So Just Let Me Be Myself*

Author's VoiceA 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Carl Hiaasen, Denise Mina, Deon Meyer, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Nelson Brunanski, Sara Paretsky

25 responses to “So Just Let Me Be Myself*

  1. Great post, Margot. I hadn’t thought about the authorial voice in quite this way before, but I absolutely know what you mean.

    I was talking about the Garnethill trilogy with a crime-loving compadre just yesterday: I’ve not yet read these three books, but think the fact that you’ve mentioned them again today is a sign that I should get to them sooner rather than later 🙂 Thanks too for bringing Nelson Brunaski’s work to my attention.

    • Mrs. P – Thanks for the kind words. It is really interesting (well, it is to me) how much an author’s voice affects the way we perceive that person’s work. Authors’ voices vary, and they should, but I do like it when you can see that voice coming through in a story.
      And I do hope you get the chance to read the Garnethill trilogy. It’s gritty, it’s real, it’s…great crime fiction writing in my opinion. And I like Brunanski’s work very much too. Nice, clear style, great sense of setting and atmosphere, well-drawn characters and believable mysteries. I recommend them.

  2. I have read Elizabeth’s post and I agree with you. Voice is so important. I know when I am writing with my voice and when I am not because when I write with my voice it flows better. I have not perfected my voice and perhaps it will take years but it is a goal I am striving for.

    • Clarissa – I think it does really take time, work, etc., to find one’s voice. And more than that, it takes some confidence and the ability to relax and ‘let it happen’ for that voice to come through in one’s writing. But when it does come through, you’re right; things just really flow so much better, don’t they? I think it’s important that we keep that as a goal when we write.

  3. I know we’ve discussed this before: loving Ellie Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway novels. Right from the first page of the first book I thought she got the voice of Ruth AND Harry perfectly – two very different characters, but both done superbly, and the books have only got better over the years. I am looking forward to a long series! But she seemed to get her authorial voice right off the bat….

    • Moira – I couldn’t agree more. Griffiths has a wonderful authorial voice doesn’t she? And you’re absolutely right that she’s spot-on with both Galloway’s and Nelson’s voices even though they are different people. That takes some skill. I’m glad you brought up this series. I was going to mention it myself, but I don’t like my posts to go on for too long. You filled in an important gap there.

  4. Margot, this is very interesting. I did enjoy Elizabeth’s post and even tried some of the other links there. Most of the Christie that I have read is from the 1920’s, so it will be interesting to see how those compare to Ten Little Indians. The other authors…all of them… are ones I want to read. I will try to pay attention to voice when I read those. Sometimes I feel like I don’t notice elements of style that other readers pay attention to.

    • Tracy – If a story flows well and is held together effectively, you may not notice its elements. Sometimes everything is so subtly woven together that it’s hard to tease apart the elements. I will be really interested in what you think of Ten Little Indians. In some ways it’s reminiscent (to me anyway) of Christie’s other novels, but it also has some real differences. I think it’s one of her really strong stories.

  5. kathy d.

    I concur about Ellie Griffiths’, Sara Paretsky’s and Denise Mina’s voices coming through their protagonists. They are different but so realistic.
    The Garnethill trilogy is great, full of Glasgow grit and Maureen O’Donnell’s determination to solve crimes and exact revenge.
    V.I. Warshawski and Ruth Galloway are terrific women characters, different from each other, but strong and smart, V.I., being the feistier of the two.

    • Kathy – I think that all three series really do reflect strong author voices. And that is part of what makes those series strong. Those authors have confident, clear voices that add to their stories. And you make a well-taken point about how different those series are. They certainly are different to each other, but they’re all strong examples of author voices that really add to the stories.

  6. Margot: Within a few pages of reading a legal mystery I can usually tell if the author is a lawyer. (Michael Connelly is an exception.) I am sure part of that is the way in which the lawyers speak in the book. I cannot characterize the style specifically but it is there. I expect you can tell whether a professor in a book was written by someone who has lectured to university students.

    • Bill – I can indeed. I know exactly what you mean and I see that in Gail Bowen’s work, for instance. Profession is part of what makes the author’s voice unique, and it’s interesting when that aspect of it comes through in an author’s writing.

  7. You mention quite a few of my favourites there. That distinct voice really makes all the difference – I can forgive lack of plot or bland atmosphere as long as that voice is really strong. It’s probably something that is much harder to do in 3rd person, though – most of the authors you mentioned write in 1st person. One of the authors who does manage that beautifully is Georges Simenon – I would always want Maigret to be covering my back, helping solve any problems in my life.

    Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett of course had very distinctive voices as well, but the problem is that they’ve been imitated so often that it no longer sounds fresh.

    • Marin Sofia – You know, I was thinking about that as I was writing this post. Most of the authors I mentioned in the post do write in the first person, and I wonder if that choice of person makes it easier to allow one’s voice to come through. Simoenon is an example that shows clearly that it isn’t always necessary, and Elizabeth Spann Craig also has a strong author voice but uses third person. Still, I think you’re on to something. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s some sort of relationship there.

  8. I completely agree with your comments on Agatha Christie. Her early books, although enjoyable, seem heavily influenced by previous writers, particularly Conan Doyle. I much prefer her ‘voice’ when she gets into her stride.

    • Sarah – I prefer Christie’s own strong voice myself. Her earlier novels have interesting puzzles in them and they are as you say enjoyable. But it’s those more mature ones that really show her at her finest.

  9. Will Carver is an author whose voice I really like. His crime fiction has a thread of the creepy, weird, thrown in and this unusualness along with his own strong sense of voice really makes his a strong series for me. His third novel is due out in November and I can’t wait for it. As Marina mentions as well, Carver writes in first person.

    My first novel which is being edited before submission to publishers is also in first person and for me I did find I was able to sit down, relax and let the work flow and hopefully, what you hear is my voice.

    • Rebecca – Thanks for your insights on letting you own voice come out. I’m not surprised that you find the first person an easier way to express yourself. I’m really excited to read your novel, too! I hope it’ll come out soon.
      Thanks too for mentioning Carver’s work. I have to admit I’m not really familiar with his work, but from what I’ve heard, it’s worth reading.

  10. I agree with this up to a point. For novelists, I think it is much easier to have a consistent voice. But in some sense, it means a writer is not getting inside the head of various characters much and the writing can be flat. And for short story writers, varying the voice is pretty key for me. I don’t like a story told to me my an omniscient narrator no matter how good the voice, I like the characters to speak for themselves. And that means different stories seem to be written by different voices.

    • Patti – That’s a very important point. If the characters are flat and uninteresting it doesn’t matter how good the rest of the story, including the author’s voice, is. And there are big differences between the way one writes a short story and the way one writes a novel.

  11. As a reader I think an author finds his or her voice more easily in a series or where the lead character is often the same, like Poirot and Marple, than in successive standalone novels.

    • Prashant – Now, that’s an interesting proposition. It makes sense too, when you think of the fact that in series, characters, setting and so on develop over time.

  12. I have a really long list, Margot. The first ones that came to mind were Craig Johnson, C. J. Box and William Kent Krueger. Among my favorite female mystery/thriller writers, I’d mention Jamie Freveletti, Betty Webb, and Sophie Littlefield, If a writer doesn’t have that special voice, and if his characters don’t have their own distinctive voices, I lose interest pretty fast.

    • Pat – Thanks for those suggestions. All of those authors really do have strong authentic voices that you can really ‘hear’ as you read. And I think that fact adds to their stories. As you say, if the writer doesn’t sound distinctive (and especially if the characters don’t), then the story does get ‘flat’ very quickly.

  13. Pingback: Finding Your Voice | ellenbooks blog

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