Thursday, October 27, 2011

Finding Your Voice

Authorial voice. What the heck is it, what's it good for, and how do you get your own?

For writers, voice is a word we see in critiques and in submission guidelines under What We're Looking For, along with great plots and relatable characters.

For readers, voice is something to discuss at book club. Ultimately, it's what draws you into a story and keeps you there.

A strong, clear authorial voice is an asset to both writers and readers.

What the heck is it?

In writing, voice is simply the way an author speaks on the page. It's the summation of word choice, syntax, rhythm, and so forth.

What's it good for?

An author's voice is unique to that individual. It's how we distinguish ourselves from other writers.

To illustrate, here are brief passages from two nineteenth century novels:

Example one: Summer passed away in these occupations, and my return to Geneva was fixed for the latter end of autumn; but being delayed by several accidents, winter and snow arrived, the roads were deemed impassable, and my journey was retarded until the ensuing spring. I felt this delay very bitterly, for I longed to see my native town and my beloved friends. (Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, first published in 1816)

Example two: The first part of their journey was performed in too melancholy a disposition to be otherwise than tedious and unpleasant. But as they drew towards the end of it, their interest in the appearance of a country to which they were to inhabit overcame their dejection, and a view of Barton Valley as they entered it gave them cheerfulness. (Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen, first published in 1811)
This sweet face authored your earliest

These passages are similar in both topic and theme (travel, unhappiness), and were published only five years apart. Though there are just two sentences in each passage, Shelley's feels as if there are more, due to the rhythm she creates with punctuation. The first sentence has six phrases separated by commas or semicolon. By contrast, Austen's long sentence (the second one) has only three phrases separated by commas. Shelley's pacing invites the reader's eyes to linger, while Austen's sentences can leave the reader feeling like she needs to catch her breath when she finally reaches a period. Shelley's writing employs plainer words, while Austen tends to the florid.

Despite the similarities in these two brief passages, there are sufficient differences--thanks to each authorial voice--that the two would not be confused as coming from the same writer.

This ability to distinguish oneself from other authors through a strong voice is especially important in genre fiction, such as Romance or Mystery, in which many other writers are telling similar stories. Off the top of my head, I can tell you the stand-out characteristics of a handful of Romance authors--and all those traits relate to voice. Wittiness or concise writing or lyrical prose will appeal to different readers, and keep the ones who appreciate that voice coming back for more.

How to develop a voice of your own

Whether you write a blog, a novel, a poem, or indignant letters to the editor, finding and using your authorial voice is important. How do you do that?

The good news is that, to an extent, your voice comes naturally. You probably never put a lot of thought into your conversational speaking voice. The words you choose to use, whether you inject your speech with sarcasm or humor, these are things that come naturally to you. So, too, will your writing voice.

Try it with a little Ozzy this time.
Write in the way that feels most comfortable. Don't try to force yourself to be something you aren't. For instance, I adore good snark when I'm reading a piece, but that's just not how I write. I can inject some levity into my own work, but I will never be a humorist. Follow your natural inclinations where they lead.

If you just aren't sure what your voice is like, try out different styles of writing. Maybe your prose is witty like David Sedaris, or stark like Hemingway. Try on various styles and see what fits. Be aware that your authorial voice might be dissimilar from your speaking voice, or they might be nearly identical. The two are different animals, though, so don't try to force your writing voice to be the same as your speaking voice.

Finally, write, write, write. The more you write, the more comfortable you will become with your voice, and the clearer it will be. Just as a young singer may have a sweet singing voice, it takes effort and practice to hone that voice into a clean, unique instrument.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Growing (Vocabulary) Pains

Watching children grow is bittersweet, as any parent will tell you. It's so exciting to watch those first steps, to see that first tooth, to run beside them on their first bike. Yet there's sadness, too, at leaving earlier stages behind. Those little infants I held in my arms and recited poetry to turned into toddlers who couldn't wait to run away from me at the park. The fact that they always come running back again doesn't quite soothe the hurt of the initial running away. I know that they'll never be mine quite as much as they were before. And so it goes, day after day and stage after stage. Growing and changing and moving farther away from me.

Soon enough, she'll inform you that
she never asked to be born.
The physical development of children is one thing, but it's their cognitive development that'll really break your heart. Since I'm blogging about it, of course I'm thinking about words. Their words. A child's words.

Children discover the power of words alongside learning to roll over or hold a spoon. They learn their name is a special word that refers only to themselves. They learn that calling to Mama by name will summon her as effectively as crying. Words empower children to describe the world around them and to express the world within them.

Inevitably, though, children will wield words as weapons. Their efforts at word hurling can be humorous in the beginning. It's hard to take a tiny tyrant seriously when she screams that you're a stinkyhead.

Giggle as we might, however, children deep down know that words can be just as painful as a physical blow. A child will report an incident of name calling as quickly as they tell on another child for slapping. Parents must teach children to speak kindly, just as we teach them not to hit.

 All the while a child is learning how to express himself in words, he is also learning to respond to the words of others. Hearing that he is loved, or clever, or has done something well gives a child joy. Children crave those words of encouragement and affection. Such verbal affirmations help children feel safe and secure.

A mother's pipe dream

On the other hand, sadly, children feel pain when hurtful words are thrown at them. Holding my son in my arms while he wept over the terrible things a friend said to him is one of the most trying things I've gone through as a parent. Cuts and scrapes can be washed and bandaged. Illness can be treated with medicine. But once someone hurts your child with words, there's no magic mommy kiss to make it better. All you can do is try to ameliorate the damage. Eventually, they move past it--a little tougher, a little wiser, a little less innocent.

Such incidents have happened, and will happen, again. And again. The words a child hears subtly change who they are and who they become. Even after a child develops the coordination to stop tripping over her own feet most of the time, she will still cause and receive hurt with words. Childhood tantrums become adolescent breakup speeches become adult sharing bad news. We carry the tantrums and breakup speeches and gossip and name calling with us, too, forever hurting one another. Words are the childhood trauma none of us escape.

Friday, October 14, 2011


October is my favorite month. November is a close second, but October is tops in my heart. It's my birthday month, but it isn't just the promise of my beloved cake that makes October so special. We'll get to some of the other amazing things about October shortly, but I had to share this word-related information with you first.

Every year, I wonder about the origins of the name "October," so I go read about it and it makes my brain hurt so I willfully forget until next year when I start the cycle all over again.

Is that guy's tunic doing what I think
it's doing?
October carries the Latin root octo, which means "eight." You may have noticed that October is the tenth month of the year, but it wasn't always. In the old Roman calendar, there were ten months in the year, of which October was the eighth. Now it's the tenth of twelve, but we still call it Eight. Got it?

Lots of the other months have cool etymologies, like the names of gods (Janus, Mars, Maia, Juno); or the names of historical figures (Julius and Augustus); or just really awesome words. February is named for the Roman purification festival Februa, and April comes from the Latin word aperire, which means "to open," on account of all the blossoming flowers and whatnot.

Then autumn rolls around, and we have September (septem = seven), October (octo = eight), November (novem = nine), and December (decem = ten). Numbers. And not even the right ones anymore. When January and February were tacked onto the beginning of the year, evidently no one could be bothered to renumber the calendar, or come up with any other deities or persons worth honoring with their own months.

So, that's all kind of dry. And wrong.

*Blind warrior woman and sword
sold separately.
Heaped on top of the wrong-number-for-a-birth-month-name thing, I was also born under the zodiac sign Libra, the scales. Of the whole zodiac, Libra is the only inanimate symbol. Everyone else gets scorpions and lions and virgins, but I got stuck with a side table decoration from Pier 1. I don't put any stock in zodiac stuff, but scales just aren't as inspiring as a crab, you know?

But there's lots of great stuff about October, too, which make it the very best.

There's the fact that it isn't summer. I live in the South, and summer here is pretty much hell. Hot temperatures combine with high humidity to stew us in our own sweat. Summer kicks in somewhere around Easter, and doesn't let up until late September. We just experienced one of the most brutal summers on record. The current temperatures still aren't what most people consider fall-like, but at least we're out of the triple digits until next year. October means an end to the homicidal weather. The cooler days invite us to leave our air-conditioned caves and come outside again.

October means Oktoberfest which means German food and beer. Beat that, June! Oh wait, you can't.

Pretty leaves.

Pretty leaves!

There's a feeling of good will in the air. It's all harvesty and bountiful and generous. We're not cranky from the summer heat anymore. The children are back into the swing of school, and the holidays are just around the corner. Looking forward to the good times on the horizon puts a spring in my step.

Halloween is so much fun. I love to see the kids in their costumes, dashing madly from house to house to accumulate their sugar horde. Plus, you can leave a pumpkin uncarved and it'll transition from Halloween to Thanksgiving. Pennywise porch decorations make me happy.

This gentleman knows how to get into the seasonal spirit.

Enjoy the rest of your October, dears. I know I will.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Breast Cancer Awareness, Regency Style

Every October, pink merchandise shows up on store shelves, and pink ribbons appear on media personalities. Pink has become a color of the season almost as much as the oranges and burgundies marking the trees as the year turns.

Instead of pink-washing the Ball to show my support for breast cancer awareness, I thought  we'd take a look at how a woman of the Regency era may have confronted this disease.

To begin, cancer has been recognized since ancient times. The oldest recorded observations of cancer come from Egypt, in approximately 1600 BC. The Greek physician, Hippocrates, theorized that cancer was caused by an imbalance in the four humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. An excess of black bile was the cause of cancer, Hippocrates believed. The second century Roman doctor, Galen, agreed with the Hippocratic view and declared cancer to be incurable. He allowed that some breast cancers could be treated by the surgical removal of tumors, but since surgery itself carried grave risks--and because the cancer often returned--operations were rarely attempted.

Galen's writings remained medical gospel for more than a thousand years, his theories unchallenged. At the time of the Regency, many physicians, surgeons, and apothecaries still accepted the four humors theory of health, which is why blood letting was practically a national pastime for centuries.

More fun than cricket.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the involvement of underarm lymph nodes in breast cancer cases was discovered, although removing them during surgery was tricky business and not usually attempted.

By the mid-eighteenth century, modern-minded surgeons had abandoned the humors theory of cancer, and brainstormed new ideas. It was observed that sometimes multiple women in the same household developed breast cancer. This led to the conclusion that cancer is contagious. Cancer patients were isolated in hospitals to prevent the spread of the disease.

Did you hear about Old Man Hunter? He's
got this crazy idea about mothers passing
a predisposition for breast cancer to their
daughters. Did you ever???
The eminent Scottish surgeon, John Hunter (1728-1793), was among a group of surgeons who arrived at a different conclusion when confronted with the above scenario: hereditary disposition. Today, we understand the genetic inclination for breast cancer between generations. In the 1700's, however, Mr. Hunter's notion was controversial and dismissed by traditionalists as phooey.

So, what could a Regency lady expect when this terrible disease struck? If she had the financial resources to choose treatment, she would decide whether to first consult a physician or a surgeon (I previously explored the British medical hierarchy here.) A physician would not conduct a physical exam, but he would suggest a course of medication.

There also arose a subset of physicians and apothecaries who claimed to be able to cure cancer with their proprietary concoctions. Arsenic was a popular choice, the idea being to fight fire with fire--or in this case, poison with poison. A recipe called Plunkett's Poultice included the following ingredients: Crow's foot, dogfennel, brimstone [sulfur], and white arsenic. The ingredients were ground together into a powder, then mixed with an egg yolk to make a paste, which was applied to the cancer site and covered with bandages. As you might imagine, arsenic-laced medications did nothing to cure cancer, and actually hastened the deaths of quite a few patients.

Surgery was also an option, and the area of medicine which showed the most success and progress in the late 1700's and early 1800's in the treatment of breast cancer. Unfortunately, surgery was carried out without the benefit of anesthesia or effective pain relief medications. Post-surgery infections were common, and blood loss during an operation was an additional risk. Lumpectomies and mastectomies were performed to ensure what John Hunter called the removal of the "whole disease." He urged close inspection of the removed tumors to ensure they were intact. Regarding a particular case, he said, "I considered that the bad success arising from amputation of the breast arose from not taking away enough." A post-op inspection of the excised tumor revealed it was not intact. Two weeks later, another surgery was performed to remove the remaining cancer.

Okay, a little bit of pink.
One of Hunter's colleagues, Henry Fearon, advocated the early removal of breast cancer--another idea centuries ahead of its time. In a 1784 publication entitled A Treatise on Cancers with a new and scientific method of Operating, Fearon laments: "In most cancers (those of the breast especially) internal ulceration takes place long before the skin shews any tendency to ulceration [...] It is unfortunately the case, that patients can seldom be convinced that there is any necessity for an operation while the disease continued in a mild state; whereas, that is beyond all doubt, the most favorable period for extirpating it." [source]

The Regency breast cancer patient had limited options for treating her disease. As today, some of the brightest minds in medicine and science worked diligently to find effective treatments, while charlatans preyed on the vulnerable. Our chances of successfully fighting this disease are much greater now thanks to the work of John Hunter, Henry Fearon, and all the other surgeons who developed pioneering surgical techniques. But as Mr. Fearon said, early detection and treatment is the key to success.

Consider yourself aware.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

On Research

It's no secret that I'm an incorrigible word fanatic. Words are to me like watercolors are to a painter, or like clay is to a potter. They are the medium through which I express myself, and I love spending time with them and choosing the right ones to do the job.

But if word nerdery is my college major, then history is my minor. One of the reasons I know I've found the right period in which to set my stories is that I get so darned excited about research. Learning about the British Regency is downright thrilling to me; I never tire of it.

Someday I'm going to spend hours reading out of print
books and Googling obscure terms and boring
everyone in my circle with outdated facts.
Just you watch me, Mama. I will!
I've just begun the research phase of a new project, so I'm riding high on the research thrill. Hunting down material is part of the fun. It's part detective work, part scavenger hunt, part tabloid reading. OK, so the scandals might be a couple centuries old, but I do enjoy sharing the juicy tidbits I run across in my reading. Mr. Boyce and my friends have all been subjected to monologues that begin, "You will never believe who Caroline Lamb had an affair with." I'm very grateful to the people in my life who humor my little historical tirades.

A fun aspect of focusing on a particular time period is that there is always more to learn. Just when I think I've got a good handle on the various types of carriages, I discover that my story requires I learn about horse breeds, stables, and animal husbandry. My novels have so far sent me delving into obvious topics such as fashion and manners, but also into fascinating subjects like period microscopes and botany.

I have a tiny personal reference library (more of a reference shelf, to be perfectly accurate) that I constantly turn to for guidance. A few of my old reliables: Our Tempestuous Day, by Carolly Erickson is a wonderful overview of the Regency period's social and political landscape. Regency Style, by Steven Parissien is a great reference for architecture and interior decorating, while English Women's Clothing in the Nineteenth Century, by C. Willett Cunnington helps me dress my characters. Mr. Boyce once surprised me with The London Encycolpaedia, by Christopher Hibbert, and it has been an invaluable addition to my collection.

Whenever I read about the Regency, I find my mind spinning little wisps of stories around the people and events I discover. Some of these have found their way into my writing, some have been filed away for later. I hoard historical tidbits like precious gems waiting to be strung together.

I love the writing, I love the words, but I also truly adore the period. Researching the British Regency lets my inner historian run the show for a while. It's lots of fun, and a crucial aspect of my work.