In a good story all the characters have their own voice. Just like us, they’re all individuals and they’ve each got their own mannerisms – including how they speak.
But putting their words down in the way that we, as authors, want them to sound is a darn tricky process.
I was thinking about this because last night I went to a British Council training session for people (like me) who teach English as a foreign language (EFL).
As in most jobs, EFL teachers tend to stick to certain routines. We teach vocabulary and grammar and then we help students string it together so they can read and speak English. But what about listening?
One of last night’s speakers, Richard Cauldwell from Speech In Action, used the analogy of greenhouse and garden to talk about how we teach learners of English. In the greenhouse, we teach them individual words, including spelling and pronunciation. In the garden, we mix them up with a bit of grammar and intonation to form pleasing patterns.
Such as: ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’
We teach students how to say the words – with a little lift at the end to indicate a question.
But Richard’s point was that at normal speed the sentence might sound more like: ‘Wd’yuh lik’uh cuppa tea?’ (Say it to yourself fast and you might notice the ‘k’ in ‘like’ also disappears.) That’s what he calls the ‘jungle‘ of real, everyday dialogue.
However, if writing speech as it sounds – or how we want our character to sound – can cause problems. If we fill our dialogue with elisions – the technical term for running words together, and dropping vowels and consonants – it can look at best like gobbledegook and at worst as if we’re illiterate. (Your spellchecker will also be underlining everything in red.)
I’ve tried a few times. There’s a gamekeeper in my book The Vault with a strong rural accent and I found his ‘voice’ by speaking his dialogue in my head, listening to how it really sounded and trying to approximate that on the page.
In his superb 2004 book Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell weaves six different stories. The middle one is set in a near(ish) future dystopia where the central character, Zachry, tells the story in his own voice.
And Zachry’s voice is a version of English that has evolved: it’s more phonetic, less grammatical – and takes quite an effort to read. (If the whole book had been told by Zachry I’m not sure I’d have coped.)
Even with my old gamekeeper, I had to be careful. If I’d made his accent too strong and written it how it sounded it would have been incomprehensible. It’s a difficult balance: giving your characters their unique, authentic voice and making sure that readers understand what they’re trying to say.
‘A few days ago we were woken up by the sound of the ground shaking. My house fell down and a lot of my things were lost but I am very lucky because I still have my family…’
Most of us take a lot for granted, whether that’s our health, the right to free speech or the fact that the buses run (mostly) on time.
We don’t expect helicopters to explode in the sky above us (Carpe Diem And All That), nor do we expect our homes to be destroyed by an unpredictable planet.
My last job in the world of PR (before retraining to be a teacher) was managing communications for a disaster relief charity called ShelterBox. It was a fascinating and challenging job. While I was there, the charity responded to everything from typhoons in the Philippines to conflict in Somalia, floods in Pakistan and hurricanes in the Caribbean.
In each case, ShelterBox sent emergency shelter and other aid to families who had lost their homes as a result of the various disasters. Back at base in Cornwall we heard all kinds of tragic stories and part of my job was to use that information to raise awareness of the charity’s work.
But one story that particularly touched my heart was about a deployment from before my time. It is the story of Siti Ayeesha, an eight-year-old girl from Java who lives through a powerful earthquake that wrecks her village and kills many of her friends.
Siti relates what happens in the video below and what makes it particularly moving for me is that it’s told in her words, voiced by an eight-year-old English girl:
This video has always inspired me. In many ways it was the motivation in 2010 when my wife and I undertook a 10,000-mile tandem bike ride to promote the work of ShelterBox. And when I published my second novel, The Vault, it was a factor in my decision that 50% of the royalties would go to the charity.
Over the last few weeks I’ve been working with an editor on a revised version of The Vault – and have just submitted it to the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. And I’ve decided that in the unlikely event I win any of the prize money on offer, I’m going to stick to giving half to ShelterBox.
So, there you are: I’ve made a public commitment. No backing out now!
I mentioned in a recent post that I like writing with music in the background as it keeps my subconscious from getting bored.
A lot of the time, my laptop is set to play a random compilation from the albums on the hard drive. Most of the time it works fine: songs play, I listen with part of my brain and write with another bit.
Occasionally though certain songs pop up and I just have to stop, turn up the volume and – yes, sad but true – get up and boogie round the room. This is one such culprit:
I was working on a rewrite of an old fantasy short story that I wrote about 20 years ago. But then the intro began and I knew it was break time.
Anyone else have the same problem? What gets you out of your chair?
This has nothing to do with my books and it isn’t even my picture but I couldn’t resist posting it anyway:
My 16-year-old niece Amelia is a Tolkien fiend and also has a definite artistic streak. Glad to see she didn’t get bored when her school was closed for a couple of days due to snow!
So, is cycling an excuse to eat chocolate or chocolate a reason to go cycling? Please discuss.
My next great novel had to be put aside yesterday. It was my wife’s birthday and we took our tandem across the water for a brief tour of the Isle of Wight.
It’s funny, I grew up in Hampshire and have travelled all over the world but had never made the 30 minute journey to the Isle of Wight before. (For those of you not from these parts, the IoW is the squashed diamond shape island just off the south coast of England immediately below Southampton).
Did about 40 miles of cycling in temperatures of about 2°C (max). Beautiful but quite hilly and I’m not sure my toes ever really warmed up even with two pairs of socks and shoe covers on.
Today it was -2°C outside at 10.30am so I’m quite content to stay inside with the heating on, sit at my laptop and get back to writing.
And yes, we did eat the whole bar of chocolate – and I only had slightly more than Carolyn!
My latest novel – Pagan’s Sphinx – is on free promotion with Amazon over the next five days (10th – 14th January).
I see this as more of an old-fashioned adventure yarn. Nothing complicated – foreign setting, ancient mystery, a bit of romance, danger and intrigue.
So if that’s your cup of tea please download a copy and enjoy.
Any feedback would be really appreciated: if you didn’t like it then send me an email and tell me why you thought it stunk, if you loved it then please put a 5* review on Amazon and tell all your friends!
Links are here:
PS. If you’re more into contemporary fiction with a story of a schoolboy battles woven around a murder mystery then The Vault is also free for another couple of days – links are:
After these two I’ll probably give the promotions a break for a while – concentrate on getting on with the next book.