Borrowing a Voice

By Brenda Clough
300px-Human_voice_spectrogramEvery now and then I write a story about a mythical figure set in his own time.  I wrote about the death of Odysseus in “Home is the Sailor”, and about Gilgamesh in “Below, Between, Above,” which recently was published in the anthology How Beer Saved the World. I notice that when I’m wandering in Mary Renault territory, I try to write like her.  Nouns get selected from the Anglo Saxon menu rather than the Latinate side; sentences become simpler in structure.  We get very Attic. (If you go to the Amazon page and hit the “Look Inside” link you can read the story in its entirety to see what I mean.)

And then there is the Victorian clergyman turned action adventure hero who is the protagonist of my current Work In Progress. This book has forced my inner Dickens and Trollope to the fore.  Subordinate clauses bloom like dandelions in May, the semicolons spread like bindweed, and sentence structure gets wild and hairy, especially when I’m writing from his point of view. Does he ever think a plain thought? No. And did you know that English is slowly evolving? Word choice and sentence structure are gradually shifting over time. This means that selecting “ought” rather than “should” subtly flavors the prose.For contrast, and to keep my hand in, my hero has a co-star, an Army officer for whom I can simply steal my son the USAR 1LT’s voice. Profanity of the simplest and most vehement sort is the salient feature here. Everything gets short, snappy, and powerful. Subject-verb-object becomes the sentence structure of choice. This is the voice for juddering automatic weaponry and the explosion of stun grenades before they kick in the door. To have an in-house consultant for profanity, milspeak, and combat tactics is an opportunity not to be missed, and the novel has tanks, street-fighting  and far more action-movie stuff than I usually resort to. (Like Zonker Harris, my son is fed, not paid, for his consultant services, but I bake a mean pie and there have been no complaints.)

None of this is particularly intentional on my part.  I did not sit down and scroll through a menu of voices, trying them on.  The characters have their own voices and dragged the prose along behind them. My role is to write it all down and add punctuation. In fact, it is when I can’t hear the characters speak that there is trouble. If they are alive, they talk!

My newest novel Speak to Our Desires is out exclusively from Book View Café.

I also have stories in Book View Café’s two steampunk anthologies, The Shadow Conspiracy and The Shadow Conspiracy II, as well as in BVC’s many other anthologies, including our latest, Beyond Grimm.

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Borrowing a Voice — 4 Comments

  1. Voice is a worldbuilding tool. That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it. If you’re in that world (however that world is built in your head–with shades of Mary Renault or Charles Dickens or that annoying woman at the grocery store) the voice–more than description, I think–is what makes it real.

    But that could be just me.

  2. Absolutely. In fact until I can ‘hear’ the characters, at least the main ones, the work does not come to life. A sufficiently energetic voice is all you really need. There are comic book writers who say that all they really need to do is to lock their characters into a closet and let them talk.

  3. I know that there are fans who don’t understand when we say “There isn’t another book because XXX hasn’t told me another story.” But it is true–Elizabeth Moon had to wait until Paks told her another story, and I had to wait for the next Alfreda novel.

    I am waiting for the gleeful storyteller inside Brenda who cheerfully implodes everything in sight in her desire to keep the action high to get her own book. I figure that eventually something is going to rise from the fishy deep and go after her… ;^)

  4. I love it when the voices take over. If you cannot get the characters to shut up, then you’re golden. That’s the time when the work writes itself, and all the author is doing is typing as fast as she can.