy Resource Center there. Join me if you can.

When I write a character with an unusual voice, I have to restrain myself. Just a hint here and there reminds the reader without turning character into caricature. Here’s overdone:

Y’all, I’m sittin’ in this hea-h Denvah airport fixin’ to catch me an air-o-plane to the northlands of Yankee country. Goin’ to Oregon, dontcha know.

If I were to maintain that voice for an entire book, my Texas readers would say, “That Glahn woman has a big ol’ gap in her mind—bless her heart.” And my British readers? They’d likely reserve “mind the gap” for tube rides and condemn my excess with a one-word pronouncement: “Pity.”

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