A very interesting post on Elizabeth Spann Craig’s terrific writer’s blog has got me thinking about author voice. Elizabeth makes the well-taken point that it’s important for an author to find her or his own natural voice and use it. She’s right. Readers can tell when authors are using their own natural voices; the work reads more authentically and the story flows more smoothly. And that makes sense. Think for instance about how much more comfortable and less ‘forced’ you sound when you’re just speaking naturally than you do when you’re, say, in front of an audience or a piece of recording equipment. It takes time and confidence for an author to find that voice, but when it comes through, it can add immeasurably to the quality of a book.
Agatha Christie fans will know that she began publishing in the early 1920’s. And some people argue that her earliest works don’t all show her at her best. But as time went on, her voice became more and more confident and authentic, and we see that in several of her best works. For instance, many people (‘though certainly not all readers) think of Ten Little Indians (AKA And Then There Were None) as one of Christie’s finest novels. Part of the reason for its high quality is arguably that she had really found her ‘author’s voice.’ In that novel, ten people receive invitations to spend some time on Indian Island, off the Devon coast. For different reasons, each accepts the invitation and everyone travels to the island. On the first evening at the island, one of the guests suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Late that night another person dies. Then there’s another death. It’s soon very clear that someone has lured these people to the island and seems to be killing them off one by one. As the surviving guests come to realise this, they also see that they’ll have to find out who the killer is if they’re to stay alive themselves. The language in this novel isn’t stilted, the characters interact in believable ways, and we get a very clear sense of setting and context. In other words, the novel isn’t self-conscious, and it reflects Christie’s own voice effectively. It’s not the only example of the way her voice comes through in her work, but hopefully it suffices to show you what I mean.
Denise Mina’s Garnethill trilogy (Garnethill, Exile, Resolution) is also arguably a strong example of an author’s voice coming through effectively. The trilogy follows the life of Maureen ‘Mauri’ O’Donnell, a Glasgow ticket-taker (at first) who in Garnethill gets involved in a murder case when her former lover Douglas Brady is found murdered in her home. In Exile and Resolution, we see what happens to Mauri as she finds out who killed Brady and later, gets involved in other cases as she moves along in her own life. Throughout this trilogy, the style is clear and confident, and it’s very authentically Glasgow. Mina’s voice comes through without being stilted. These novels are stronger (well, to me anyway, so feel free to differ if you do) because Mina wrote these novels in her own voice, not by writing ‘the way you’re supposed to.’
Carl Hiassen’s writing also features a strong author voice. He has a background in journalism and a necessarily cynical outlook on a lot of what large corporations and powerful politicians do. He also has a strong sense of humour. We see all of that come through in his novels. Books such as Lucky You and Skinny Dip feature the South Florida ecological and environmental issues he is concerned about, the skewering of corrupt and greedy stakeholders and real wit too. And the novels are not at all self-conscious. Hiaasen’s voice is confident and clear throughout the stories, and his approach to storytelling makes it clear that he’s not writing the way someone’s told him ‘people ought to write.’ He has a unique voice and it’s evident in his work.
I’ve only recently (well, this year) been reading Nelson Brunanski’s rural Saskatchewan novels, and at least for me, part of the appeal of them is that Brunanski’s authentic voice comes through. The protagonist in this series is fishing lodge owner John ‘Bart’ Bartowski. He’s a ‘regular guy’ with a wife, two children and a home to keep up as well as his lodge. There’s nothing superhuman or ‘official’ about his investigations. In Crooked Lake for instance, he gets drawn into a case of murder when his friend Nick Taylor is accused of killing Harvey Kristoff, a board member at the golf course where Taylor works. Taylor claims he’s innocent and asks Bart to help clear his name. Throughout this and the other novels in this series, it’s easy to ‘hear’ Brunanski’s strong Saskatchewan voice coming through. The dialogue isn’t forced, the characters are authentic and the mysteries unfold naturally. And part of the reason for that is that Brunanski uses his own voice.
That’s also the case with Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski novels. As Paretsky fans know, Warshawski is a Chicago PI who has a special attachment to cases involving the disenfranchised. She’s lived and worked in Chicago all of her life and it’s easy to see both her and her creator’s attachment to the city. We also see Paretsky’s voice coming through in this series in terms of the cases that Warshawki investigates. They reflect Paretsky’s views about several human rights and other political and social issues. But it’s more than just the themes of the novels in this series. Paretsky’s voice also comes through in the real-life dialogue, the distinctive Chicago atmosphere and culture, and the true-to-life characters. And Paretsky started this series at a time when ‘everybody knew’ that PI’s were ‘supposed to be’ tough-guy males. She used her own voice though and didn’t write ‘what everybody thought she should write.’ The result has been one of the more popular and enduring modern crime fiction series.
Deon Meyer’s novels also reflect a very strong author’s voice. His standalones feature different protagonists (although some, like bodyguard Martin Lemmer, appear more than once), but all of them are distinctive South African characters with distinctive South African voices. Rather than following a ‘prescription’ for what a thriller ‘ought to’ be like, Meyer uses his own voice to tell the characters’ stories. Or rather, his voice comes through as they tell their own stories. And that, to me anyway, allows for deep character development, solid plots and a uniquely South African atmosphere. Oh, and in Meyer’s case, it’s hard to overestimate the value of K.L. Seeger’s translation. It’s challenging enough for a translator to convey a story’s elements, let alone the author’s unique voice. Seeger does so very effectively.
Of course, there are a lot of other superb examples of novels and series where the author’s voice comes through loudly, clearly and confidently. And that can add immeasurably to one’s reading experience. I’ve only mentioned a few; which are your favourites? If you’re a writer, how do you focus on telling stories in your own voice? Thanks, Elizabeth, for the inspiration.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Madera and David White’s You Don’t Own Me, made famous by Lesley Gore.