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July 2008 Worlds Apart


July 2008 Issue

The Narrator’s Voice

Part II


Last month we looked at the question of the voice used in the narrative portions of a story set in a past time. That is, that portion separate from dialogue. Since a writer’s voice is the very essence of what makes that writer different from all other writers, one cannot provide any sort of formula to be used; however there are some things to take into consideration.


The most important of those is to understand that the voice employed ought not to be at variance with the content of the story. Simply put, that means a modern narrative style seldom works for historical fiction. The use of 21st century words, phraseology and expressions is anachronistic.


Sounds obvious, I know, but it should never be lost sight of as you work towards creating the world in which your story is set.


The thing is, it’s so easy to let inappropriate words or phrases slide in under your radar. The solution? Stay focused. Maintain constant vigilance, re-read regularly. I find it helpful to read whatever I wrote the day before (I write every day) so that I can keep everything consistent. It also helps me to re-establish the picture in my mind before I actually start putting words onto paper.


Something I find particularly helpful is to read out loud when I’m checking over something I’m working on. If you listen to the sound of what you’ve written, it’s often easier to pick up on small errors, if there are any. Once your ear is trained you won’t have any trouble catching the odd word or phrase that seems ill-chosen.


Another helpful idea for me is to pay special attention to any sharp contrasts between the sound of the dialogue and the sound of the narration. If not identical, they should be as close as possible. 


One of the finest writers of historical fiction, Patrick O’Brian (Master and Commander, The Unknown Shore), has mastered the art of matching narration with dialogue such that his writing forms a seamless whole that transports the reader back to the eighteenth century. I would recommend either of the books mentioned above as an example of first class historical fiction.


Now we come to the most difficult element in this realm. Its solution resides mainly in experience and practice, and it’s this: Don’t overdo it. Don’t try so hard that your writing sounds artificial or contrived.


There are no rules or guidelines to fall back on when it comes to knowing how much is enough. You should read the acknowledged masters: Ellis Peters, Patrick O’Brian, Bernard Cornwell, or in fact any other well-known writers of your own choice to see how they do it. Notice how they manage to strike the right balance between enough and too much. The essence of the thing is that the reader should not be distracted, nor should the language employed obscure the content of the story. Ellis Peters (The Brother Cadfael Mysteries) does this better than almost anyone I have read. She is able to use all the necessary technical terminology and dialogue, archaisms and speech patterns to re-create the world of a Benedictine Abbey in twelfth century England. There are no distractions, the flow is perfect, the balance between narrative voice and dialogue is flawless and nothing is overdone.  I have studied Peters’ work extensively and read all her Cadfael books at least four times. They are each not only exquisite examples of the best in historical mystery writing, but they are also a kind of tutorial if you keep yourself aware of the issues you want to analyze. There is no better way to learn the art and craft than by careful, analytic reading and continuous practice.



Write on,