Thursday, August 12, 2010

Speaking about voice, writing voice


What are these dogs doing on a blog about writing and chiru and endangered species?

All will be revealed. And it's all related to writing and chiru.

Today's writers of non-fiction use many of the tools of fiction to make their stories compelling and accessible to readers. One of the strongest tools we have is voice. If we can find a quote from a real character, if we can let our real characters "speak" in our books, these characters become more alive and more interesting to readers. That's why I was so pleased when my research revealed the quote from Wilson Bentley, which in some ways came to symbolize his life for me: "I can't afford to miss a single snowstorm. I never know when I will find some wonderful surprise." Bentley didn't say that because he was getting rich from his snow crystal photographs. He regularly spent more than he took in. It was his personal account book, his "beauty in the world" account book that he needed to keep a balance in. And the quote, the voice, told us that.

When writing the chiru story, I wanted to give voice to the people who worked to rescue the chiru. I wanted readers to hear the desperation in George Schaller's voice when he said, "Wearing a shahtoosh shawl is the same as wearing three to five dead chiru."

Voice sets one character apart from another, helps us to distinguish and remember characters. For example, I am visiting my sister Laura and her husband Bruce these days. Laura and Bruce have a dog Izzie. Izzie has a couple of friends--Geordie and Maisie. They are all Border Terriers. But they are so different. Geordie (top) is a worrier. Izzie (bottom) is exuberent and always hungry. Maisie (middle) is alert for the chance to do the work of terriers (she has had several unhappy encounters with skunks).

If I were writing about these dogs, of course I would write about how each spends a morning: Geordie, watching from someone's lap--and worrying; Izzie prowling the kitchen floor for scraps and wildly greeting all who come to the door; and Maisie chasing squirrels outside. And I would give them a voice:
Geordie: Is everything going to be ok? Can you be sure?
Izzie: Yum, yum, raw carrots. I'll be your friend, friend friend.
Maisie: The squirrel ran around a tree and I ran around a tree then the squirrel ran across the back yard and I followed and we were both running, running I was barking barking barking and then the squirrel ran up the tree. Next time, I know I know I'll get that squirrel.

A good exercise for students, or any of us who want to write better, is to find a few photos of distinctly different characters--people or other animals--and invent a voice for each. What would each be worried about? What kinds of words would they use, big words, little words, verbs, lots of flowery adjectives? Would they repeat certain words? Ask a lot of questions? I have had the experience many times of finding a story when I found the voice of one of the important characters.

Playing with voice is useful for non-fiction writers, too, even though we can't invent a voice for a real character (unless we speculate based on the best information we have and say "maybe she said...." or "He might have said..." ).

The more we know about voice, voices and what they convey,the better able we are to choose the quotes from our research into a character that will help us to tell his or her story.

(dog portraits by my friend, Liz Wiesen, co-parent, with my brother David, to Geordie and Maisie)


  1. Jacqueline, I'm writing with my long-loved copy of SNOWFLAKE on my desk.
    Looking forward to the chiru story. This is a lovely blog.
    Jan Godown Annino

  2. Thanks, Jan. How can one go wrong with three great dog photos?
    And--I'm so glad you like the story of Wilson Bentley's life. I always have, too.