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Finding Your Voices by Lissa Oliver

Article by Lissa Oliver © 7 October 2019 .
Posted in the Members' Blog ( ).

Writing a book is much like reading one, I’ve always maintained. I’ve come at a book from both sides of the page, so to speak! When writing, I become intimately involved with the characters, follow their every move, am never quite sure how they’ll react and am often in suspense. It’s hopefully the same when I’m reading a book. Similarly, we don’t always get time to sit down with a book, whether to read it or write it.

As much as I enjoy my job as a journalist, I do often wish I could retire and simply concentrate on the novel-in-progress instead! But I have been rewarded for my diligence (or lack of diligence, re the novel?) by a 12th successive nomination for the prestigious annual Derby Awards, so suddenly the interruption to my next book is worthwhile! This year, my cover features have seen me through to Horserace Writer of the Year, a prize I’ve been runner-up for three times in the past. I have also gone forward for the new award of Specialist Writer of the Year, so if I’m lucky in that it will not only be my own first, but a notable first!

It’s lovely to be rewarded, although the fact that I’m dining out on the nomination alone shows how pessimistic I am when it comes to an actual win! But the really rewarding thing is to be able to do such a day job and reflect on how useful it is for the proper job of novelist.

When facilitating a creative writing class recently, I noticed how difficult it was for emerging writers to create natural dialogue. Even the most skilfully-crafted characters become cardboard when they open their mouths to reveal stilted speech lacking in emotion.

As an example of the many variances of speech, dialect and even mannerisms while speaking, I took out my working notebook. It had recently been filled by quotes from various horseracing professionals, in response to the one question. The question may have been the same and in many cases the answer was the same, but the way in which it was answered varied dramatically. “Listen, Lissa, we’re very happy with him.” “What do we think of him? We’re delighted!” “Let me tell you, we’re very happy with him.” “Well now, I’d have to say I’m very pleased.” I could add the tilting of the head, the study of the toes before speaking, the mischievous twinkle in the eye, the hand placed on the arm, the many other mannerisms that accompany the spoken word.

These are the details that make us unique, and fictional characters believable. Just as I could put a name to each quote, simply by the choice of words and delivery, so a reader can identify a character by his or her dialogue. If the dialogue is stiff and unnatural, the character loses his or her identity. And the reader loses his or her engagement and empathy!

I realised how invaluable my working notebook has been to me over the years. Of course, I’ve been writing novels far longer than I’ve been writing non-fiction, but I’ve always been blessed with ears on elastic and keen observation skills, two things that top any author’s CV! But when a turn of phrase is truly unique to a person, or particular group (era, age group, clique), it can be so alien to the listener that it’s hard to correctly remember and reproduce. Having to write down what you hear certainly trains your ear and provides a helpful reference when memory inevitably fails.
I even found in my notebook a segment of teenage conversation I’d overheard on a bus, littered with “this one time…” and which I’d hastily jotted down. Even if I could remember how I’d talked as a teen, it would be 40 years out of date! And so I advised my creative writers to spend the week ahead eavesdropping, with notebook in hand. Be it from the telly, a café, the bus or the kitchen table, jot down as many remarks as possible and get a feel for the idiosyncrasies of speech and turn of phrase.

If you breathe life into your characters, they must speak for themselves. Don’t let them simply use the words of their page-mates and lose that life.

(c) Lissa Oliver

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