Keeping the Voices Straight

I love to write dialogue. I’d guess that in 87% of my scenes, I write the dialogue first and fill in the narrative later. So, deciding what my characters say is rarely a challenge, but making sure their voices are distinct and stay true is.

character_speakWriting in both male and female voices is a challenge in itself. Then you have to consider the character’s education, life experience, and regional influences to develop a voice that sounds natural. And you have to repeat that for each of your characters. Ideally, even when your character is not identified by name, the reader shouldn’t have to read very far into a paragraph before realizing who’s speaking or narrating.

In The Brevity of Roses, a few of my characters, for whom English was a second language, didn’t use contractions when they spoke. Because I didn’t want my main character to sound too stilted, as often as possible, I challenged myself to form a natural-sounding sentence without using any words usually contracted in informal writing.  Still, after each draft, I made an editing pass specifically looking for contraction slip ups.

Also, in that novel, two characters were upper-educated poets and because I’d written a good bit of the book in their voices, by the time I got to a third major character who was a young, streetwise woman I found myself slipping back and writing words and phrasing, both in dialogue and narrative, that she wouldn’t have used naturally. I had to edit those out.

In one of my current works in progress, my biggest challenge is staying “in character” as I write the parts from my Jesse’s point of view. He was born into a poor mining family in the West Virginia mountains and left school when he was fifteen to hire on as farm laborer in Kentucky. I don’t want to write his voice in dialect as much as I want to give the flavor of his voice. That flavor is not my own and I catch myself slipping out of character often.

In addition to Jesse, I have several characters who speak with just a touch of country and a couple who are pure “city folks.” One of those is the main female character, Nicole, who happens to be an English teacher. So again, I’ve set myself up for several editing passes just to make sure I’ve kept the characters’ voices “natural.” I accept that challenge.

If you’re a writer, what challenges are you facing in your current work?

Linda

Who are the stars of your book?

The probability of any of my novels ever making it to the big screen—or even the small one—is remote. Considering some of the horrible book adaptations I’ve seen, that may be a blessing. But I’m not waiting on Hollywood anyway. I’ve already cast mine.

Actually, I’ve recast them. When I started the first draft of The Brevity of Roses, I visualized certain actors as some of the characters, but by the time I finished, those had changed. I expect you also visualize the characters you read and write about.

Do you see them as celebrities, people you know in real life, or do you use the details given in the book to conjure your own images? Maybe you use a combination. Maybe you see only vague images. While I wrote Brevity, I could never see Renee’s face clearly. I saw brief glimpses, but could never hold on to the image.

Do you prefer an author to describe their characters in exacting detail or leave some things to your imagination? (I prefer to use my imagination.)

Are you ever disappointed in the casting when you see a movie adaptation of a novel you’ve read? (Yes. And it takes me a while to adjust my brain. It never did for Interview with the Vampire.)

If you’re a writer, do you ever wonder how readers visualize your characters? (I do, so if you’ve read anything of mine and would like to share who you saw as my characters, please share.)

Writing a novel my way

I’m excited about starting a new novel. I have my “world” set and I’m looking forward to living it in for a while. I’m not a major plotter. I have a vague outline. I’ve envisioned the beginning and ending scenes. I’ve written the opening paragraph and the last two lines of the book. Now I just need to fill in the middle. 🙂

I’ve written some notes, some questions, some character bits. I still need four secondary character names. Sometimes names come easy, obviously not this time, so for now they appear as DAUGHTER, SON, BROTHER, and TEMPTRESS.

At this stage, I spend a lot of my writing time not writing. With my eyes closed, I sit and daydream. Scenes materialize and I watch and listen. Questions arise and I devise the answers. Sometimes the answers change the scene, so I have to shake it like an Etch-A-Sketch and begin again.

The dialogue for a couple of the key scenes is rattling around in my head, so today I’ll write out as much of that as I can.  Writing the dialogue first enables me to visualize the scene, so when I go back to flesh it out, it’s easy to fill in the action and setting details.

When I get stuck, I go clean something until a new scene or more dialogue filters through to me. This is good because when it all comes together and I’m deep into writing, I can ignore dust and grime like you can’t imagine!

How’s life with you? Are you in a productive stage or down time?

[tweetmeme source=”cassidylewis” only_single=false]

When the writing draws you in

I don’t watch TV much. Every season I have two or three programs I never miss. I mentioned my guilty pleasure, American Idol, in my last post. The other shows I follow are dramas. In recent years, I was a big fan of series like Oz, The Sopranos, The Wire, and Lost. Now it’s Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, True Blood, and Treme. (Hmmm, I guess HBO wins.)

Treme is set in New Orleans during the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. The show follows several characters as they try to put their lives back together. I have my favorites, though the writers are capable of changing my mind about a couple of the others. And you never know when they’ll kill off a main character like they did in the first season.

This season, one of the storylines has been about the rise of crime. People who used to feel safe in their homes and places of business are finding the “rules” have changed in post-Katrina New Orleans. I watched one scene with growing dread.

As La Donna turns off the lights and prepares to close up her bar for the night, a young man in a hooded sweatshirt knocks on the window, “We’re closed,” she tells him. He’s looking for a different bar and lost. She talks to him through the glass and gives him directions to the place he’s looking for. Then he asks if he can come in and use the phone. Wisely, she tells him, “No phone.” She asks his name, he’s evasive, and she pulls out her cell phone, telling him she’s calling the police to come down and help him.

The kid walks away. As La Donna’s talking to the police, she waves to friends who’ve called to her as they walk down the other side of the street. She gathers her keys and purse. She pauses for a moment, looks back at the window, then she lifts her chin, tosses her hair back, and walks to the door. The street is deserted now. It’s quiet. The scene is shadowed, reddish, barely lit from the streetlight in front of her, the Christmas lights behind her.

I’m on alert; afraid I know what’s coming. “No,” I say. La Donna opens the door, steps out, and turns to relock it. Before she can, she glances to her right, and the camera pans to show the kid step around the corner of her building. He asks her about the directions again, sounding innocent, but the camera pans back to La Donna and you see the fear in her eyes. A shadow looms behind her. She turns toward it. There’s another man. I speak louder now. “No. Don’t.”

She scrambles back inside, shoving with all her might to close and lock the door, but it’s a futile attempt against the guys on the other side. As they burst through, she backs away, and throws her purse to them. “Take it,” she says, “it’s $200 dollars.”

“Please, don’t,” I plead—with the intruders or the writers or both. I hold my breath. La Donna tries to sound tough, cursing and ordering them out, but her voice betrays her. She stumbles backward, grabs a sawed-off broomstick, and starts swinging. “Yes!” I say, hopeful.

But then, I see the intruders still advancing slowly, quietly, determined. I am crushed.

The scene cuts away. I won’t tell you the rest. I just wanted to share how good writing grabs me, pulls me in, and makes me feel it. That’s how I want to write. That’s how I want you to write. Let’s do it.

Treme photos credit: HBO.
[tweetmeme source=”cassidylewis” only_single=false]

Write what you know means …

When my granddaughter was not quite three, one of her favorite movies was Disney’s The Aristocrats, but for a while, no one realized she had redubbed it. Then, one day, we heard clearly her request to watch The Rest of the Cats.

She didn’t know the meaning of the word aristocrats, so she heard words she did know. That’s a frame of reference. It’s what we all use every minute of our lives. The brain uses frame of reference when it receives sensations to filter and identify each correctly.

In that same sense, we all filter what we read against our experiences. Does it match, enhance, or refute what we already know? Even when researching a new topic, we have to fit it into our particular frame of reference to make sense of it. That’s also the way we write.

If we write about a certain time, say the summer of 1965, our first response is to fit that into our frame: I was ten years old or that’s the year we moved to Idaho or that’s when Grandpa took up skydiving. We can learn what happened in the greater world that year, but that information will be added to, mixed with, or colored by what we already know about that year in our egocentric world.

And, like my granddaughter, if we’re true to our frame, we use the language of that point of view. We use words that are common to us, the ones that flow naturally from our lips, the ones we don’t have to look up in a dictionary or borrow from a thesaurus.

But, but, but what about writing fiction? Does this mean we can only write about characters like ourselves? Of course, not. As fiction writers we have the privilege of being many selves. We just have to discover and stay within the frame of reference for each character. Only then will our characters ring true.

[tweetmeme source=”cassidylewis” only_single=false]