Author voice versus Book voice

I share many of my own characteristics with my characters – if they have my paranoia or my faith it gives me a sort of trap door into their minds through which I can get in there and rummage around to see what else there is.

I may have mentioned before that the particular aspect I gave poor Conrad from By Honor Betrayed was my decision making process. Like him, I can’t help revisiting every thought, decision and action endlessly, trying to make sure I’ve seen all the possible angles, been as fair as I can be, guessed as many of the reasons behind [whatever] and attempted to predict any and all consequences from any and all possible actions.

This makes it hard to say anything with certainty, and means I often end up coming back and semi-contradicting what I said earlier. And ever since I posted that post about finding your author’s voice, I’ve been plagued by the thought that I might not have covered the full complexity of things.

Firstly, I stand by my opinion that you don’t need to go looking for your ‘authorial voice’. I still think your over-all style, the thing that makes your writing yours and when distilled smells of “essence of Beecroft” (not honestly a thing that sounds terribly attractive) is something you don’t have to go looking for. It will turn up on its own as you write and continue to write.

However (there’s always a ‘however’) I do think it’s important to point out that each individual book has a voice, and that does need to be found.

If I’m writing a book set in the 18th Century, I write in a different way to how I write contemporary. Because I’m a very instinctive writer – I do stuff without knowing why I do it – I didn’t really notice this fact until I started writing A Pilgrims’ Tale. When I wrote Shining in the Sun, I knew that something in me rejoiced in the ability to run wild and free with characters who were suddenly allowed to utter elegant sentences such as “Oh fuck you, you fucking wanker!” And to be able to use words like “psychiatrist” and “aspirin” and “Volkswagen.” That was terribly exciting, but I didn’t really give it a second thought until I had to shift gears again and start something Saxon.

A Pilgrims’ Tale is set in early Anglo-Saxon England, in the days when the English Language looked like this:

þær ic ne gehyrde
butan hlimman sæ,
iscaldne wæg.
(There I heard naught but the roaring sea, the ice-cold wave.)

And to me it seemed obvious that I couldn’t possibly use the same ‘voice’ for a story set in the 8th Century as the voice I used for the 18th or the 21st. The way people use language says so much about their attitudes and their beliefs that to use modern language for the past, or historical language for the present sounds ridiculous and falsifies the way people think.

When I read the journals of an 18th Century writer, I’m always struck by the careful but confident elegance of the way they express themselves. You can feel the spirit of the age in them – in the way that they make such an effort to be civilized, urbane and delicate – and yet keep slipping into roaring, lively vulgarity. They’re a noisy, self-confident people with lots of animal vitality who are trying to tame themselves for the sake of civilization. And if you can get all of that from the way they express themselves, then the writer can get all of that across to the reader simply by allowing the book to speak in the same way. (Or at least, as close as you can get without losing your modern reader altogether.)

But when I read Anglo-Saxon poetry I get something very different. Although the undercurrent of lively vulgarity is still there, the overcurrent (so to speak) is in a much more minor key – it’s melancholy but strong. It laments the hardships of the world and finds consolation in reputation and shield-brothers, in a good lord and the possibility of doing the right thing. It’s fatalistic and – if not despairing – it is resigned to the futility of everything in this world and the inevitability of death.

Somehow, using a language that has changed so much from its Old English roots that you need dictionaries and grammars to translate it, I have to find a voice for this book which captures something of the proud, grim, beautiful act of endurance that was life in Saxon days. I have to find a voice for this book which is different from my 18th Century voice, and different again from my contemporary one.

How to do that?

For me the first step is always reading what the people of the time have written. You really can’t get into their heads in any other way. No amount of looking at grave goods or reading text books can substitute for reading the actual people’s actual words. How else would we know that the Saxons were plagued with thoughts that the days of glory were gone, the ancient works of giants were destroyed and they were living in a mean little post-apocalyptic world where nothing would ever be as good again?

Dagas sind gewitene,
ealle onmedlan
eorþan rices;
The days are gone of all the glory of the kingdoms of the earth;

How else, too, would I know how they expressed themselves, and be able to take elements of that to use for myself?

Once I’ve read a lot of original source documents (even if it has to be in translation) the way they express themselves will begin to sink in. With the Saxons I notice that the words are simple, but the phrases alliterate, and the whole thing has a beat like a drum. I notice the tendency for certain sentences to sound a bit like proverbs – and I remember that outside the monasteries this is an oral culture, so people need mnemonics to help them remember things. There’s a heaviness, a portentousness there. These are serious-minded people.

And all of that is stuff I can do myself. So when I started writing A Pilgrims’ Tale, I deliberately chose simple words with English roots over complex words with French roots. (My characters ‘turn thoughts over’ rather than ‘consider’ or ‘cogitate’ or even ‘reflect’.) My scop (bard) character has a tendency to speak in alliterative verse – because he’s been so highly trained and memorised so much of it that that’s how he thinks. And everyone has a tendency to offer each other gnomic pieces of advice, and faintly regret that they weren’t born in a more splendid time.

The result of which is that A Pilgrim’s Tale will have a very different ‘voice’ to anything I’ve done before. It’ll still be my authorial voice, but it’ll be what my voice sounds like when speaking about the Saxons. The book voice will be different, whatever makes me me (and therefore my author voice) will be the same.

Here endeth my needless complication on the idea of ‘voice’ 🙂

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