Speak the Speech, I pray You

“Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you—trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines…use all gently; for in the very torrent, tempest, and as I may say, the whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness.”  — Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2

I studied a lot of drama in college, and later used what I had learned in several community theater productions.  I’m lucky to live in a good ‘theatre’ town, with several non-profit companies that cover everything from Euripides to musicals to original works.  Although the acting bug stopped biting me awhile ago, I loved nearly every moment of rehearsal and performance, not least because I had the chance to appear in some wonderful productions.

Plays differ from movies in a lot of ways, but one of the biggest contrasts is, as one of my favorite directors used to say, “Movies move, plays talk.”  Film, based on photography, depends on images to tell a story. Theater, defined by the presence of actors and audience in the same space at the same time, depends on dialogue.

While I write books, not plays, and have an array of writing devices to use in story-telling, I still love good verbal interplay between characters. Whether as a writer or a reader, I demand a lot of a character’s speech (and since narrative can go inside someone’s head, their thoughts).

A character’s vocabulary and grammar can inform the reader of his or her background, social or educational level, and relationship with other people in the room in the space of a few words. Our speech is influenced by our gender, our mood at the moment, and our basic natures.  So is a believable fictional character’s.

One of my favorite series is the Charlotte and Thomas Pitt mysteries by Anne Perry.  Thomas, although the son of a gamekeeper, speaks like a member of the upper class. This works because Perry explains that as a boy, he was permitted to share lessons with the son of his father’s employer. That’s only one example. A cowboy from Texas won’t have the same accent or slang as a Boston-raised lawyer, even if they both went to Harvard.

Suppose a character alters her accent to fit into her current workplace or social circle.  She may still use expressions she learned in childhood, like Eliza Doolittle at tea with Mrs. Higgins in My Fair Lady — or my old acting professor. Bill is a New Orleans native who needed to tame his accent in order to increase the range of roles he could get. It always cracked us up when he would say, with perfect standard pronunciation, “I am fixing to go down to the store. Do you all want something?”

One of the biggest aspects of a character’s speech and thought is gender.  Men aren’t as verbal as woman, and unless it’s in an area they are trained to observe, they often don’t notice details. A hero who identifies the designer and exact color of the heroine’s dress is not going to come off as realistic. Yes, some heterosexual men can identify colors like puce or burnt sienna, if they’re artists like my stepmother’s brother. But most men will say “purple” or “brown”, like my hubby.

Male or female, a believable character will mirror real life in how they address others.  We don’t speak to our supervisors the same way we do our toddlers (tempting as that may be on occasion). Depending on the time and place, it can be inappropriate for a man to swear at, or in the presence of, ladies — and ladies might be prohibited from using anything stronger than ‘lud’ or ‘darn’. Of course, even a proper gentleman and lady involved in certain intimate activities might use crude language with their partners, to their mutual enjoyment.  Context and motivation are key reasons behind a writer’s word choice. 😉

Do you have any favorite conversations between characters in your books? I’d love to hear about them.

And as an extra bonus, I’ll send out a wee little prize related to Her Scottish Groom to the first person who identifies the actors pictured at the top if this post, along with their best-known science fiction roles. Hint: the photo is from a British production of Hamlet.


I Hereby Resolve….Not

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January. Bitter cold. Gray skies and white snow-covered ground. The Christmas lights are down, the bills have come in and it’s time to buckle down and work on those resolutions. Kill me now.

Instead of making resolutions this year, I’m joining several other writers to set up goals for myself. Real, concrete, measurable goals that will leave me with something to show for my efforts in 2011.

I never did like resolutions. The day always came when I ate the cookie or spaced off the exercise regimen. Then that little voice would start in: “See? You can’t do this after all. You should have known better than to try.”  If I could, I’d beat the Internal Naysayer to death with the toilet brush. If I have learned one thing, it is that everyone fails at something, sometime. Accept this.  Then get back up, brush yourself off and remind yourself of why you made that resolution to begin with.

Why did you want to go to that yoga class three times a week? Did you want a stronger, more flexible body? To get toned up in time for bathing suit season? To relieve stress? The answer to ‘why?’ is the goal. It doesn’t matter if the resolution involves a diet, a budget, a class or time spent with loved ones. The reason why you made it is what you want to accomplish.

In 2011, I want to finish my WIP and hopefully one more book after that. Why? Because then I’ll have two manuscripts to submit to agents and editors. And if they sell, cha-ching! Money and another publishing credit. Put in those terms, why would I not work on my goal every day??

Back to that failure thing. Life isn’t going to stop throwing curve balls (or hairballs, car problems, and extra reports) just because we want to go to yoga class, set aside money for a new car or meet a minimum word count.  The goal will still be there when the phone call or last-minute snafu has been taken care of. True, life does throw things at us that are so monumental all our goals need to be reassessed. But I’m talking about day to day nuisances, not catastrophes. Maybe there is so much going on in your life that a small adjustment is needed in your daily or weekly goals, say two times a week at yoga class instead of three. Just don’t give up your goal completely! Remember why you wanted to reach it in the first place.

I’m tracking my progress toward my goals this year in a $6 desk calendar.  On the days when I miss my word count goal, I write down why. For some comfort, I note what I do accomplish every day, writing-related or not. I can literally see where my time goes and keep myself on track.

Meeting a goal give a sense of accomplishment as well as the tangible benefit you wanted in the first place. We all deserve that feeling of success. Go for it!

What would you like to do in 2011?

Your Grandpa did What?

Ever wondered what a chandler is (other than a character on Friends)? What exactly does an apothecary do? And what is a cordwainer?? Here are half a dozen occupations that once filled important needs.

Weaver: In 1719, an English weaver with the help of an apprentice might make 14 or 15 shillings a week, equivalent to around £100 today, but many weavers had only their own hands to depend on. The first experiments with power looms were attempted in the late 18th century, and by 1820 textile mills sprang up in both Europe and America, replacing the work of thousands who worked from their cottages.

Basketmaker: Made from a variety of materials, households relied on baskets to carry and store things well into the nineteenth century. The basket maker could choose from a variety of reeds or wood, depending on his or her locale.  Starting with reeds, willow branches or six-foot long strips of ash, hickory or cedar, he or she peeled them into long ribbons with a knife, then wove them between the spokes that made the basket’s frame.

Chandler: Prior to electricity, chandlers filled a crucial need.  The earliest candles were tallow-based, which created a reek so severe that their manufacture was banned within the city limits of Paris by the Middle Ages.  The highest quality candles in the nineteenth century came from beeswax or spermaceti (crystallized sperm whale oil), poured into metal molds until it cooled and hardened.  They burned brighter and smelled better than the old-fashioned tallow candles.

Apothecary: In the days before Walgreens, you might consult an apothecary when your home remedies failed.  Armed with mortar, pestle and a variety of ingredients from rose petals to mercury salts, they attempted to treat disease and infection. Professionally trained doctors and surgeons existed of course, but they were expensive (wow, some things don’t change) and before germ theory was accepted, their remedies might not be any more effective.

Cordwainer: The coolest name of an occupation ever! It is is the medieval term for shoemaker, specifically one who works only with new leather to make new shoes or boots.  Thus they differentiated themselves from cobblers, who repaired used leather items. Although the term had fallen into disuse in common speech by the nineteenth century, the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers was founded before 1272 in London and still exists.

Linen draper: No, not someone who made curtains. A draper did specialize in the sale of wool and other cloth, however.  Even the wealthy would visit the linen draper‘s to purchase new material, then carry it to a modiste or tailor to make it into dresses or a suit.

What is the strangest occupation you’ve ever heard of or read about?

My Friend EDNA

I was introduced to EDNA the first time I ever read my work aloud to a critique group.  Despite my shaking hands and voice, the other writers received my first effort well. (I still belong to this group because its attitude is that 1. any writer willing to learn deserves respect, and 2. all writers can learn more about the craft.) Of course I made awful mistakes — passive verbs, telling instead of showing, and…the dreaded Info Dump. Instead of starting out with a good hook, I detailed the background of each character. I now know that readers do want background info, just not in great whacking chunks at the book’s beginning.

At the end of the evening, the group’s moderator took me aside and pressed a page of handwritten notes into my hand.  “Read these,” she ordered quietly. “They’ll help you balance your writing.”  The moderator is now my friend and mentor, Sally J. Walker, and the piece of paper introduced me to EDNA: Exposition, Description, Narration and Action/Dialogue.  These are four types of fiction and each helps pull a reader into the story.  It was the first writing lesson I ever learned and remains one of the most valuable.

I could go on for pages about each mode  — in fact, Sally teaches an entire course about them, but here they are in a nutshell, with definitions from my trusty Merriam-Webster.

Exposition: One of the definitions of the word is “discourse designed to convey information”.  When writing, exposition provides information the reader must have in order to make sense of the rest of the book.  It can be information about a character’s background, or about a situation unfamiliar to readers. In an example of the latter, the heroine of my first book reflects on how the laws of her day prevent her from claiming her inheritance

Description: “…an account that presents a picture to a person who reads or hears it.”  Or a sound, smell, taste or touch.  Description tells the reader what a character observes with his or her physical senses.  Good description draws readers in so they can visualize characters and imagine themselves inside the story.  Words like “click”, “clash”, “stench”, “fragrance”, “vinegary”, “sticky”, “tickle”, and “sting” conjure up concrete sensations.

Narration: Probably the least used mode, because its purpose is to summarize the passage of time or an event.  It is still necessary! Narration allows a writer to skip over days or weeks when no action occurs that affects the story.  Here is a masterful example from “The Hobbit“: “Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway. They stayed long in that house, fourteen days at least, and they found it hard to leave…Yet there is little to tell about their stay.”

Action/Dialogue: Yes, action is when characters are doing stuff and dialogue is when they’re talking.  The point is that the characters are actively doing something in the story to move it forward, which is why action and dialogue are linked.  “To talk” is a verb, just like “to run” or “to carry”. Or “to think”, “to ponder” and “to plot”. Mental activity is still doing something.  Actions and conversations show  the characters’ personalities and motivations and advance the story, so as long as there aren’t pages and pages of it, the reader is interested and again, drawn into the book.

The key is balance.  Long passages of any one type of prose will numb the reader’s mind, even if it’s a complicated action sequence.  Even a single sentence of description or exposition can give the reader a break from a kaleidoscope of action and refresh them enough to go on.  Similarly, passages of description need to be broken up with action or dialogue, or telescoped with narrative before the reader gets bored.

I still have Sally’s notes, although I’ve had to transpose them because I wore out the original page she gave me.  And yes, I still check my pages to be sure they have at least three of the four kinds of prose on each page.  It’s never wise to ignore EDNA.

Happy New Year

Happy 2011 to all my readers! I’m participating in WordPress’ Post A Week 2011 campaign. While I did well posting most weeks of last year, this will be (I hope) a fun way to keep the momentum going.  Blogging can be fun, but it’s sometimes hard to think of good topics. Therefore I’ll see if The DailyPost, and the community of other bloggers with similar goals will help me along the way. Hopefully having done this for a year now, I can encourage others (and maybe get some help when I need it).

If you already read my blog, I hope you’ll post comments and likes, too. One of the most exciting things about writing is connecting with readers.

May the new year be good to you and your loved ones!