Other Voices – with Jeffrey K. Walker

Friend and fellow author, Jeffrey K. Walker, responded to last week’s Missing In Action with the offer to share a few posts on my blog. Such kindness! I greatly admire Jeff’s novels and his blogging voice – a little cheeky, a little irreverant – is most enjoyable. Plus the topics he tackles are well suited for an audience that loves the reading and writing of historical fiction. So … take it away, Jeffrey!

OTHER VOICES by JEFFREY K. WALKER

I turned over my second book, Truly Are the Free, to the copy editor on Friday. That’s always a Highly Emotional Event, since it’s the moment one’s beautiful, finely crafted, and perfectly constructed literary stroke of genius gets turned into… a product. In the end, a book is something you sell. Like soap or sneakers or Silly String. And let’s be honest, Silly String is way more fun than most books. Other than mine, it goes without saying. 

Because if you’re going to write one novel why not write three, Truly Are the Free is the second volume in my First World War and 1920s Sweet Wine of Youth trilogy. And yet again I ran head-on into a problem that emerged in my first book: how does a middle-aged white guy from fly-over country write how other people talk?

This may not sound like an Earth-Shaking Problem, but it tied me in knots with my first book, None of Us the Same. Two of the main characters and a whole cod-schooner-full of supporting ones were from Newfoundland. Also, half the novel is set there. So far so good—they speak English up there in Canada, eh? Well, sort of. 

Here’s the thing, Newfoundland developed with three historical oddities: 1) it was not part of Canada until 1949, 2) it’s a rather isolated and island-ish sort of place, and 3) most of the people spent four centuries in dispersed outports and coastal islands that you could only get to by boat. 

As a result, with a population of 528,448 (not counting moose), Newfounese sports 20 sub-dialects (if you throw in Labrador, which you have to do to be fair to all dog breeds). So when it came time to actually make these characters speak in my book, I was determined to Do So With Authenticity. Because, you know, I’m an Author and must be True To My Art

Yeah, not so much. Writing authentic dialect meant writing completely inaccessible dialogue to everyone but the .15% of native English speakers who currently inhabit the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador.

With all my in-depth linguistic research rapidly circling the drain, after the second draft of None of Us the Same I discovered that a) authenticity is really, really hard, and b) what I was really after in my fiction was verisimilitude—roughly translated, getting close enough. This meant creating a fictional space in which readers could lose themselves while I didn’t do anything stupid to jerk them out. So what I needed was the appearance of authenticity. Sort of like making a breakfast cereal bar in Brooklyn appear to be… well, anything other than a Very Silly Brooklyn Thing.

What I ended up with was a judicious sprinkling of idiom that I hope provides a sense of place without confusing people. For example, if someone is very thin, in the USA we might say, “He’s skinny as a rail” but in Newfoundland maybe, “He’s as thin as a rasher in the wind,” the delightful mental image being a strip of bacon flapping in the breeze. I threw in a few flag words, like the ubiquitous “b’y”— today used to refer to men, children, women, dogs, whatever—which was lifted directly from the southeast Irish pronunciation of “boy.”

I thought I had a handle on this tug-of-war between authenticity and accessibility. Early readers of None of Us the Same assured me I’d gotten it about right. Then I started writing Truly Are the Free, which is set in France, Ireland and the USA. While sharing a time period and some characters with Book #1, the story in Book #2 shifts to an African-American regiment from Harlem, some Irish locals, and beaucoup de French people.

The French were my initial problem, since I had to decide how much actual French I could risk having my not-so-actual French people speak. I’ve tried to cut this knot by using just enough French phrases to create that elusive verisimilitude of Frenchness. When I used French, I either selected cognates—words that looked more or less the same in both languages—or I found indirect ways to define the phrase in surrounding text. We’ll see if I got it right soon enough.

The more tangly problem was my African-American characters. Let’s be honest. I’m acutely aware of the highly contentious and often very emotional arguments swirling around writing circles, academia and our broader American society regarding “cultural appropriation.” This debate asks, can anyone not of a particular racial, ethnic, religious, linguistic, or other discrete group write authentically about people from that group? This includes fictional characters. Maybe especially fictional characters. And nothing is closer to the heart of this matter than what form of words you put in a character’s mouth. 

To say I went through waves of panic would be an understatement. Big tsunami waves, followed by deep troughs of self-doubt. The last thing I wanted was my African-American characters to descend into caricatures like Amos &  Andy or some old Hollywood mammy. I actually had nightmares where I was stuck in an Aunt Jemima commercial from my childhood. And be fair, to a 7-year-old me, a talking syrup bottle was a Very Scary Concept. (Or was that Mrs. Butterworth?)

I desperately wanted to do right by my characters. They’re drawn from the experiences of some all-too-real valiant men and intrepid women, even if mine are fictional. On the other hand, my African-American characters span the spectrum from the university-educated son of an affluent doctor to an uneducated soldier from a sharecropper family. They couldn’t speak the same, since that would sound fake and, well, silly.

After a lot of thought and reading and listening to Others Smarter Than Me, I finally landed in my personal comfort zone. I asked myself two things with every African-American character I created or before putting any kind of words in their mouths. 

First, can I describe out loud a legitimate narrative need for this character or piece of dialogue? (This is something you should probably ask about ANY character or dialogue, lest you write a rambling and boring book.) If I truly needed the character, the scene or the dialogue to build a character, convey a necessary sense of time or place, or advance the plot, then I’m good to go on to the next question.

Second, can I treat the character, their backstory, and their behavior with respect and dignity? The starting place here is DO YOUR RESEARCH—that’s the first line of defense against descending into stereotypes and clichés, particularly writing historical fiction. (I recently heard a full-throated exposition on this by way-too-talented Jamaican-American novelist Nicole Dennis-Benn.) There’s no copy-and-paste Googley shortcut to thorough research. And you have to then verify a second time everything that ends up in your manuscript, which will ideally be (according to Papa Hemingway at least) about 10% of what you started with. 

However, this doesn’t mean I didn’t write some broken or malevolent African-American characters—when you read Truly Are the Free, you’ll find some deliciously evil people, black and white. But I strived even with these Bad Guys to treat them with care and diligence, to make them fully-fleshed, warm-blooded, three-dimensional.

And I suppose the final lesson I’ve learned is to approach the whole project with a healthy dose of humility. As a fiction writer, I wield an awesome amount of power, the power of life or death, happiness or tragedy. Since omnipotence is a heady thrill, there’s a constant need to check my hubris, especially when writing cross-culturally. There’s always more to learn, after all.

Hope you’ll give my new book, Truly Are the Free, a read when it comes out 30 November [2017]. And of course you can start right now with None of us the Same.

Many thanks for sharing this post, Jeff. Jeffrey K. Walker will be back soon with another article – this one will be on Birth of the F-Bomb. And by the way, you can read an earlier post by Jeffrey titled The Wages of Violence here.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available for pre-order on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

The Character-Driven Story by Mary F. Burns

Mary F. Burns is the author of several historical fiction novels and a book reviewer for the Historical Novel Society. We corresponded back and forth on the topic of character in historical fiction and Mary has now set forth some of her ideas to explore this dimension, a critical element of the 7 elements of historical fiction. Over to you, Mary.

The Character-Driven Story – by Mary F. Burns

About twenty years ago, I wrote a couple of “cozy village” mysteries, literally set in my own “village” of West Portal in San Francisco, with the emphasis on the intricacies of untraceable poisons and evanescent nanotechnology that required significant outlining, planning ahead and scrupulous, detailed planting of clues as well as red herrings—absolutely a requirement if you’re writing a mystery that is plot-driven and complicated. But then I fell in love—with John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) and his friend Violet Paget (1856-1935, aka the writer Vernon Lee). I wrote an historical novel about him and his magnificent and at the time, maligned, portrait of “Madame X”, and Violet was a significant character in the story (Portraits of an Artist, 2010).

John Singer Sargent

Their individual, quirky, wonderful, interesting personalities, combined with their life-long friendship, made such an impression on me that after the novel was finished, their voices and charming ways would not leave my mind. I had read so many letters of theirs, and biographies, and spent hours gazing at Sargent’s paintings and reading Violet’s essays, that these two fascinating people had a hold on me that compelled me to continue writing about them—I wanted everyone to know them as I had come to know them.

So naturally, I turned them into amateur sleuths and started writing a mystery series! Unlike my West Portal cozies, I wanted these new mysteries to primarily portray the characters of these two real-life people whom I loved so much, in addition to being a good mystery, of course.

Violet Paget

Having decided this was going to be a series (and in six years I have now written three), I decided to start when John and Violet were both twenty-one. That way, each book would advance a certain amount of time and I would be able to present the changes and development of the young artist and the young writer as they made their way into the upper echelons of their artistic and literary worlds. Thus, the mysteries that came their way to solve—typically a murder—would serve as the catalyst to delve into and reveal their true characters: how they would react and respond to murder and danger, why they would feel compelled to investigate it, and how their friendship and their unconventional upbringings and education would help or hinder their investigations.

Violet Paget was by far the more pronounced, outgoing, feisty personality of the two, and I chose her voice to tell the stories, in First Person POV. While this has its drawbacks, it makes for a significantly “present” character, as the reader is addressed directly, drawn into her thoughts and fears and doubts, and her sarcastic and irreverent approach to a woman’s life, career and chances of literary success in the late Victorian Age.

Here is how I introduced the series, in the Prologue in the first book, The Spoils of Avalon: Violet is writing in 1926, the year after her friend John died, an event which she feels gives her permission to now finally relate the interesting tales of murder and mayhem in which they were involved:

Sherlock Holmes isn’t the only one who solves mysteries, you know. In our youth, I and my friend Scamps—more formally known as John Singer Sargent—engaged in a fair amount of sleuthing ourselves.

 

She goes on to mention that most of the people involved have also passed on, and then continues:

Modesty restrains me from naming the one who wields the Sherlockian mind, but let me just say, Scamps made an excellent Watson.

Paget writing as Vernon Lee

I wanted to place Violet, with her keen, curious mind and waspish, often self-deprecatory and humorous commentary, at the center of the reader’s journey in this time and space, and as a foil and contrast to Sargent, whose personality was much more reserved, congenial and mellow. As Violet goes on to explain, 

Nonetheless, as a detecting duo, we were extremely well-suited—he was observant with an artist’s eye for detail as well as the nuances of mood and tone, whereas I noticed things out of restless curiosity and, I must say, a suspicious nature attuned to finding fault.

In the first mystery, it becomes rather obvious after a short time who the murderer is, but events occur so quickly, with rising urgency and threat, that the emphasis on Violet’s and John’s rapid detecting is much more interesting and important (if I do say so myself) than that the killer remaining unknown until the very end. (The second and third mysteries are rather more complex, partly I think because I’m just getting better at writing mysteries!)

A young John Sargent

As I mentioned, I read so much of these two persons’ actual correspondence that I have been able to get a true sense of how they spoke, not only to each other, but about events of the day, their opinions, their friendships, successes and failures. John often refers to Vi as “old man”, a common jocularity of the youth of the era, both men and women. Nicknames like “Scamps” were also common among familiars. Sargent was known for his awkwardness in speaking, almost stammering at times, especially in more public situations, whereas Violet was voluble and incessantly talkative, as well as clever and opinionated. Henry James referred to her as a “formidable conversationalist.”

An important element of the lives and personalities of John and Violet was that they were both same-sex oriented; in writing about them I knew that this was a subject that had to be treated with subtlety, for a couple of reasons. First, the self-knowledge of their sexuality would have taken some time, both because of their unusual family lives, insular and peripatetic; and second, because of the mores, strictures and laws of the Victorian Age. Both of them, in later years, were well-acquainted with Oscar Wilde and other notorious gay men of the age—and they saw what happened to him because of his indiscreet behavior. Sargent’s career would have been in ruins if his same-sex inclinations were made public, although as long as men were discreet, nobody cared. Violet, given the separate lives that men and women lived in the Victorian Age, would have had more ‘cover’ for an intimate relationship with a woman friend. The “Boston Marriage”, so-called in the United States, and the necessity of “spinsters” having to live together to make a viable economic household, were too common for anyone to draw anything sexual (or “Sapphic”) from the occurrence. Neither Violet nor John were in any way religious, but social mores would have inhibited behavior that flaunted such activity.

John Singer Sargent 1924

Nonetheless, it has become clear in the scholarship of the last four decades that Sargent was definitely gay and engaged in physical intimacy with other men, from his own letters (not many of which are extant, as he destroyed much of his correspondence, like Henry James) as well as others’ letters and notes about him. The recent exhibition of drawings at the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum of Sargent’s African-American model Thomas McKellar are revelatory of Sargent’s sexual identity. It is less clear whether Violet engaged physically with any of the women with whom she formed relationships in later life, but she certainly preferred the company of women to that of men as intimate companions.

This sense of developing self-awareness is built into my characterizations of John and Violet in the mystery series, and I find it is important to interweave their growing consciousnesses into the stories themselves, which becomes more significant in the latest of the mysteries, The Unicorn in the Mirror, when they are both around twenty-six years of age.

An older Violet Paget

In contrast to my earliest murder mysteries, which were carefully outlined and plotted in advance, my approach to writing about Violet and John’s exploits is more fully organic—once I’ve done the necessary research, I just start writing—their personalities take over pretty quickly, and before I know it, they’re telling me what to write and leading me into all sorts of interesting adventures. I start thinking and feeling like them, especially Violet, and as I work through the investigation along with them, I find out almost at the same time they do, who-done-it and why! Their particular ways of thinking and acting, in their own historical contexts—in short, who they are as persons of their era—have become critical and instrumental elements to solving the murders and crimes they investigate—truly character-driven historical fiction.

What fascinating people, Mary. You’ve certainly made me want to learn more about them. And thank you for exploring the topic of character with me. 

 

You can find Mary’s novels through her website or on Amazon.

The Spoils of Avalon by Mary F. Burns ~~ The death of a humble clergyman in 1877 leads amateur sleuths Violet Paget and John Singer Sargent into a medieval world of saints and kings–including the legendary Arthur–as they follow a trail of relics and antiquities lost since the destruction of Glastonbury Abbey in 1539. Written in alternating chapters between the two time periods, The Spoils of Avalon creates a sparkling, magical mystery that bridges the gap between two worlds that could hardly be more different–the industrialized, Darwinian, agnostic Victorian Age and the agricultural, faith-infused life of a medieval abbey on the brink of violent change at the hands of Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION. FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

 

Finding Authentic Voices by Jeffrey Walker

Jeffrey K. Walker is an award-winning author who came to writing historical fiction from a unique background as a bomber navigator, criminal prosecutor, legal historian, and international attorney. He’s written two novels of his Sweet Wine of Youth trilogy, depicting the epic events and impact of the First World War. As many of you know, I have a soft spot for those who write about WWI. Over to you, Jeff.

Finding Authentic Voices by Jeffrey Walker

My second novel just went on sale, so now with Two Books In A Row I might have something mildly interesting to say. With a big dollop of trepidation considering I’m writing this post for the crazy-talented M.K. Tod’s blog [OK, I’m blushing here – MKT], I’d like to share my struggles to find authentic historical voices.

Like M.K., I write in the period of the First World War. This has distinct advantages compared to writing in Saxon England or Ancient Mesopotamia—there’s a lot of material available. On the other hand, the epoch of the Great War is much more familiar to modern readers than remoter stretches of history. Some might even come preloaded with first-hand accounts from grandparents. This adds a free radical to how readers approach a WWI-era book. Suffice it to say, authors who write Tudor or Regency don’t have quite the same problem.

As historical fiction writers, we’re chasing the bubble of verisimilitude. We’re seeking to lull our readers into a fictive dreamscape set within our chosen period, not pass a blind peer review by a panel of PhDs. Within the superstructure of solid research, we imagine our histories and we therefore have to find voices for the characters we’ve imagined placing there. By this I mean not only their dialogue, but also their patterns of thought, reactions to all manner of situations, and interactions with each other and their world. That’s the challenge in developing richly drawn, three-dimensional characters that engage readers on a deeper level than merely as historical curiosities.

Admittedly, I’m a little neurotic about dialogue. As a result, I spent time researching well beyond what kit soldier’s carried on the Somme or what daytime shoes a woman would’ve worn in 1922 Harlem. In the end, my obsession with authentic voices led me down some interesting rabbit holes.

My biggest and earliest Aha Moment came with Paul Fussell’s 1975 work, The Great War and Modern Memory. Technically a work of literary criticism, this incredible book opened my eyes to the great tectonic shifts the First World War produced in Western culture from top to bottom. The insidious turning of the forces of science and industrial progress to the mass production of death and destruction resulted in a wholesale rejection of a hundred years’ worth of cozy Victorian consensus about the benign progress of modernity. With this personal epiphany, I went off in search of primary sources to find the voices of those who somehow endured 51 months of carnage and privation.

I started by diving headlong into the War Poets. The highly distilled emotion of these poems—some by men like Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen who wouldn’t survive the conflict—established a poignant benchmark for other first-person sources, as well as providing titles for my trilogy and the first book. This propelled me on a free-range survey of other original material.

I was desperate to get the sound, cadence, vocabulary, and idiom of these remarkable men and women into my head. I read all four volumes of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, some Robert Graves, and reread for the umpteenth time Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. I bought used copies of war letters, trench diaries, and memoirs. (I caution against relying on memoirs written more than10 years or so after the War. Rose-colored glasses and all that.) One of the more remarkable of these was a recent translation of the notebooks kept by a socialist barrel maker from the Midi, a poilu named Louis Barthas who served from the first day of the War through the Armistice.

I bought a box of reproduction artifacts in the gift shop of the Imperial War Museum—which led me to spending several hours listening to two dozen songs listed in a Red Cross entertainment program from 1917 to literally get the sound of my character’s music in my ears. On a more practical level, this broad survey of original writing gave me a strong grounding in the slang, idiom, word choice, and level of formality used by people of the period. I found one important exception—profanity. Writers self-consciously cleaned things up, even when writing to their diaries. I found one of the more authentic sources for period profanity to be original lyrics of soldiers’ songs. I refer you to the invaluable Punch publication, Soldiers’ Songs and Slang of the Great War, collected by Martin Pegler.

Then there was the problem of dialect. In my first book, I drew main characters from Newfoundland and Ireland, as well as supporting characters from New York, Boston, Scotland and England. Without a lot of forethought, I managed to stumble into some of the densest dialects of English outside the Caribbean islands.

The dialect issue was a two-axis challenge. Not only did I have to reckon with the regionality, but I also had to place the dialect within a specific time period. This meant expending a lot of effort researching the etymologies of idiomatic phrases. As an example, I wanted to say of my main character Deirdre Brannigan, a delightfully opinionated nurse from Dublin, “Sure, she’d snogged a few boys before…” There were two problems with that little phrase. I knew snogged was British idiom, but is it Irish? In particular, is it something a Dubliner would say as opposed to a Corkonian? Yes? Good. Now, when did it enter common usage on either side of the Irish Sea? Shoot, not until the 1950s. So that phrase never made it into the book, although to my 21st-century Yankee ear it sounded rather old-timey.

And there’s a deeper problem with dialect. My Newfoundlanders presented a stark example of the tradeoff between authenticity of voice and accessibility of dialogue. Anyone who’s spent more than 15 minutes on Newfoundland or watched the later seasons of Republic of Doyle can attest to the impenetrability of Newfounese. Complicating matters, the historical isolation of the various parts of the island has led to some two dozen sub-dialects within a population of 528,000. Yikes.

It took me a few drafts to figure out how best to skin this dialect cat. Particularly with the Irish and Newfoundlanders—two cultures with strong oral and storytelling traditions—I thought it essential to impart some sense of the sound of their dialects. My early attempts at phonetic punctiliousness yielded something impenetrable to all but linguistic nerds. As is often the case, I ended up with a compromise, trying to impart just a flavor of the rhythms and textures while keeping the dialogue comprehensible to the elusive Average Reader. So my Newfounese is something of a pastiche of old idiom and some unavoidably characteristic phrases. Whadda ya at, b’y.

I went through a lot of effort and angst to capture to the authentic voices I was chasing, but in the end isn’t this sort of challenge why we write historical fiction? I’ll leave it to you to judge if I’ve succeeded.

Many thanks for adding your voice to the discussion of historical fiction, Jeffrey (pun intended). You’ve reminded me of the research I’ve done – although not with the same dialogue challenges. Wishing you great success with your trilogy.

Truly Are the Free by Jeffrey K. Walker – Ned Tobin leaves his Newfoundland comrades to join the American forces in 1917. Chester Dawkins, son of an affluent African-American family, joins a newly formed regiment destined for France. They both confront their long-held assumptions and prejudices when Ned is assigned as a white officer to Chester’s “colored” regiment, the 369th. Meanwhile, sister Lena Dawkins secretly chooses an unsavory path to keep her family’s Harlem home. And Ned’s beloved, the alluring Adèle Chéreaux, carries a secret of her own as she flees the Germans to an uncertain future in Paris. In Truly Are the Free, the second book of the Sweet Wine of Youth Trilogy, these intriguing characters from None of Us the Same and some surprising new ones come vividly to life. How do the soldiers of the 369th endure the unspeakable horror? What new relationships lie ahead in Jazz-Age Harlem and avant-garde Paris? Can Ned and Adèle find happiness together?

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.