In which we’re addressing voice

I’m currently in NYC where I’m busy researching–poisons for everyone!–and making my second appearance at Lady Jane’s Salon, but I thought I’d repost these two blog entries that address questions from aspiring writers on how to refine voice.

I had a question earlier this week from a reader and aspiring writer that I thought might interest a few of y’all.

Things have progress fairly well so far with my historical romance. My best friend is my critique and she is loving it so far, but has pointed out that there are times that my writing sounds to modern. Do you have any tips to avoid sounding(writing) like this. Any books you could recommend would be helpful.

Two things come to mind. First, is your best friend qualified to offer a critique? That is not meant to be snarky, I promise. But BFFs are rarely good in terms of being able to offer incisive, effective criticisms. I have cautioned writers before–and I will do it again–be EXTREMELY careful to whom you show your writing. Every time you hand that book off, you give up a little bit of your power. Make sure you give it up to someone who can really help you.

Now, having said that and assuming your friend is spot on, how do you fix sounding modern in historical fiction? Immersion. You need to read and listen to as much period syntax as you can. When I need a booster shot of historical speak, I read books not only about the period, but written IN the period–novels, journals, biographies. I also watch films set in the period, and I try to be mindful of differences in geography and economy. A Parisian countess will not speak the same as an English maidservant, even if they’re both living in 1750.¬†Listen to audiobooks of period fiction. Then go back and read your own work aloud and see where the rhythm is wrong. Extend your contractions into separated words; I occasionally use contractions in my work because late Victorians used them, but only when speaking casually for the most part. Look at your vocabulary too. Did you say mirror instead of looking glass? I am firmly convinced that some of the ability to create period prose is inherent, like a good ear for music. Some people are able to do this effortlessly, but it is possible to train your ear even if it doesn’t come to you easily.

Question two…

Some time ago an aspiring writer wrote to ask my advice on how to make her fiction less clinical. She felt her work lacked color and soul and was too detached. I told her I figured she had two choices: play to her strengths and take up technical writing or start reading poetry. No one sums up so much in so few words as the poet. No one can pluck the heartstrings so quickly or so deftly, and no one can surpass them for metaphor. Whether the poetry is lyrical or gritty, it will be delivered swiftly and with just so many words as are necessary to convey the desired image. Poets use their pens to cleave straight to the heart of the matter, avoiding the unnecessary accessorizing which can clutter up a scene to distraction. Poets choose each word as carefully as they might choose a lover, with care and patience and perhaps a background check to ensure a perfect match. Poems are the little black dress of writing, simple and timeless and infinitely variable.¬†Poems are unexpected. You might think you know what you’re getting into with a poem, but it will surprise you. Poems are the guests who drop by with a violet velvet cape and a plate of pistachio macaroons, inviting you to take tea on the moon. They are a cheap luxury–gems of eloquence and philosophy strung on a rhythmic ribbon, waiting to dazzle you.