Such a Voice as That!

suchavoiceasthatIf you’ve ever heard my mom sing, you’d recognize her voice every time she blats out a song. It’s that unique. She brays, she’s loud, off key, flat, out of tune. Even the resonance of the shower stall does not improve her voice, and singing lessons would be about as useful as a water filter in the middle of the Sahara. Mom sings with gusto, like she can’t wait to get the words scraped out of the back of her throat and into the silence around her. Yet despite the fact that Mom has an absolutely awful voice, it’s truly a delightful experience to hear her sing because she exudes such joy of music. She beams, she glows, she bubbles with joie de vivre. Everyone who hears her sing cringes, but no one tells her to shut up because it’s fun to listen to someone create musical triumph out of singing so poorly.

Mom’s voice is so distinctive that everyone recognizes it. It’s terrible, yes, but distinctive. No one wants to sound like Mom. Except you, Writer, you really do want to sound like Mom. Distinct. You want your reader to grab your book and declare, OMG, it’s another exciting, wonderful book from Storyteller, the writer whose voice sounds like no other! Can’t wait to get my hands on it.

So exactly what is this business of writing voice? You know about the other aspects of writing: plot, character development, pro- and antagonist, conflict, suspense, crises, setting, time period, and imperfect heroes. You’ve got down grammar, spelling, sentence construction, dialogue, cliff hangers, and secondary plots. But voice – how do you define writing voice? It’s often linked to dialogue, though as unique as speech may be – Southern drawl, Hawaiian pidgin, or Yiddish inflection – it’s more than the slant of a character’s words. Voice shows up consistently, even without dialogue to drive it forward. It’s what happens when the way the words are slung together engages the reader as much as the suspense or mystery that imbues the story. The author owns voice.

John Kennedy Toole’s posthumously published comedy, A Confederacy of Dunces, exhibits a voice like no other. The story is told mostly through the character of Ignatius J. Reilly, a rotund ne’er do well who lives with his mother in a rundown neighborhood of New Orleans. Read the opening paragraph of the story:

A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs. In the shadow under the green visor of the cap, Ignatius J. Reilly’s supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at the D.H. Holmes department store, studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress. Several of the outfits, Ignatius noticed, were new enough and expensive enough to be properly considered offenses against taste and decency. Possession of anything new or expensive only reflected a person’s lack of theology and geometry; it could even cast doubts upon one’s soul.

Who is this audacious character who exemplifies the worst fashion taste and yet seeks to criticize it in others like someone who doesn’t notice the toilet paper tailing from the back of his pants? It’s Ignatius, and his personality never improves. You might read only that first paragraph today but the author’s voice is so unusual and identifiable that, read another paragraph a hundred pages and two years hence, you’ll still know it: the raucous and farcical humor of A Confederacy of Dunces. It isn’t just the dialect or even the antics of the bumbling inhabitants of this forlorn part of the city. It’s that each character remains true to his internal compass, however skewed the arrows might be. Toole guides the reader through a New Orleans we’d all be loathe to visit in person but we bask in his words as he relates the hijinks of this motley group of social rejects. Readers who savor Dunces are in love with his original voice.

Voice must feel authentic and true to the story. Juliet and Romeo were doomed from the start, their love too sweet to survive the family feud. Readers sense from Shakespeare’s first line, Two households, both alike in dignity, that no dignified end bodes for the lovers. The Bard mastered voice in everything he wrote, and his audience remains loyal.

Stretch voice too far and a story, however clever and inventive, will read as unbelievable. It’s the lack of a sure voice that allows a character to do something counter to his nature. We’ve all thrown down a book as betrayed by a voice that’s wandered too far out of range. Disconnected or fragmented voice is not a new entity to you if you’re a member of a writing critique group or a lower division college class. Stop rolling your eyes – sometimes it’s your own voice singing off key.

Voice has history, and history must be honored. No matter how toothsome he looked in her Grandmother’s bonnet, Little Red Riding Hood’s Big Bad Wolf had to con the girl into settling onto his dinner plate. He was a wolf, after all, and wolves eat children, so the Grimm story goes. Any alteration to the original tale must provide insight into Wolf’s psyche. The reader must believe he has sincerely opted for pea soup instead of red meat. The writer must show that Wolf was understandable after all, his appetite for chewing up children based on his miserable childhood and the bullies that tried to eat him. All he ever really wanted was a friend willing to chop veggies with him when all he ever got was bigger wolves tenderizing his tail. That could be a credible voice as well, more heartrending than the original fairy tale. Yet it isn’t the change in outcome that showcases voice. It’s the tone and method of story presentation. A consistently distinguished voice can reveal poor abused Wolfie – not the big baddie everyone thought him to be, just a frightened pup in a shaggy costume. Ahwoo-o-o-o.

OMG, you hear that? You’d know that sound anywhere. That’s Mom singing off key. There’s a place for such a voice as that!

 

 

 

 

 

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Point Lobos to Character Development

Last October my wife and I took a day trip down to Point Lobos State Park which is just south of Monterey Bay on the California Coast.  This is typical northern California shore line with rocky cliffs, a few sandy beaches and the waves of the Pacific constantly eroding and reshaping the land.  We love walking next to the power of the sea and taking in the magnificent views of the ocean with its birds, sea lions, sea otters and other wild things.

It’s a place where I draw inspiration, a place where my mind can relax, and just breathe in creative energy.  While the point is largely a nature reserve, there is some history in the place.  Prior to the arrival of Europeans, indigenous people known collectively as Ohlone lived in the area, with Point Lobos being a spring and summer village site.  Earlier Spanish expeditions would have sailed past the point in the 17th and 18th centuries on their travels to explore Alta (upper) California and establish the mission system. The City of Monterey, which was the capital of Alta California under both Spanish and Mexican rule, is just a few miles north of Point Lobos.  From the 1860’s to about 1880 it was used as a whaling station and during the annual migration, boats would launch from there to hunt whales.  Later abalone divers took up residence for many decades.  By the 1920’s the point was well on it’s way to being a state park.

Walking the trail on one of the western cliffs and looking far out to sea, I imagined an early Spanish expedition sailing past and deciding to land in whaler’s cove to get fresh water and perhaps hunt for some food.  What would it be like to row in a small boat and land on that sandy beach in an unexplored land?  What would I find? What kind of people would take such an expedition?

Those were the questions I asked myself and after a bit of thought, a bit of google research, I wrote a simple short story titled, “Miguel.”  You can find this story on my blog at these links: part 1 and part 2.  It’s not an award-winning story and it’s far from a complete tale.  I’ve thought of spinning this into a larger historical novel.

A recent Writer’s Circle post, Inspiration for Characters got me thinking about how I came up with two of my characters and how I decided how they would react in the story.

First let me state that many of the details in my little story are likely wrong, like what kind of boat they used, the ranks of officers and other details.  I didn’t spend much time researching those. I did put some thought into Miguel and his friend, the Priest.  For the purpose of the story, I needed a soldier who would likely be sent ashore to hunt and an authority figure who would actually talk to Miguel.  A Catholic Priest seemed like a possibility.

In each case I needed to know some things about the characters so I would have an idea how they would react to the situations they were in.  First I thought of a history for each.  I know from history that Spanish soldiers weren’t always recruited from the best of society and thought that it might be good that Miguel had a little criminal in his past.  My real life model for this was a teenage boy I knew in high school, who at age 17 got arrested for drunk driving and wrecking a couple of cars.  Since he was about to turn 18 and no one was injured in his escapades, the juvenile justice system at the time was willing to make a deal and the young man found himself “volunteering” to join the Army and promising not to return to town until he’d earned an honorable discharge.

I did see this guy one more time a few years later and what I recall is some of the basis for Miguel.  As far as I know he made a career of the Army.  That is one part of Miguel’s inspiration. That along with what little Spanish I know helped me form a picture of a soldier recruited in Spain who joined to avoid confrontation with the authorities and who was just enough of a smart ass to get himself into minor trouble.

The priest in my story is a composite of a Catholic priest I knew as a teen and a few Methodist preachers plus the character Cadfael from the TV series starring Derek Jacobi.  Okay, I’ve only seen a couple of Cadfael episodes and didn’t really like it, but one thing I liked about Brother Cadfael was that he was a soldier before becoming a monk.  I wanted a priest that had some worldliness about him and wasn’t just a scholar or religious person.  I wanted someone who could identify with the crew because he’d been one of them and yet someone who the ship’s officers must respect because of his status as a priest.

As a teen I went on a retreat that was led by a Priest, who I’ll call Father Bob.  It was a spiritual development retreat (and no, I am not a Catholic and most of us who went weren’t).  Father Bob was a character.  He had great stories, was easy to talk to and yet had a deep wisdom that just easily flowed without sounding pretentious.  He also had his faults and past problems. Once, a few of us younger folks were outside in a garden talking during a break when Father Bob walked up.  He greeted us and put his arms in the sleeves of his robes.  I was expecting a lecture when instead he removed his arms producing a cigarette and a lighter. After lighting up he said, ”I needed a break too.  Anybody got a radio? I’d like to find out who won the Giants game.”

That’s my priest, an ex-soldier and a scholar who managed to get ordained and walks with both the elite and the commoners and isn’t afraid to break a few rules.

When you need a character for a story, think about people you’ve known and take the parts you need.  Then put them together to fit the needs of your story. With a little thought, you’ll come up with some interesting ones.

Keep writing!

I Know the Guy in the Green Shirt

GuyInTheGreenShirtI know the guy in the green shirt because I birthed him. I named him Harvey Kipp. Harvey grew from the sparking nebula of my mind and entered my story fully grown, page 176. He’s based loosely, loose as in wouldn’t fit in a classic dictionary entry, on several boys from my high school. None of them paid me any attention at all so I was in the perfect lurker’s position. I could stand in any hallway and spy on the louts, watching their hands play grab arse with the girls, noticing their leers as others walked by, spotting their wicked hand gestures to each other indicating how high they’d scored. Didn’t matter whether they’d actually scored anything, it was their male mythology and the braggadocio that mattered. Old story of course, naughty teenage boys who likely grew up to become men worrying about the next generation of naughty teenage boys with eyes on their daughters. Twenty-five years will put that kind of wisdom on a person.

I listened to the Harveys in class as they showed off their mediocre interest in the scholastic aspects of high school and repeatedly asked the teacher annoying questions meant to steer the class off track. I grunted when they distracted everyone from a meaningful discussion of Jonathon Swift’s Modest Proposal by suggesting their own immodest proposals and generating laughs from fellow high school cretins. Sitting quietly in the second row afforded me a good view and acoustics for the daily procession of intelligence taking a back seat to arrogant bravado. So when I needed a memorable but loathsome character for my book, I had many doofusses to choose from and created an amalgam I named Harvey Kipp.

I get a bit bleary eyed when writers claim they allow their characters to tell them how they feel or what they plan to do. How’s that possible? A figment of one’s imagination giving directions – that’s fodder for the loony bin, folks. The people with clip boards start hanging around, making notes about your conversations, measuring time lapses between your wacko claims. Then they begin to approach you with syringes and long white jackets. Time to fess up, admit you’re a writer, the person you’re talking to is a character you fabricated. Whew, clip boards walking away. Isn’t that a nice change of direction?

However, Author Doe, I don’t think you’re really on the registry for admission to Far Country Psychiatric Residence if you talk this way. I just think you’re using the wrong metaphor for your act of creativity.  Unless you’re actively engaged in plagiarism, or if you write non-fiction, everything you write is an invention. It’s made up by you, you wordsmithing genius of the writer’s guild. So take credit and say in a proud voice, “Sibley Sussexford carjacked the Mercedes because I wrote her committing the crime.” Don’t tell me she talked to you, explaining she had criminal tendencies and loved to drive the fancy cars she couldn’t afford. Don’t tell me you watched her crack the window and hotwire the ignition and had to write what you witnessed. You made it up and it’s all good that you did.  Makes for a fun jaunt down the freeway with six highway patrol cars trying to round robin Sibley into a catchable corner.  And you made up that as well, even if you’ve watched a thousand freeway car chases on the five o’clock news.

Don’t attempt to convince me about Sibley’s self-sufficiency by her unbidden presence in your dreams, an independent haunt out to hijack your sleep. She shows up perhaps in your nightlife, but not mine, not your neighbor’s, because she’s a figment of your imagination, whether you’re awake or asleep. If she could manifest herself to you without your internal Ouija board beckoning her, I have to ask why she’d pick someone who drools and snores in their sleep when she could more happily inhabit my pristine and dainty evening slumber? Oh slobber and snort all you will, Sibley would recognize better lullaby digs were she able travel anywhere outside of your head. Alas and alack, she’s brain locked in your cranium, wallowing in your obsession with your book. I know because Harvey sometimes nudges me in mine. Believe me, if I could get Harvey to move over and make room for Sibley, I would. The guy’s a gorilla-handed lummox, and he isn’t any nicer because I didn’t make him Mr. Nice Guy.

The reason you can write about Sibley Sussexford and I can write about Harvey Kipp is because of all the actual, identifiable humans you and I have observed and interacted with down here on the blue planet. It’s our multiple experiences with real folks that allow us as writers to depict a three-dimensional person who carries the genetic code we wrote for them. Be proud of your imaginative mind. Take credit for your innovations. Tell it like it is: Sibley Sussexford never did a thing you didn’t direct, because you’re a writer. It’s one of your best assets.

The Importance of Eyes

A garden, full of sweet basil in the summer, now tall, lean stalks, stand rigid against the wind along the south end of the backyard fence.  The wind, cold, it’s March.  Fuzz in the corner where that south fence meets the edge of the back of the garage, a mixture of pet hair and cotton and insulation wound around grass, torn gum wrappers.  The backyard is part cement, part lawn, unattended to, lazy.  Pieces of concrete lay alongside the seams, irregular shapes balancing on wide faces don’t move with the wind, consistent, and would be frightening if it was fall and the trees were dropping leaves and neighborhoods were getting quiet earlier with the quicker sunset and this wind might howl and find its way through stitching.  The man thinks of this, leaning on the inside of his back door frame, the door open, swinging while it catches the wind, hinges whining.  He remembers Halloween winds, how they felt conjured, part of a enormous outside haunted house, created for effect, controlled and penetrating, encircling and encompassed while lonely all at the same time.

Or,

The man thinks of this, leaning on the inside of his back door frame, the door open, swinging while it catches the wind, hinges whining.  He remembers Long Island from his parents’  photo albums, the ones filled with images taken during the Junes and Julys, how it looked like what he thought vacation ought to look like and, then, feeling almost cheated by the cold tumbling off the water in early spring, his first time there, visiting his father a few years after first seeing those pictures, pictures taken when his parents were visiting that same beach together.

Or…

Well, your choices as a writer are endless.  The key is to not miss the opportunity the utilize your characters’ proximity to an event and how they run that event through their minds, through their own filters in order to help the reader realize how that character, those characters are feeling.  Take a simple situation: A woman sitting on a car hood watching a sunset.  You, as the writer, have a visual and feeling about that sunset.  A reader will, too.  What you have to do, though, to move the story properly, to flesh characters properly, to drive plot well, is to spend time amplifying the impression made on the character who is there.  So think of that sunset and describe it through the eyes of a character that just lost her husband but don’t mention the loss of the husband.  Think of that sunset and describe it through the eyes of a character that just got released from jail but don’t mention the jail release.  It’s tough to be disciplined enough to remove the “you” from the parts of the story where you don’t belong.  It again comes down to practice and then, trust.  As writers we are witnesses and have to bring the news to our readers.  We just have to be sure that we’re reporting the honesty of the moment as the character gives it to us.

Worlds Defining Characters

I find it almost ironic that my first post on Today’s Author is on a subject near and dear to my heart: Building believable worlds.

However, it isn’t just the world I want to discuss, but the characters who live on them. The cultures of the world, the scope and expanse of a world are all important. How does a world define our characters? Earth has gone a long way to define us as a race. We are defined by the locations we live. Those of us who live near oceans or rivers have learned to fish. Those of us who live in the desert have adapted to the heat and the dry winds. Those of us who live where snow falls eight months out of the year have adapted to the cold. Our cultures are defined by the world we live in, whether we like it or not.

Imaginary Places, Imaginary Friends…

I’m not going to talk about the real world. I’m going to talk about Alskoran, a world of my own creation, the world depicted in the map at the top of this post*. (Yes, I drew it. More on that later.)

Alskorans is a continent divided by conflicting cultures and people. It doesn’t look that way from this view. It just looks like a bunch of lines defining where people live. Surely that can’t make that much of a difference, can it?

It can, and it does. I’d like to call your attention to three places on the map. You can’t see it from this angle, but take a look at the Rift. If you were to consider the real world compared to mine, the Rift is like the big brother of the Grand Canyon. The really big brother of the Grand Canyon. So big, it takes the best horses in the world more than two weeks to navigate the canyon trails to go from the top to the bottom. It is a dry, hostile place, with a great river cutting through the depths of the ravines. Danar, to its north, is a desert wasteland. He who controls water controls life.

These two places have drastically different cultures. The people of the Rift live and die by the quality of their sturdy horses and their skills riding them. The river offers them life, and it may as well be a God to them, because they don’t believe in Gods. Life and death are constantly at battle with one another, and the people have evolved to handle this fight very well. The Danarites, on the other hand, have a very strong belief system. Their Goddess provides water, and water means life or death to them.

The people of these two locations, although very close to each other in geographic terms, are drastically different. Horses are rare to the Danarites. The Rifters are the premier horsemen of the continent. The Danarites live in a place similar to Death Valley on the west coast. Horses can’t really survive there. The ones that do survive belong only to the elite, because they’re the only ones who can afford to water them. Without horses, their trade is limited. In Danar, they are a self-sufficient people, suspicious of anyone who isn’t them. The Rifters live in an equally harsh terrain, but in the depths of their canyons, there are grasslands and fodder for their beloved horses.

All of these things are due to where they live.

Then there is Kelsh, which is to the east of the Rift and south and east to Danar. Unlike Danar, it is a fertile land, with forests and lush farmlands.

Resources are at the root of the ongoing conflicts between Danar and Kelsh. No one remembers what triggered the ongoing feud between the peoples of the two regions, but the conflicts have developed to a point it is almost genetic in nature.

Their cultures have evolved to account for this ongoing dispute.

Location, Location, Location…

Location plays a huge part in defining culture. Whether you’re building a fantasy or science fiction world, understand how the location of your people changes the culture of your people. If you want a people to behave in a certain way, you need to account for that in their lifestyle. Cultures are formed because of necessity. Cultures evolve for many reasons, including an easing of lifestyle, luxuries, and religion. Trade can change cultures, as the people learn about how other people do things. Immigration really changes things. There is a reason America and Canada are referred to as mixing posts and salads in the cultural community. When you put a bunch of different cultural groups together, the lines separating the cultures will eventually blur.

So, how do you build a realistic world, a realistic people, and a realistic culture?

Start with understanding the world your characters live in. Your setting shouldn’t just be a place your characters stand on as they do the things they need to do. The best stories include the world as a character. Sure, the world doesn’t (often) have lines, but it’s always there. It’s a huge factor in the behavior of your real characters. Yet, time and time again, I read books where the world is nothing more than a cardboard cut out. It’s left with no depth, no realism, and no vibrancy.

Understanding Your World

If you want to build strong characters, start by building a strong, vibrant world. Even if your story takes place on Earth.

What? That doesn’t make sense! I can almost hear the questions now: Why do I need to develop Earth? We all live here! We know what living on Earth is like! That’s a waste of my time.

It’s not. Seriously. It’s not. Unless every story you ever write takes place in your home town featuring people you know, you need to research. If you live in Manhattan and want to write about someone living in Boston, you better do your research. New Yorkers are used to streets that make sense. Bostonites? They can navigate their way through a rubberband ball. They have to. Their streets are more convoluted than the typical mirror maze. I’ve been there once as a driver, and the idea of going back scares the liver out of me.

Boston’s confusing roads have become a part of their culture. The people have adapted to them. If you’re writing about Boston, and you’re from New York, you may forget this tiny little detail that impacts the life of a person from Boston on a daily basis.

Boston grew in a different way than New York. That history has stuck with the people of Boston. It has defined a different culture than its southern neighbor. Boston and New York, while both American Cities, are nothing like each other. I’ve had the pleasure of being guests of both cities, and how much they differ is absolutely amazing to me.

If you want to write about Earth, you need to know what you’re writing. You don’t just need to know the modern setting, but the history of the setting as well. It really makes a big difference on making the city feel alive. To making your setting feel real.

To skip across the ocean for a moment, this is one thing JK Rowling got right with her Harry Potter series: She made England feel real. She gave it a history. She gave it a culture. Then, she changed it up on us. She made it a place easy to imagine, easy to relate to, and then she gave it a feel of England.

That takes a great deal of skill. To write in such a way where a setting feels nature, a writer has to understand the location and its impact on the people living there.

Your setting is a character, and it’s one of the most important characters you have. You develop your living, breathing human characters (or non-human, as the case may be) but many don’t take the time to really understand the world their characters are from.

Sure, you may have an idea for the type of character you want to create, but how did that person become the type of person they are? A person born and raised as a slave isn’t going to take to independent thought easily. It’s nurtured for them to be anything but independent, self-reliant, and bold. Someone who was taken to be a slave in the middle of their lives is a different story. Understand how your culture and world will develop your characters.

If you need a real-life example of this, consider North America versus China. The way Americans and Chinese view the world is completely different. A good first step is to study real cultures, real people, and identify why the stereotypes of these cultural groups exists. Then, use it to your advantage.

Bringing a World to Life

The hardest part is bringing a world to life. Ironically, you do this through your characters and their interaction with the world. Just as the world defines the characters, the characters in turn define the world. For example, a culture with high water needs may build a dam. This changes the nature of the world around them, while the changes to the world also change how the characters react to each other, trade, and so on.

We can argue about the chicken vs egg situation all day long, but one simple fact remains: A great book has both characters and setting.

After all, we don’t just call Tolkien’s work “The Lord of the Rings.” No, we imagine ourselves as revisiting Middle Earth.

And Middle Earth is more than just the people. It’s about the places. What would The Lord of the Rings be without Mount Doom? Without Mordor? Without The Shire? Each of these places has culture unique to them, and that’s a huge part of why so many of us love Tolkien’s novels. We’re not just told about places, we’re taken there.

When you start writing your book, or even as you continue it, don’t just think of your setting as a cardboard cut out. Instead, view it as your most important character: The character who defines the lives, the motivations, the traits, and the customs of all of your key players.

Your world may not have lines, but it plays one of the leading roles.

* A Side Note about Maps: I draw maps, including cultural boundaries, kingdom lines, and terrain types as a way to help me define my world. This exercise is important to my process, though I don’t expect many people take it to quite the extremes I do. It does help me make my cultures feel a little more authentic, however. And it helps me see what characters see when they look at a map.