Monday, March 19, 2012

Keeping my characters talking

It's a whirlwind writing semester for me, as I bounce back and forth between writing fiction and poetry and trying to simultaneously market two novels and a collection of stories. Well, maybe "market" is a loaded word when it comes to the story collection, Island Fog. I've been editing it again recently and have submitted it to a couple of contests. I like the historical fictions I've written since last summer and added to the first half of the book. It's on account of these fictions that I've remade the book and am excited again about finding a readership for it. (I wrote about this in a previous post, I know.) But, like all historical fictions, this group of stories does raise various questions about what I can and am "allowed" to do. I was confronting some of these questions the other day when I looked over one story called "King Philip's War," set in 1823. The two key characters in the story are boys, one twelve years old and the other ten. The older boy is caucasian of English descent; the younger is a mixed-race child, half Wampanoag and half Irish. They live on a relatively deserted part of Nantucket island, and thus the two are more friends by necessity than choice.

It's a somewhat dialogue heavy story, at least compared to the other historical fictions in the collection. And this raises the complicated question of how a writer can effectively mimic the speech habits of an earlier era. I think this is one of the hardest aspects of composing historical fiction, one in which a writer, if he allows himself or herself to, can feel very straightjacketed. The "rules" for writing exposition--at least the practices I follow for myself--seem fairly straightforward: try to name things as they would have been named at the time; avoid contemporary slang or any expression that sounds too much of our own time; avoid blatantly anachronistic technical or medical knowledge; be true to attitudes that would have prevalent in the era, while recognizing that just as in our own time different people will different opinions. Beyond that, when writing exposition I simply try to compose good sentences. For a twenty-first century author to try to directly imitate the written English of the 1700s, let's say, or 1452, is, in my opinion, to risk something that comes across as forced and phony--and thus not alive. (What written English to use to suggest the written version of a non-English language from long ago is a whole other question.)

When writing dialogue, the matter gets more compicated, but the issues are similar. The characters ought to sound like they could exist in the given time period, but they can't sound like stick figures either. And the latter, to be frank, is the bigger issue, in my opinion. Some authors, like Geraldine Brooks in Caleb's Crossing, try to make the speech of her characters sound like what she imagines 17th century New Englanders might actually have sounded like. This might seem like a self-evident strategy to employ in writing historical fiction, but it's never a straightforward matter, because if one is writing about an era prior to the invention of sound recording, one's decisions about what spoken language sounded like is inevitably based on written language. And then, of course, one must ask, Who's written language? It gets fairly dicey fairly fast. Imagine if someone in the future made decisions about how we all talked in 2012 based solely on our written language, or only on the written language of a minority of the population. Now, this isn't to say that a historian or linguist or creative writer can't locate written documents that might reasonably suggest how some people talked in a given era--I know there are documents out there that linguists rely on--but, even then, if you base your dialogue strictly on what can be found in such sources, you are acting more as the copyist than the writer. In my opinion. Will your characters be able to say what they need to say, and more importantly, will their speech sound alive to your readers' ears--as alive as speech sounded to real speakers back in the real time--or will it sound stereotyped? I bet that if one conducted a study of historical fictions from various decades or centuries one would find that the "historical" speech of the fictional characters comes relatively close to the sound of speech in the era when the book was written. There's a reason for that. We don't want our characters to sound like--or be--stereotypes. Ever. Stereotyping means a character's--and a book's--death.

So what I decided, finally, to do with my two Nantucket boys is to allow them to sound incompletely of the 19th century. I've denuded their speech of any modern terms or slang, of course, and I took away some of the many contractions I originally inserted. But I also left several contractions. Because to my ears and my readers' ears, characters that speak without contractions will sound stultified, overtly mannered--and neither of these boys are mannered people. Even if their speech is not very accurate to the time; it's accurate to their character. And that's what I've decided is more important.


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