Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Voices in my head

Happy New Year!

What a month this has been. 2013 has been ushered out amid the chaos of howling winds, arctic cold, frenzied family events and fattening food. My small house, normally inhabited by me, my dog, and whatever fictional characters I'm working with at the time, became full again. The married couple in the spare bedroom, one daughter on the pull-out couch in the TV room and the other on the sofa in the living room. Backpacks, suitcases, mittens, hats, and coats cluttered every surface, while boots and shoes were three deep in the entranceway. Dishes, coffee cups, wine bottles, chocolate wrappers everywhere! The dog was in heaven, always prepared for someone willing to play. At night, she bed-hopped shamelessly.

2014 blew in on much the same winds. The weather was unspeakable. Yet we ventured out, dressed as if for a polar expedition, to go to movies (more than I usually see in a year) and share drinks at pubs, we went skating on the canal, played hockey with cousins and went skiing on the gorgeous Gatineau trails. One by one, the children went home, returning me to my quiet house and to the work awaiting me. Not the clean-up, although that is always waiting, but the work of a writer. For the past two months I've been working on the latest Cedric O'Toole Rapid Reads book, which is still in its early stages. I put Cedric aside for the month and have only just picked him up again. We have to get reacquainted. I have to find the groove that allows me to sink into his voice and write in that style.

Rapid Reads books are written in a very particular, spare style. Short sentences, simple vocabulary, a straightforward plot with little subplot, a fast-paced, active story with limited description or character meandering. Yet the story has to be compelling. Within those constraints, I have to create vivid, interesting characters involved in a unique, moving story. I have to find a voice that fits the character and the story. Cedric O'Toole's voice is very different from Michael Green's whose head I've been living in for the past year. Cedric is a simple country handyman who lives outside the mainstream and defines his life on his own terms. He is a creative, awkward loner who's more at home working with his hands than with words. I have to experience the world as he does and think the way he would. Sometimes it feels like calling in the wilderness. "Cedric, where are you?"

To complicate matters, I have indulged in a lot of pleasure reading this holiday, including THE SAYERS SWINDLE, which is a cosy romp by Victoria Abbott who is actually half my good friend and funnygirl Mary Jane Maffini. That funny, wise-cracking voice runs throughout the book and stayed in my head long after I closed it. I also read the very funny, slyly satirical THE HUNDRED-YEAR-OLD MAN WHO CLIMBED OUT THE WINDOW AND DISAPPEARED, whose quirky hero also has a voice very different from Cedric O'Toole's.

And in a couple of weeks I will receive the edits from the publisher on my latest Inspector Green novel, NONE SO BLIND, and I will need to find Green's voice again.

There is no easy way for a writer to find that crucial voice that ties their book together, and every writer has their own tricks and rituals. For me, the first prerequisite is silence. No radio or TV, no telephone or Facebook or websurfing. No chatter with family and friends. In that silence, the characters can come to me, and I can begin to conjure up their voices in my head. The second prerequisite is time. Not five minutes squeezed here and there into the few empty spaces of a busy day, but three or four hours a day of prolonged focus. No distractions or interruptions. Bum-in-chair time, as they say. A third element that I find helpful if I've been away from a character for awhile is to reread not just recent chapters but even earlier books or parts thereof. The novel's voice seeps into my head and informs the way I put words together.

And finally, there is no better prescription than writing itself. The words may be hesitant at first, the voice faltering. I may just start to write without knowing where the scene is going, just feeling my way forward. But I will usually find my footing and my direction as the scene evolves. The voice will grow clearer.

At least that's what I hope. Right now I am just trying to find the silence.

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