I’ve always been fascinated by different accents and verbal mannerisms. I find them so interesting that on occasion I slip into mimicking the person I’m talking to in an attempt to literally capture their voice in my head. Before I can stop myself, I find I’m turning a Kiwi or a Texan; a Scouser or a Glaswegian. (It’s amazing I’ve never been thumped!)
I love writing in the first person - for me, it’s the best way of climbing inside the story - so getting a character’s sound right in my head is essential.
Hearing voices all started with 100% Pig (A&C Black). It wasn’t the first book I wrote, but it was the first one to appear in print. I’d already decided the hero was a Tamworth pig on the run from the sausage factory. My plot was sorted. But how to tell it? How did he speak?
The answer came in the middle of the night. Terence – a custard swilling egomaniac with a fine Australian accent – rootled his way into my dreams and started talking about his impeccable pedigree.
Once I had his Aussie accent, there was no stopping him. I wrote the first draft in a matter of hours, talking ‘Australian’ out loud as I typed so I could capture Terence’s voice.
(I should point out that I’ve never been to Australia. I learned the accent off the TV as a student, watching The Young Doctors when I should have been writing essays. Which just goes to prove that, in the life of a writer, nothing is ever wasted!)
As well as comic and adventure books for 8 – 11 year olds I write serious historical fiction for Young Adults. Obviously voice is no less important, but with these books it is much more complex.
With Apache I was writing in the voice of a girl for whom English was not her native language. While I was researching, reading the first person accounts of Native Americans who had lived through terrible times, I was struck by their eloquence. Their rhetoric had a grace and dignity - a kind of Shakespearean quality that I tried hard to capture. The same was true of The Goldsmith’s Daughter: the Aztec accounts of the conquest have a beauty and power that I wanted to mimic.
I could hear both girls’ voices in my head all the time I was writing, but speaking their words out loud was a different matter. The Goldsmith’s Daughter was nominated for the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and at very short notice I had to dash to Hay on Wye for an appearance at the festival. I was delighted until I was asked to read an extract from the book. Looking at the page I realised that not only did I not really know how to pronounce the Aztec names properly, but that the voice I had in my head was a world away from the south-east accent that comes out of my mouth! I was tempted to keep the reading very brief but I discovered that actually my own accent didn’t matter: people could hear Itacate’s voice through mine.
As for Charley O’Hara and Buffalo Soldier: her rich, warm speech flowed inside my head like molasses while she told her story. (Think of comedian Reginald D.Hunter’s accent and you’ll more or less have it.) Listening to it while I was writing was the most wonderful experience. I hope reading it is the same.