Friday, January 11, 2013

Voices in Time

by S. L. Duncan

When asked, most editors say what draws them to a submitted project is voice. Don’t you just hate that? Because, inevitably, when asked what defines a good voice they sort of shrug their shoulders, don their beret, take a large puff of cigarette and say, “Je ne sais quoi.”

Well, they do in my head at least.

There’s been a lot of excellent coverage of what voice can be here at FTWA, so feel free to review that for a moment. The kind of voice I want to talk specifically about, is the voice necessary to tell a story that takes place in a different time period.

So on the elements of what voice is, or can be, let me add this: authenticity.

I’m turning in my second book to my agent this week and the last thing I did was take a final read and make sure that the voice is authentic to the time period. A great way to see how the times affect voice is look at recent decades. Compare how kids spoke in the 80s to how they speak now. Slang aside, there are subtle differences in how they relate to each other. Do they lock eyes and twirl their gum when they speak, or are they focused on their iPhone, droning on like a zombie?

And it isn’t just vernacular. Society and culture influence voice as well. Take a 1940s London fourteen-year-old. The scarcity of that time and the living day to day in a harrowing environment grants a certain patience and appreciation for things, which should show up in the voice of the character.

So how do you get there? How do you make a voice authentic to its time? I looked at old newspapers, movies from the era, and radio recordings. The best are archived private journals. But, wait! What if your time period is waaay back? Keep digging! Look closely at all aspects of the culture. Crack a history book or two. Read, read, read, books from leading experts in the field.

All these things will play a part in the voice of the story and your individual character's voices. A good example is Sophie Perinot's work. She captures the tone and voice of her time period perfectly, but she does the research.

And I know I said it before, but you gotta read. Read stuff that's similar to what you want to write. Read in your genre. Read brilliant books, and just as importantly I think, read horrible books.

Authentic voice is a lot of things. There isn’t really any one way to master it, and more often than not, it kinda just happens after you've put in the work. Take the time, though, if you’re writing to a specific moment in history to really get in the head of that moment in history. You’ll be surprised at how it affects the voice.

S. L. Duncan writes young adult fiction, including his debut, the first book in The Revelation Saga, due in 2014 from Medallion Press. You can find him blogging on and on Twitter.


Michael Di Gesu said...

Some great advice here for writing an authentic voice! I totally agree that research is key ESPECIALLY in period writings.


Jemi Fraser said...

Great advice! Reading fiction and nonfiction of the period is excellent advice!

Christine Rains said...

That's fantastic advice! Voice is vital to making a great story. I've read some books lately that take place decades ago and they have a modern voice. It makes it... not fit. Odd.

Sophie Perinot said...

Keeping voices authentic is a huge part of historical fiction--though one can only go so far, lol. After all everyone in my debut would have been speaking Occitan and ancient French had I gone all the way :)