How audiobooks helped me find a voice
Caroline Lawrence's latest book The Case of the Good-looking Corpse is set in the mile-high mining town of Virginia City in 1862, when her 12 year-old misfit detective hero rubs shoulders with Mark Twain, Dan De Quille and Joe Goodman as they witness shootouts, fires and poker games.
Here, she tells us how audiobooks have helped her to create authentic voices in her historical fiction:
When I was a teacher, I discovered that people favour one of three learning modes. We are either predominantly visual (we like seeing things), auditory (we like hearing things) or kinesthetic (we like doing things). Good teachers will use all three modes to reach their students.
The same goes for storytellers. In the world of storytelling I think movies appeal to the visual mode, plays to the auditory and platform games to kinesthetic learners. A writer of novels depends on visual and auditory modes. We all know authors who are superb at capturing dialogue but not so good at painting the world. And vice versa. An author will strive to be good at both.
My main mode is visual. I want to be able to see my world and I want my readers to see it, too. For me, dialogue has always been a challenge. After a conversation, I can rarely remember exactly what was said; only the gist. This was a disadvantage when my son was still at home. He favours auditory mode. He could always tell me exactly what I did or didn’t say.
Researching my new series set in Nevada in the early 1860s, I discovered a vast wealth of primary sources. As well as books and short stories, there were diaries, letters, newspaper accounts and even reports of the proceedings of the Territorial Legislature. The literature of this time and place is often dubbed ‘Sagebrush Literature’ after the scrubby little plant that dots the Nevada deserts and perfumes the air. ‘When crushed,’ wrote Mark Twain, ‘sage-brush emits an odor which ain’t exactly magnolia, and ain’t exactly polecat, but a sort of compromise between the two.’
The most famous of these ‘sagebrush writers’ was Mark Twain, but there were others who were just as drily witty: Dan De Quille, Andrew Jackson Marsh and Alf Doten, to name a few. In dipping into their articles, essays, journals, stories and poems, you taste the primordial literary soup from which Twain crawled.
I love the slang that has passed out of use:
'Hell did pop' - Doten
'He kicked up thunder' - Doten
'Flew like a streak of chalk' - Doten
'The new mines are a bilk' - De Quille
'There are always some companies in "borrasca" - out of luck' - De Quille
'He did it in a hurry-skurry fashion' - Marsh
'The whole capoodle' - Marsh
'The council met at high 12' - Marsh
'I got the dead-wood on him' - Twain
'I don’t care a snap' - Twain.
I love 1860s slang that is still around:
'stuck up' - Twain
'Don’t get huffy' - Twain
'They entered the saloon to take a nip' - Marsh
'Keep your shirt on …' - Twain
'That girl is one in a million' - Twain
'ruffle your feathers' - Twain
Certain phrases make me chuckle:
'First it blew, then it snew, then it thew, then it friz' - Doten
'I like myself first rate and think I am some punkins' - Doten
'Expectation stood on tiptoe' - Marsh
'You are a liar from your midriff up' - Marsh
'Tar-head belles used to cast soft glances upon his manly form' - De Quille
'He was a love of a dog, and much addicted to fleas' - Twain
'The cat let fly a frenzy of cat-profanity' - Twain
'Would have made a Comanche blush' - Twain
Some phrases confound me and require further research:
'a basket of champagne?' - Marsh
'three cheers and a tiger?' - Doten
'living on alkali water and whang leather?' - Rollin Daggett
I want my characters to employ these same delicious words and expressions. I want to have these phrases right at the tip of my brain so whenever I reach for an idiom or word it is right there. The problem is: I’m a visual learner. Auditory stuff doesn’t stick. So how do I get it in my brain? Audiobooks!
I listen whenever I can. Not just during my daily walk or while travelling on public transport, but when I am making my breakfast, unloading the dishwasher, putting laundry in the machine. Even little five or ten minute chunks can be useful. I’ll often be listening and hear a phrase and pause the audiobook and run to my computer and plug in the phrase. (The audiobooks are all on my iPhone now so I can stick it in my pocket put in headphones and have it wherever I go). For a while I tried putting on Huckleberry Finn or Walt Whitman during one of my powernaps. Unfortunately it’s a myth that you can learn while asleep. You definitely have to be awake.
Here are the three types of audio I employ to get the sound of period narrative in my head.
Primary Sources - I love listening to books written during my time period, the mid-19th century. Mark Twain’s Roughing It, The Innocents Abroad, Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn. Bret Harte’s The Luck of Roaring Camp has stories about the California Gold Rush, while it was going on. Ambrose Bierce, the cynical Civil War writer, also helps me get into the mindset of the period. Poetry from Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman set a mood. George Alfred Townsend’s contemporary account of Lincoln’s assassination, The Life, Crime and Capture of John Wilkes Booth, has more concrete descriptive detail than any other writer I’ve found; but is also richly peppered with period expressions. I even have Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens on my iPhone audiobook library, because that’s the book Twain and his pals were reading in 1861.
Historical Fiction - True Grit by Charles Portis is famous for its quirky narrative and dialogue, all historically accurate. My favourite audiobook of all time is Donna Tartt’s reading of True Grit. It is pure genius. A couple of other great Western novels I listen to over and over are Boone’s Lick by Larry McMurtry (read by Will Patton) and Appaloosa by Robert B. Parker (read by Titus Welliver).
Homemade Recordings - Some of the letters and legal proceedings I really want to imbed in my brain are not available on audiobook, so I read them into my iPhone and then listen to myself reading them. This is doubly good because reading out loud involves the kinesthetic (doing) as well as the auditory (hearing) and the two together are a powerful tool.
If you listen to something over and over, it becomes part of you, and even if you’re a visual thinker and writer like me, you can begin to achieve the special voice that tells your reader they are in another place and time. The spoken word on tape, CD or digital download is a fabulous resource for many writers and one that has not been available until recently. Long live the audiobook!