Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Voices in the Wind

One of the comments I make routinely in contest critiques is, "The hero/heroine has no individual voice."
It's so hard to explain what that means. I do remember Randy Ingermanson saying once that if you could take a block of dialogue from one character and give it to another character with no changes, you were failing. A character needs a voice. In dialogue and in his/her thoughs and actions.
I cut this scene from Gingham Mountain because I thought it showed Grant, the hero, and Hannah the heroine sparring in a way that showed their voices.
Note how they suspect each other of bad motives, which are based on bad experiences from their own pasts.
But also note how Grant, a rancher, thinks in terms of Texas metaphores and with Texas slang and Texas drawl. Grant also always, always, always puts the children's needs before his own.
Hannah was raised in Chicago. Her voice is crisper. She speaks more quickly. Her grammar is better. She was raised hard, but she's trying to display proper manners, mainly because she wants to put her past far behind her. And learning proper behavior is part of that. Hannah is also of a meek temperment, none of which she displays in this scene, but later, when she thinks on this, she marvels at how she isn't afraid of Grant. That becomes very important in the course of True Love. She also has secrets and guards what she says.
This starts in Grant's POV and switches to Hannah's in Chapter Three.
Gingham Mountain

Grant needed a few more moments to reassure the boy, but he had to get this nagging woman off his back. “What is it, Hannah?”

"Well, first of all. . .” Her eyes flashed like summer lightning. “It’s Miss Cartwright to you.”

Grant noticed they were very pretty blue eyes. Too bad they were attached to a fuss-budget who seemed bent on freezing him to death or nagging him to death, whichever came last, because he had no doubt, if he froze here, solid in his boots, Hannah would go on snipping at him long after he’d turned to an icicle.

Grant crossed his arms over his chest. He knew it made him look stubborn, which he wasn’t, he was a reasonable man. But the truth was; he was cold. He tried to look casual about it. Charlie hadn’t wanted to take his coat in the first place, it wasn’t right to suffer visibly right in front of the boy.

“All right Miss Cartwright, what awful thing do you want to accuse me of now?”

Hannah seemed fully prepared to launch into a list of his shortcomings.

Grant braced himself for a blizzard of cold, critical words to go with the weather.

Libby tugged on Grant’s arm. He turned to her and waited to see what she wanted to tell him.

All she did was tug and squirm around, doing a little dance Grant had seen thousands of times before.

Bending close to her, he whispered, “There’s an outhouse behind the depot. Let’s go. Then we’ll head on out to the ranch and get you two out of this cold weather.”

Libby nodded frantically and hopped around a bit.

“Come on, Charlie.” Grant swooped Libby up in his arms.

“Now wait just a minute, Mr. Grant.” Hannah jammed her fists onto her waist.

Grant noticed she wasn’t wearing gloves and her teeth were chattering from the cold, just like Libby’s. She was skin and bones, too and her coat was worn paper thin. He had a moment of compassion for the little pest. She didn’t deserve the compassion, but Grant knew she had to be suffering.

Libby looked back at Hannah.

Deciding he was right about Libby and her friendship with Hannah, Grant, spurs clinking, headed for the edge of the platform. He glanced over his shoulder. “It isn’t Mr. Grant. It’s just Grant.”

“Well, what is your last name?” The woman kept nagging even as he left her behind.

Grant wondered who was supposed to come get her. “I don’t have a last name.”

“No last name?” She seemed frozen with shock but Grant considered the possibility that she was actually frozen. The temperature was dropping as fast as the snow.

Grant and the children started down the clattering wooden steps of the train station. “Libby, what’s your last name?”

Libby shrugged, then clung to his shoulders as they bounced down the stairs.

“Charlie, what’s yours?”

“I don’t have one.” Charlie waved good-bye to Hannah.

“Me neither.” Grant glanced back at Hannah as he got to the ground. “It’s just one of the facts of being an orphan often as not. I did finally get adopted when I was almost grown, but after my folks died, I decided I’d live my life without one so I’d never forget what it feels like to need a family.”

“I don’t expect you to understand, Hannah Cartwright. No one can who isn’t an orphan.” He jerked his chin down in a terse nod at Hannah that said good-bye more clearly than words. He disappeared around the corner, leaving her with her mouth hanging open.

Chapter Three
It cut like a razor to be left standing in the bitter January cold wondering what her last name might be.

The wind whipped Hannah, lashing her like Parrish’s belt. She understood exactly what it felt like to be an orphan. And she knew exactly what Libby and Charlie faced now that they’d fallen into Grant’s clutched. Fists clenched, she wanted to scream at the unfairness that forced her and Libby to pretend that they didn’t know each other. They were sisters, of the heart if not the flesh. They belonged together.

Hannah stared into the cruel blizzard winds, fighting tears that would only freeze on her cheeks if she let them fall. Libby—she had to save Libby. She’d never considered the possibility that Libby would be adopted. No family stepped forward to accept a child who wasn’t perfect.
So why had that awful man taken her?

Had Libby limped in front of Grant? Libby had walked off the train, so of course she’d limped. But he hadn’t been here yet. Maybe he hadn’t noticed. Or maybe the work he had in mind for her might be done by a girl with one badly broken foot. Maybe, once he got her home, he’d realize what he’d done and throw her out, maybe this very night in the middle of a blizzard.
Libby had been thrown out before. She’d been around three, living in an alley, fighting the rats for bits of food, when one of the boys who made up Hannah’s rag tag family had found her and brought her home to the abandoned shed they slept in. Hannah and Libby had been sisters for nearly four years now, and Hannah had yet to hear Libby speak a word.

There were no limits to how cruel people could be. Someone had thrown Libby away as if she were trash. The scars on Hannah’s back attested to the lengths to which her own adoptive father had gone to wrest obedience from his daughters. The instant Grant knew Libby wasn’t perfect he’d get rid of her.

Throw her out or keep her for hard labor, starving and beating her. Either was a disaster for frail, little Libby.

She rushed after Grant but she stopped, almost skidding off the slippery station platform. The snow slashed at her face and the wind howled around her as she tried to decide what to do.
Hannah had to stop Grant. But what could she do alone against him? It was more than obvious that he had no intention of letting her stop him. Making off with two more indentured servants put speed in his step.

She thought of how awful he looked, like an outlaw. Long stringy hair, a smell that Hannah thought belonged to an animal not a man, eyes flashing gold at her, like a hungry eagle swooping down to snatch away youngsters and carry them off to his nest. Captivating eyes that sent a shiver through her when she thought of how they shined out of his grimy, whiskered face. The shiver wasn’t exactly fear, thought. It wasn’t normal that she hadn’t feared Grant. Her fearful reaction to men was something she’d been fighting all her life, at least since Parrish.

Her shoulders squared and she lifted her head as she remembered confronting Grant. Never for a moment had she consider cringing or dropping her eyes. Why wouldn’t Grant have that affect on her, when he was so much like Parrish? A feeling of power firmed her jaw. She’d been taking one daring chance after another in the last few years. Maybe she’d finally built herself a backbone.

She couldn’t defeat him physically, but she and Grace had outsmarted Parrish. And Grant struck Hannah as none-too-bright. She’d have to out-think him.



  1. I'll put the coffee pot on. Our traveling cousins brought us real Kona from Hawaii.

    The voice thing is hard for me. Thanks for breaking it down for us, Mary.

  2. Eek! It's Hannah story! Yay. Sounds wonderful. I'm partial to the name Grant. My hero is the latest manuscript has that name.
    What a great setup Mary! I really hope I can snag this book from a wal-mart.
    Thanks for teasing me...

    About voice, I agree with Ann. It is hard. You have me wondering what the voices of my characters are like.

  3. Your bold print woke me up from a sound sleep.

  4. Morning Mary. Wonderful excerpt, so wonderful I got caught up in the story and forgot to notice the differences in character voice. But they're there and they're strong. Great job!

    And thanks to your setting, I'm also freezing. I've already had my share of our coffeepot so I'm wrapping my hands around a mug of Hawaiian brew. Thanks Ann!


  5. Thanks Mary.

    Ann, Voice is a tough one for me too. This post really helped.


  6. Morning everyone.
    I'm not in charge of imaginary food. I neither provide it nor eat it. Although sometimes, when I read about it, I do leave my desk and go find real food, so I suppose I have some interest in the stuff. Thanks for the coffee Ann.

    I'm having a really good time with my wip which isn't coming out for about two years so I won't go into much detail, but I've been fascinated with western artists lately.
    Fredrick Remington and Charley Russel especially. So I decided to put this man out in the wild west, enthralled with capturing the beauty of nature and have him run head on into --- this is fun --- one of Sophie McClellen's daughter all grown up.
    So, Sally, the eternal tomboy meets the dreamer. They see an elk, she grabs her gun, he grabs his sketchpad.
    I'm having so much fun with this but the voice is a real challenge. He's from New York City, educated, artistic, idealistic.
    She's a Texas girl with the drawl and the attitude. I have to be really attentive to the words to be true to the characters but, when it's done right, it's (hopefully) really fun to read and deeply revealing of character.

  7. Good morning, Mary! Thanks for posting that excerpt. You've created people, not characters. The differences between them all were so obvious.

    Thanks for sharing. Can't wait to read it!!

  8. I also have a struggle with giving men a male voice.
    I catch myself all the time thinking, "That's not a guy word."
    "That's not a guy attitude."

    It's funny how I can look at a dialogue paragraph I wrote, a day later, and think, "Wow, NOT how Grant would talk."
    Then I need to take out, "Yes I mean it." And change it to, "I reckon that's how it's gonna be."

    Also fun.

  9. Mary wakes me up from a sound sleep in general. Just the thought of her, windswept in Nebraska, working for peanuts...

    and I mean REAL peanuts. Yup. That's what they barter with in ol' 'braska. Less'n it's corn, but can't be takin' that from the cattle mid-winter.

    Okay, Mary, this was both a great example and a blatant plug. Perfect, my friend!!!

    And all under the guise of helping. Well done.

    The coffee???? Ann, give me a double shot, sweet thing, I could use it. And since Mary refuses to take care of our guests, I will. I'm definitely more a Martha type than she is.

    And yet the Mary's get all the good Biblical press!!! Just plain wrong.

    Anyway (and don't go dithering about how I just dissed the Bible. Sheesh.) I brought some fried bologna sandwiches, with a selection of mustards. Grant would be a fried bologna or liverwurst kind of guy, like Father Tim and his buddies in Mitford.

    And there's a fresh bag of Tostitos with a hint of lime to go with 'em. And a whole cooler of sodas.

    And more of Ann's coffee, of course.

    Mary, you've always been distinct with voice I think. At least as long as I've known you. And you're not afraid to mix voices, which I think makes it easier, actually. If both protagonists are from the same background and geographical area, it's a little trickier to cement in the boy/girl differences when that's ALL that separates them.

    Great job.


  10. I'M A GRANDMA!!!!!



  11. I sure like Remington and Russell, Mary. Sounds like a great idea.

    About voice -- since I work in a tourist trap -- er, farmer's market -- a lot of people from all over come there. So my job gives me a great opportunity to people watch and eavesdrop.

    I'll try to make the best of it. I'm just not an auditory learner.

    Some old, old books were written in dialect and, holy cow, they sure were tough sledding. "Lassie Come Home" for one. Egad. Yorkshire and Scots dialect. I suppose at the time that's how writers established voice. It's just painful,now, to read it.

  12. Mare, I'm with Janet -- I got too swept up in the story to think about voice while I was reading, but there's no doubt in my mind you accomplished it because I have a clear and distinct picture of both characters in my mind!

    And just for the record, Mare? Nobody does clueless and very male males like you! Great job -- I can't wait to read it!


  13. Congratulations, Granny!! (And to the mom who did all the hard work.)

    I think you do male characters really well, Mary. (I should know--I live with 5 of them and all their friends!) The voice sounds authentic to my ears.

    The thing I have trouble with is making my female characters sound too male or be too male-like in characterization. It's a dilemma for me.

    How do you find the male voice for that character? Do you find prototypes or just write down everything you can for who he is? (and the same for the female character.)

  14. Ruthy, One thing you could consider is, if both characters are from the same area and the same education level and background, making it harder to make their voices distinct, you could make deliberate choices to have them NOT be of similar backgrounds, thus giving you a better shot at Voice.

    Crystal, one of the things I try to remember when doing men is a cliche, which is often NOT true, I know, but there is some truth in it.
    Men Think things through.
    Women Talk things through.

    I have the man, way, way, way under say what's on their minds. I have them take what a woman says as fact, when often it is LACED with subtext that any SENSITIVE MAN WHO ISN'T A CLUELESS CLOD WOULD UNDERSTAND.

    Then we go into the man's head, figure out what he's thinking, have him say it ALL WRONG, or say FAR TOO LITTLE and expect the woman to figure out the rest.

    Clay and Sophie were as much fun as I've ever had with male/female characters.
    The series I'm working on now is Sophie's daughters all grown up. I've got ANOTHER three book series before that, which starts releasing in July. Then we're on to Sophie's daughters. Sally, the little tomboy daddy's girl from Petticoat Ranch is the one I'm working on now.

  15. The first book in the Cozy Mystery series, which releases in June as Nosy in Nebraska, was a lot of fun too. That hero took me a long time to really get a grip on.

    Tall, dark and handsome, but he's stuck with this self image of being a 12 year old, five foot two, 200 lb book worm math whiz nerd who got bullied every day at school.

    So his outer self is so gorgeous and his inner self is pure insecure chaos.
    And, to the world, all they see is the tall, dark and handsome, brilliant, successful, quiet heart throb, so it never occurs to anyone he could be less than utterly confident. It made for a lot of fun writing the book.

  16. Congrats on the grandbaby, Mary! What a thrill!

    When I'm writing, I usually see and hear the characters in my head, which helps the voices come out more realistically, I think. I also (for a male character) try to imagine the words coming out of my husband's mouth. Then I write it the way I want to anyway--LOL!

    Discussions like this one always remind me of Randy Ingermanson's infamous ACFW workshop a few years ago on the male POV. Someone there said we women write male characters the way we WISH men would act and speak. It's fiction, anyway, and we can dream, can't we?

  17. Hi, Crystal. Thanks for the kind words.
    You had a fantastic day yesterday. Maybe you should come in weekly.

    Lots of solid advice in that post.

  18. You know I named Grant--Chance at first. But then I tried to change his name and did a find and replace on Chance, well guess what, I'd used the word Chance in other places...as a word...what a mess that was to fix.

    So, I try to use names that only are names. I named a character Candy once had had some trouble.

    Oh, and Eli. Did a find and replace on him, changing it to Walker, Elijah Walker, but decided everyone would call him Walker except his mother, just imagine how many times the letter combo ELI appears in a book.
    Believe became bwalkereve

  19. Hi Mary,

    Rose here, your Sioux City book signing stalker!

    Great post and excerpt. I just finished Calico Canyon and am looking forward to Gingham Mountain.

    I find that I rely on what each character does as an occupation to help me with voice. For example, an accountant uses words like bottom line and I incorporate it into their thoughts/dialogue concerning other aspects of their lives.

    Congrats on being a grandma!


  20. HEY, ROSE!!! I had so much fun meeting you at that book signing.
    You can stalk me anytime darlin'. There's no crowd, I promise.

    Yes, that's so true about occupation.

    I just read a book where the heroine was a cook and all her thoughts were ... bad examples, excuse me ... I'd like to take a rolling pin to his head. It was a soothing as her best chocolate cake.

    Then I read another one where the heroine was a carpenter-rehabbing houses, and she'd think... I'd like to take a hammer to his head. It was as soothing as the sound of a well oiled power tool...you know stuff like that. It really permeated into every though and phrase. That's a huge source of Voice.

  21. Excellent examples, Mary.

    I can't wait to read this book. Calico Canyon was my top read of 2008, and I suspect Gingham Mountain will soar to the top of my 2009 list. :)

  22. Mary when you come to Denver for ACFW we will plan to take you to the Western art collection.


  23. I'd leave a comment, but the voices of my children are driving me bonkers. I. Can't. Think.

  24. Erica, you sweet thing.
    And I'm up for a museum, Tina. I love them. I know, that makes me an adult, how sad.

    Gina, just remember you're still going to be hearing those voices when the kids are growing. Good to have the kids to blame the 'voices in your head' on for a few years.

  25. MARY!!!
    Quit teasing us with excerpts of your work, esp. when I'll have to wait TWO years to read it.


    *shaking head*

  26. Congrats on being a grandma! That's very exciting. :-)

  27. Mary, thanks for posting the example. I can't wait for the book!!!

    Missy--who just made her first pot of coffee at 8 pm! (decaff, of course.)

  28. Mary, I love Nick in Of Mice and Murder!! I love his voice--the funny, insecure thoughts in his head especially. :)

    Congrats on becoming a Granny!!! You'll always be so fun. Your grandkids will love visiting because you'll make them laugh all the time.

  29. Loved the excerpt. Gotta go read it again looking for voice. All I saw was a great story!

    Also, next time you do a "find and replace" click on "More" and "Find Whole Words Only". That will help.

  30. Mary, this was positively cruel of you to do!! Feed us an excerpt and then cut and run! I'm dying to read this book!

    Thanks for the great pointers you gave about voice --and congrats on a new grandbaby!!