First of all, thanks to Liane for inviting me here today. I received plenty of writerly advice on my way to publication and I’m always happy to pass on what I’ve learned. So if you’re an aspiring writer, or a reader who’s interested in peeking behind the wizard’s curtain to see what sort things authors angst over, I invite you to pour yourself a cup of coffee and join me as we take a look at ‘the Devil in the details.’
Actually, it’s more like the author’s voice is in the details. For me, the thing that establishes that elusive quality we call voice is word choice. The words we choose establish a tone, create a mood and hook our reader with an unusual turn of phrase. Sometimes it’s a matter of using a word in a totally incongruous setting. My hostess, Liane Spicer, does this brilliantly in the opening of her Café au Lait:
‘This is no way to die.
Shari walked a gauntlet of male eyes as she made her way along the aisle of the aircraft.’ (Liane Spicer, Café au Lait)
First she propels us into deep POV by letting us hear the panicked thoughts rolling around in her heroine’s head. I defy anyone not to read on after that first sentence. Liane could have then told us plainly that her heroine was feeling as if all the guys in the plane were ogling her, but the use of the word ‘gauntlet’ in a fresh way hooks me big time and gives me further insight into Shari’s state of mind. She’s feeling totally threatened, but Liane has shown me, not told me, so. What a lovely compliment to a reader. She respects us enough to let us bring something to the reading experience. Only two sentences in, but I know I’m in for a story well-told.
MaidenSong that demonstrates the principle.
‘The wrinkled little face puckered and the newborn shrieked as if Loki, the trickster godling, had just pinched her bottom. Helge wrapped the child snugly in a cat-skin blanket, crooning urgent endearments.’ (Mia Marlowe, MaidenSong)
Mention of Loki lets readers know they are not in Kansas, but the real risk in this little snippet is the cat-skin blanket. It’s historically accurate to the Viking culture, however, I knew I might really upset cat-lovers with the phrase. Using the fur of an animal we think of as a beloved pet telegraphs that this story takes place in primitive culture, one that’s not quite safe. Coupled with urgent endearments, it makes you wonder why Helge is so anxious to quiet the child.
Touch of a Rogue, I paired some unlikely details for my first sentence:
‘The bed creaked out a merry rhythm of squeaks and scritches, like a chorus of tree frogs.’ (Mia Marlowe, Touch of a Rogue)
By starting with a bed, I’m letting readers know this will be an adult tale. But the merry rhythm of squeaks and scritches is not a usual sensual detail for a romance. It’s not sexy, but it definitely creates a sensory impression. As a side note, I had to fight with the copy editor to keep scritches. She insisted it wasn’t a real word. It may not be, but I maintain it conveys exactly what I want my readers to hear. Then by adding a reference to tree frogs, a perfectly absurd pairing with a bouncing bed, I’ve implied that Touch of a Rogue is going to have plenty of light moments. And besides, when tree frogs sing it’s because they’re “in the mood for love.”
I was able to make the first sexual encounter in my story a little ridiculous because my hero isn’t in the bed. He’s under it. His lover’s husband came home unexpectedly leaving him with no other choice but developing a deeper acquaintance with dust balls. And a fresh aversion to tree frogs.
Every word counts. As well as showing clearly what’s happening in the story, our words are all preloaded with tons of subtext. And sometimes, it’s what’s inferred by that subtext that’s even stronger than the surface sense of the prose. It’s responsible for the tingle a reader gets when she reads a passage and doesn’t realize why she feels that way. Beneath the words, the real story lies. An author depends on her readers to find the true tale embedded in the ink.
GIVEAWAY! I’d love to take questions or comments. If you’re working on something you’d like my input on, ask away. If you’re reading something that’s struck you as out of the ordinary, please share. I’ll reward those who speak up by offering a Touch of a Rogue to one lucky randomly drawn commenter.