Tuesday, July 06, 2010

More Voice

Vicki brought up a very intriguing topic yesterday. I’ll wait while you read it over to refresh your memory...

Okay, Vicki is, of course, very right. But I also want to disagree with her a bit.

Yes, you can find the voice of a character by reading, but my feeling is that you will be more successful if that voice comes from observation of a real person. There are nuances in someone’s way of speaking that just won’t come off the printed page. They have to be heard, if at all possible.

So, how do you accomplish that when your character has been dead for a hundred years? That’s where you have to rely more heavily on the written word, but you can probably find a movie made from a play from that period. (Hopefully, in that production, they got it right.)

Voice, to me, is not just about what words the characters are choosing to use, but how they use them, especially in stressful situations -- which is a large part of what crime novels deal with.

How do we know when we’re successful? We don’t. We have this particular voice in our ear, but what has to happen is that it has to transfer to our readers’ ears. Only they will be able to tell us if we’ve been successful or not.

Even so, I’m sure we’d be amazed at how much we probably miss the mark if we could hop into a time machine and spend a day in the historic location where our story is set.

Here’s a musical case in point. Every musician learns to play minuets very early on. The minuet is a dance (like the sarabande, gavotte, etc.) and we happily play away on our easy Mozart minuets and think we’re doing a great job. Our teachers smile and tell us how well we’ve learned how to play one of these pieces. But how many musicians have actually seen a minuet danced? This is, after all, music to accompany a dance.

A number of years ago, I had the privilege of seeing a dance company perform minuets and other historic dances. Assuming they had their movements historically accurate — and I have little doubt that they did — every minuet I’ve ever played was at a completely wrong tempo. No one could have done the required steps. Ditto for all the other dance forms. It was a pretty humbling experience.

So, if Vicki were to go back to Dawson City and meet her character, what would her experience be? Would she be appalled by the words she’d put in Fiona’s mouth? I guess the point ultimately is: who cares? If Vicki’s made her readers believe that this is the way Fiona would speak, she’s done her job, regardless of historical accuracy or what objections the real Fiona would make.

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