“Humans like stories. Humans need stories. Stories are good. Stories work. Story clarifies and captures the essence of the human spirit. Story, in all its forms—of life, of love, of knowledge—has traced the upward surge of mankind. And story, you mark my words, will be with the last human to draw breath.”
― Jasper Fforde, First Among Sequels (h/t, Aunt Agatha’s Mysteries)
Photo: Flower Row, Pike Place Market (author photo)
A few weeks ago, I gave a presentation to the Mystery Writers of America Northwest Chapter on setting. I love crafting the settings of my stories, and preparing the presentation—a new topic for me—was great fun. The audience was very complimentary and I hope to give the presentation again to other writers’ groups. (Drop me a line if you’re interested.)
But of course, you can’t say everything! And one aspect I didn’t talk about was the language of a locale.
Language and place are highly interconnected. How do your story people talk about the places where your story occurs? Are they intimately familiar with them, or still trying to figure the place out? How does the language of setting relate to the plot or characterization?
Listen to actual usage. Do locals say the highway, the freeway, the Interstate, the toll road, or something else? I-5, 101, the 101? When a character uses the wrong term, does another correct them, mock them, dismiss them? Does your gangster recognize that the newcomer is really new and begin to suspect him?
In my small town, the original townsite, now home to restaurants and retail but few essential services, is always referred to as “the village.” Anywhere else it would probably be downtown. Towns can outgrow geographic references, even though everyone still uses them—I’m thinking of the Northside and the West End in Billings, neither of which is north or west anymore. Neighborhoods can emerge through development or good PR and acquire a name some residents won’t recognize, like the Tangletown area in Seattle that used to just be a corner of Green Lake or a spot north of Wallingford.
What words do locals know that might need an explanation? My husband and I were driving through farm and ranch country in central Montana. I spotted a compound of long low buildings, some obviously metal farm buildings, others wooden and harder to see. Me: Is that a colony? Him: I think so. Half a mile later, we saw the sign for Miller Colony, Fresh Flowers, Eggs. We knew what we meant, no further details required. But a tourist or newcomer unfamiliar with the area might not know what they were seeing or what we were saying. (A colony is a settlement of Hutterites, a German-speaking Anabaptist community similar to the Amish or Mennonites, located mainly in MT, Alberta, and Saskatchewan. The group lives and farms and ranches communally.)
It’s a craft challenge to convey that insider knowledge. If the details advance plot, setting, or characterization, then try conveying it through context, rather than an info dump, like my parenthetical. If it doesn’t advance at least two of the three elements, you may not need it.
An example: Her, driving through farm country: Is that a colony? Him: Must be. (Silence.) Did I ever tell you the story about hustling the Hutterites at Hussmans? Her: And then one of the guys looked at Brian’s cousin’s girlfriend too long and he went after him with the pool cue? Him: I always wondered what happened to her. She was way too sweet for him.
Not the best example, maybe, but it shows how language and context can be used to convey both an element of setting and the relationship between this couple. They’ve been together long enough to know each other’s stories, and they feel comfortable skipping the detail and cutting to the punch line. Of course, you’d only include even a short snippet like this if it was relevant to some larger aspect of the story.
How will the language of and about place affect your story?
Like many of you, I’m finding it difficult to write right now, after the shootings in Uvalde, TX, and Buffalo, NY, and so many others. After those tragedies, reminded once again of our failures as a society to protect the innocent and to deal with conflict without violence, writing, painting, and other creative work can feel impossible. As pointless as the tragedies themselves. But it is not.
Editor, writer, and teacher Tiffany Yates Martin wrote a deeply heartfelt, practical essay earlier this week titled How Can Writing Matter in the Face of Suffering, including several ways to use our creative work to process pain, find a way into action, to connect, to give voice, and to write for hope. Read it. Here’s one paragraph that struck me.
“Story illuminates the world, a lens through which others may find some measure of understanding of their own tragedies, their own pain. Working through difficult and painful things in our writing may offer insight and aid to others amid their own struggles.“
Martin ends by quoting another writer, editor Susan De Freitas, that also struck me when I read it in a piece on Jane Friedman’s blog: “Wherever you are, if you’ve been struggling with this question, Why write when the world is on fire?, remember: Your words are water.”
And if you’re thinking what can any of us do to change the laws or public policy or diminish hatred, remember Margaret Mead’s words. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.“
“Be water, my friend,” as the late Bruce Lee wrote, reminding us that flow is our natural and most powerful state. Let your tears flow, and the words will follow.
(Illustration: photo of an unattributed quote and collage I spotted online months ago, printed out, and keep on my desk. It reads: Do what you can with what you have where you are.”)
I’ve read a couple of books lately that were totally solid — interesting premise, fun characters, solid plot, a good use of setting. But I didn’t always feel like the characters were responding emotionally to the events on the page. And because they weren’t, neither did I.
Techer and literary agent Don Maass writes a lot about the importance of giving a reader an emotional experience, in both The Fire in Fiction and The Emotional Craft of Fiction, as well as in his posts on Writer UnBoxed and the in-person and online workshops he gives through Free Expressions. He stresses that the trick is not describing emotion on the page—telling a reader what to feel—but evoking it in the reader.
It’s a big subject, and there are a lot of ways to do it, but I want to share with you a post I wrote a little over a year ago for The Kill Zone blog, on emotional research — on how to better understand experiences we haven’t had, or go deeper into experiences we have had. Emotional research goes a long way toward helping us identify those gestures, thoughts, actions and reactions that truly show a reader what a character is feeling, and evoking her own emotional experience and empathy in the process.
“[Maggie’s] hand closed around the library card. She had placed it under her pillow, as if it were a love token, or a guarantor of pleasant dreams. What else did you use a library card for, if not to borrow stories? Some of which might have a happy ending.”
Herron was the International Guest of Honor at Left Coast Crime 2022. I hadn’t known his work, though his series that begins with Slow Horses is the basis for the new Apple TV series starring Gary Oldman. I picked up this book, a standalone, and read it in two settings. In context, the quote isn’t purely a ponder on the glory of libraries, but doesn’t mean quite what you think, i
“I could hear your voice throughout,” a friend told me after reading Blind Faith, my standalone coming this fall (written as Alicia Beckman).
That reminded me of a different friend, who read Death al Dente, my first Food Lovers’ Village mystery, when it was newly published and said “it sounds just like you talk.”
And of course, other friends have said Pepper in my Spice Shop mysteries sounds just like me.
I’ve taken great pains to make the books different. To give Lindsay and Erin and Pepper different ways of speaking, of swearing, of talking to themselves. They have different lives, in different places. I’ve been careful to give them different experiences, to write some in first person and some in third.
Did I blow it? Do my main characters really all sound the same? Do they all sound like me? (Lindsay, the main character in Blind Faith, probably shares more of my upbringing and my personal views, even though her life experiences are very different from mine.)
No, not literally. But that’s not what we mean by voice, is it? Yes, it’s in the characteristic phrases, the pet words, the rhythm of the sentences. But it’s also in what the characters care about. How they think of the world.
My characters are concerned about community. About their relationship to their physical surroundings, whether it’s their home, the windswept prairie, or the historic building they work in. If an issue arises in my life, it might show up in one of their lives, because I want to explore it more deeply, and I figure if it snares my attention, it might matter to my readers, too. My main characters are interested in the world around them, even though they don’t all read or watch movies or garden. They do all love food and art! They’re interested in friendships, especially between women. In starting over. In healing the wounds injustice causes.
They sound like me because there’s a little bit of me in each of them. And that’s a good thing, because that’s one of the ways we make our characters come alive.
Tell me, friends. What does voice in a novel mean to you? Do you think about it as you write? Do you try to cultivate it, to change it from one type of story to another? Can it even be changed? Could we pick up any book of yours and hear you, regardless of the genre or subject matter?