Accent on Character

by G. B. Pool

Talking Mouth

I have mentioned before that “Dialogue is the workhorse of the novel or short story.” It provides plot advancement, character development, and action or movement. In a way, it sings. In other words, it brings the story to life.

A character blurting out information that advances the plot is far more interesting than a long narrative description of same. Through dialogue we discover personality traits about the various people who populate our stories. How a person speaks and acts while talking says a lot more about him or her than words alone. And dialogue provides real time action. You are in the room with the characters as they speak. You’re eavesdropping or right in the middle of the conversation. Or the character might be speaking directly to you.

“There’s someone sneaking up behind you. Watch out!”

Got your attention, didn’t it? That’s what dialogue should do.

In order to know how a character speaks or acts, or even the words he uses, you must get to know your characters… intimately. I suggest that you write a biography of at least your principle characters so you know who they are.

First, make the characters seem real to you as well as to your readers. Let them speak to you and trust them. Most writers will tell you they actually “hear” their characters, and it is that particular “voice” that makes a character unique.

Talking Mouth 2Here is one really cool way to make a character different: Whether he or she is a major or a minor actor in the piece, give him or her an accent. That doesn’t mean you have to write their dialogue all in French or Pig Latin. In fact, too much of a good thing can turn off your readers. But a word or phrase sprinkled in to give the reader a taste of that foreign accent, regional twang, or distinctive way of speaking… speaks volumes.

An accent or even a stutter tells something about the character, at least where he comes from or maybe why she knows so much about French cooking. And it’s fun. It breaks up the monotony of every character sounding alike. A Southern belle would have far more sass that say, a straight-laced New England spinster. And a gal with a lisp can add a little color, especially when she struggles to tell about “a thip thinking in the harbor.” How long will it take for folks to realize there is a ship in distress?

Here are a few examples that might get you in the mood to try an accent:

 

An Accent Enhances the Character:

 In a simple scene where you have a neighbor who makes a guest appearance, why not make her colorful? The first example is a neighbor with no personality. The second example gives her some character.

  1. “Sweetheart, something has happened to your living room. Did you perhaps get another dog?”

vs.

  1. “Honey, somethin’s happened to yer living room. Did ya’ll get another dawg?” (from Hedge Bet)

 

Mexican senoritaHow About a Foreign Accent?

Let’s try Spanish –

The volcano erupted again. “No. No. NO! My Franco no cheat. He best jockey in dee worlds. He no fix dee race. Meester Paul Bradshaw, beeg shot at dee track, pick my Franco to be dee one to give check to Jockey Fund.”            (from Hedge Bet)

 

One thing I do when writing these accents is to put the foreign word or mispronounced (and misspelled) word in italics so the reader gets the hint that the word is supposed to be that way and that I’m not a poor typist or speller. It also makes reading those words a little easier because the reader goes along with the gag.

 

Maybe a Speech Impediment Might Add Character:

Remember, not everyone is Laurence Olivier with a perfect English accent. Take for example a time when your main character encounters someone who is going to give him information. What if she is both colorful in looks as well as speech? This old dear lisps and isn’t exactly a rocket scientist, but boy does she have character.

 

Mouse stopped eating. He must have been rethinking his desire to find the king’s killer. He gazed in the direction Buttons had taken and I think he would have bolted had PJ not spoken.

 

“We never thee what the people in the truckth are doing,” PJ said. “They want uth out on the thtreet or in the front of one of the thtoreth keeping them occupied.”                        (from Only in Hollywood)

 

What about a New England Accent?

Pahk ya cah in the rear so ma customers don’t think we’re bein’ raided,” said the woman.

Harry followed the two women inside. Before Jane looked at the copy of the photo from Evelyn Wright’s passport, she yelled over her shoulder to the L.A. cop, “Shut the doh-wah, honey. Don’t want any vermin gettin’ in the crockery.” (from Closer coming in 2019)

 

Try an accent the next time you want to shake up your dialogue. It brings added interest to your story. And when you “hear” how others speak you just might want to let some of your characters have a go at it. It’s fun and lets you stretch those writing muscles.

Travel

 

 

“I say, ’avin’ an accent is a bit of all right. So ’ave a go at it, guv.”

 

Thanks for dropping by. Write on. G.B. Pool

BREAKDOWN – LOSING THE CULTURAL TIES THAT BIND

Breakdownby Paul D. Marks

As writers we want to convey certain thoughts, emotions and ideas to our readers. To do that we may use literary or historical allusions, scientific and cultural references. And, for the most part, we expect our reader base to have a degree of shared knowledge so that when we mention certain things, anything from Freud and Shakespeare to Billie Holiday or Queen Victoria—who gave her name to a whole era—to the simple phrase “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” they’ll be able to understand what we’re saying and relate to it. And if they don’t know something to hopefully look it up.

 

Unfortunately, our cultural ties-that-bind are breaking down, not being passed on to younger generations. Yes, I know, every generation says this regarding the successive generation. But I think it’s gotten worse in the last few decades. Blame the media or social media, blame the internet, video games, teachers, the educational system, parents, the breakdown of the nuclear family. Blame whatever you want, from whichever side you’re on, but it seems to be true regardless of the cause.

 

For a variety of reasons, younger people today seem very uninformed about history, literature, pop culture (except their own pop culture), high culture and most other things that came before them. And sure, in every generation something gets left behind. When I was a kid I might not have known who Catherine the Great or Katharine Hepburn were. W.E.B. Du Bois or Jorge Luis Borges. Or the difference between Benny Goodman and Beethoven. But eventually they came into my consciousness, because I was curious and because I was exposed to them one way or another. But people today don’t know major figures from the recent past or even from the present. They don’t know what major wars were about or even have a clue as to when—or that—they occurred. And they barely know major figures from the past, who they were and what they did, people like George Washington, FDR. Lincoln. Cesar Chavez. And for many of them it doesn’t seem as if this knowledge ever seeps into their consciousness.

 

CasablancaWhen I was going to pitch meetings in Hollywood, I would start off talking “normally,” as if the people I was pitching to had a shared base of knowledge with me. I quickly learned that wasn’t the case, so I dumbed down my pitches to not include anything that might make them feel insecure or ignorant. Hell, they didn’t even know the great movies, so it was hard to reference them as well. Sure, they’d heard of Casablanca, but most had never seen it. So if I was pitching something that was “a modern day Casablanca,” I had to do it by describing the plot in detail and maybe, or maybe not, throwing in a line about it being a modern day Casablanca.

 

And these were not dumb people; many of them came from and still come from Ivy League schools. Even so, they wouldn’t know such basic things as World War II or who fought on which side in Viet Nam or what the Cold War was and who was on which side there. Or that a “black comedy” doesn’t necessarily mean it has African-American characters. They also might not know basic phrases or expressions, like the one about the camel and the straws mentioned above, so you’d have to explain the meaning to them. Once you have to do that you’ve lost.

 

And this doesn’t only apply to Hollywood people, I’ve run across it talking with psychologists and other professionals while doing research, as well as people I meet in everyday life. Basically many under the age of forty or so, and plenty over forty too. What I’m saying here may be anecdotal, but there have also been studies and “quizzes” that prove the same thing. Some years ago, I remember seeing a questionnaire of, I believe, journalism students, showing how little they knew of the world around them, past and present. I was shocked by it, because if anyone should be curious about history, their history, world history, current events, you’d think it would be journalism students.

 

Many of the great works of literature have biblical references, but again, these people are unaware of them. Hemingway uses biblical allusions in The Old Man and the Sea, The Sun Also Rises and other works. Moby Dick, considered by many to be the greatest American novel, is filled with them. T.S. Eliot uses them in The Wasteland. And Bob Dylan uses biblical allusions in many songs that would go over most people’s heads today. Even the TV show Lost used biblical and literary influences. I wonder how many in the audience knew what they were or bothered to look them up. How can they know what any of these people are talking about or trying to say if we don’t know what they’re referencing?

Old Books

Shakespeare

 

The same goes for Shakespeare, Greek mythology and other references to great works of the past that our society was built on. Even popular author Stephen King uses biblical and Greek mythology references and foreign phrases in some of his writing.

 

I remember looking up foreign phrases all the time when reading various things. So much so that in the pre-internet days I used to keep both a regular dictionary and a dictionary of foreign phrases close by when I was reading. I would look up references I was unfamiliar with. Pre-internet, I’d also look things up in the Britannica and other reference sources. I wanted to learn all of that and I didn’t feel inferior for not knowing it. But today, even though it’s easier with the internet and hyperlinks, it seems that many people lack the curiosity to expand their horizons.

 

On occasion, I like to use various cultural references in my writing. But if we have to think twice about including such references, it dumbs down our work and society too, as well as the cultural ties that bind us together.

 

When working on scripts, for both film and radio, I was actually told to dumb things down. On a radio show another writer and I were called on the carpet and given a condescending lecture by the producer about using words that were too big…like condescending.  I’m sure it was because he didn’t know what they were.

 

All one has to do is recall Jay Leno’s Jaywalking segments to see how little people know, if people today, a few years after he left the Tonight Show, even remember Leno had a show before his cars show. He would show people on the street pictures of Presidents Bush and Obama and many couldn’t recognize them. He would ask simple questions like who is Joe Biden or who crossed the Delaware. And he has said that, contrary to what some believe, they didn’t have to search for “dumb” people. Basically they just went with the first few people they came across, because they didn’t have to search any further. And maybe Jaywalking isn’t scientific, but my own personal experience has borne out those numbers. It’s not that they’re stupid, it’s that they’re apathetic. The why of that is for another article.

 

TelevisionWrapped up in their own little narcissistic worlds, many people don’t know what’s going on in the Ukraine or the Middle East—or across town. They know little about historic figures and literature as well. Of course nobody can know everything, but it seems that a thirst for knowledge has been lost to a great extent and that some people even seem to wear their ignorance as a badge of honor. Well, I guess I do that too. Aside from Kim, I can’t name another Kardashian. Aside from Pookie or Gooby or Snookie (hmm, the spell checker didn’t recognize Snookie’s name, but I guess it won’t be too long until it does), I can’t name another Jersey Shoreite—my badges of honor—assuming they’re even still around spreading their own special brand of sunshine.

 

AristotleWhile we have more options than ever for learning, do you think most people are using the net to look up Madame Curie or Plato? Of course there are some bright lights out there like the Khan Academy website where you can take courses on everything from art history to calculus. And Wikipedia is a great resource, but one that has to be used with caution, as a lot of the internet is filled with misinformation, conspiracy theories, celebrity gossip sites and pseudo news websites that are really thinly veiled advertising sites.

 

The use of computers, cell phones, social media and Twitter, etc., have changed the way we interact with each other and the world, along with the fact that, because everyone is so spread out these days, they don’t have their grandparents nearby to pass on that generation’s knowledge. People today have shorter attention spans, don’t want to read long articles, often don’t read about the past or even watch history shows on TV. And, of course, there’s little about literature and history, besides Nazis, on TV. The Discovery Channel shows BattleBots (a lot to discover there) and the Learning Channel runs OutDaughtered. And when there was a Biography Channel and it was actually running biographies (which was rare) they were generally about movie and TV stars of little significance and only once in a while could you find a biography of some truly important historical figure. And these days the Biography Channel has given way to some other amalgamation. But why is this? Well, one can only surmise it’s because people don’t want to learn about “real” people. They want to learn about vapid celebrities or watch superficial reality shows. So the Discovery Channel shows Naked and Afraid and the Biography Channel becomes a PR flack’s best friend. Hey, I watched some of those too, but it’s not all I watch or read.

Broken Computers

All of that said, it goes both ways. I frequently don’t know who this or that “important” person of the current pop culture is. But I also often look them up to see what I’m missing. There are more options today and more niches catering to smaller groups of people and that’s fine. But we still need a shared knowledge of our past, who we were and what makes us who we are.

 

I don’t like writing down to people. I think writers should challenge their readers to want to learn more, look things up, expand their vocabularies and their worlds. The writer needs to challenge them to pick up an encyclopedia, history book, or surf the web beyond the paparazzi photos and cute cat videos (hey, I like them too!). I love using examples from history and literature, etc., in my writing. And I’d hate to see those get lost in the quicksand of lethargy and jaded narcissism that is our society today. There’s more to life than celebrities and more to know than the latest housewives’ gossip and what’s happened just in the span of someone’s conscious memory. There’s more to life than selfies, in both the literal and figurative sense.

 

***

 

And thank you for hosting me, Gayle and the Writers in Residence. I’ve enjoyed being here.

***

Broken WindowsBIO: Broken Windows, the sequel to Paul D. Marks’ Shamus Award-winning mystery-thriller White Heat hit the shelves 9/10/18. Publishers Weekly called White Heat a “taut crime yarn” and said of Broken Windows: “Fans of downbeat PI fiction will be satisfied…with Shamus Award winner Marks’s solid sequel to… White Heat.” Though thrillers and set in the 1990s, both novels deal with issues that are hot and relevant today: racism and immigration, respectively. Marks says “Broken Windows holds up a prism from which we can view the events burning up today’s headlines, like the passionate immigration debate,

White Heatthrough the lens of the recent past. It all comes down to the saying we know so well, ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’.” His short stories appear in Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazines, among others, and have won or been nominated for many awards, including the Anthony, Derringer and Macavity. His story “Windward,” has been selected for the Best American Mystery Stories of 2018, edited by Louise Penny & Otto Penzler, and has also been nominated for both a 2018 Shamus Award and Macavity Award for Best Short Story. Ghosts of Bunker Hill was voted #1 in the 2016 Ellery Queen Readers Poll. He is co-editor of the multi-award nominated anthology Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea. www.PaulDMarks.com

 

###

Posted for Paul D. Marks by Gayle Bartos-Pool. Thanks for joining us today, Paul, and for your words of wisdom.

What Lies Beneath the Surface? by G.B. Pool

Discovering Aspects of Your Main Character That Even He Didn’t Know Existed

 

People 3Aristotle said there were five basic parts of a story: Plot, Character, Setting, Dialogue, and the meaning or point behind a story. People have argued for ages which is the more important, plot or character, but even though I agree with Aristotle that plot is the most important, we do like stories brimming with compelling characters.

I personally want the main character to be someone I would invite into my home; after all, we will be spending some quality time together, often in bed early in the morning… What I mean by that is simple. After my husband has left for work and I am curled up with a good book, I want the hero to be someone I can trust or the heroine to be someone I can go to lunch with or maybe to some breaking and entering with, if that’s the caper.

People 4When I came up with Johnny Casino, the character who inhabits the pages of the three books in The Johnny Casino Casebook series, I wanted someone with a past. The opening line from Past Imperfect, number one in the series is this: My name is Johnny Casino. I’m a retired P.I. with a past. I just hope it doesn’t catch up with me.

Of course his past does catch up with him, often. In fact, every “guest star” in each case in the first collection of short stories has a past, whether good or bad. It’s up to Johnny to sort it out. But along the way, he has to come to terms with his own past.

As I delved into his background while I was writing these stories, he explained a lot about himself. It might sound odd that I am giving credit to my character, but any writer will tell you these “people” have a life, if not a voice, of their own and when they whisper or yell in your ear, you listen.

People 2The first story I wrote had Johnny mention that he once worked for the Mob. I was channeling his voice and the words just came. Then I realized I needed to know a little bit about the Mafia. An ex-cop acquaintance with a rather interesting connection to the Mafia told me what books to read and he also shared some insights that you might never find in a book, but if you did, you would think it was fiction.

This revelation made me dig deeper into Johnny’s character. Even the names of the Mafia guys Johnny worked for changed. One was called Eddie Fontaine, but it changed to Big Eddie “Mambo” Fontaine when I knew him better.

People 1Elmore Leonard once mentioned when he gave one of his characters the wrong name, the guy wouldn’t talk, but when he changed the name, he couldn’t shut him up. The man was on to something.

It’s these layers that build up, like a pearl, that allow the writer to “create” a three-dimensional character. The first story I wrote briefly mentioned Johnny’s Mafia history. The second story, a flashback, shows it in somber detail and it also explains why Johnny has a problem with women. He will be a knight-in-shining armor to a lady in distress, even if she is less than virtuous, but he can be tough, too.

HollywoodAs I was on this road of discovery, I realized I had given Johnny the title: Hollywood Detective, but I didn’t have a story with a movie star. I do now, and a few of these legends make a return engagement in subsequent books. I decided not to use actual names of stars, but I did borrow heavily from stars I liked from the past, but mostly it was their stature and the era, since I doubt if any of these luminaries had too many dead bodies in their own past. That would be another story.

But I learned Johnny had a code, and sometimes that meant breaking the law to do the right thing or maybe covering up something illegal for a friend. But one of the coolest things I discovered in writing the first book was that Johnny’s past might not even be what he thinks it is. That question is answered in the next book in the series – Looking for Johnny Nobody. The first book sets the stage and lets you meet a few other characters that inhabit his world. And as I said on the back cover of the book – everybody has a past.

By the time I started book three, Just Shoot Me, I let Johnny take over and write those stories. He had discovered some new things about his own life that changed everything for him and he was going to carry on with this new identity that he had. But there was something else… He was growing. He was becoming a real character.

Open DoorMy newest character in a series is Chance McCoy. I bill him as a third rate P.I. in a secondhand suit who blows half the cases he takes on. Not a great track record. Then Chance is shot… and killed. But Chance gets the opportunity of a lifetime. He gets to come back, alive. Now he can fix some of those old cases and take on some that challenge even the brightest detectives. What does he use? As the guy who sent him back tells him: You use what’s inside. Chance’s discovery process is a trip in book one: Second Chance. Finding different aspects in this character was definitely a trip for this writer as well.

People 5Aren’t memorable characters what writers want to create? And isn’t that what readers want to read. You betcha. Write On.

Don’t Call the Cops by G.B. Pool

Police CopIn this litigious society, it isn’t worth the time, money, or headache to use a real person when writing fiction, unless the character is used as a colorful extra, or the person has given their permission. I won’t even write a review of a book or play that I don’t like just because I really don’t want the hassle of somebody’s nose getting out of joint. And remember: Silence speaks volumes.

When I worked as a newspaper reporter on the Whitehaven Star in Memphis, I told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Facts backed up what I wrote. I never worried about being sued.

That being said, the bottom line is that I wouldn’t go out of my way to run somebody down in print, no matter how idiotic I think they are. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt that they know they’re a moron, so why waste the ink. I also won’t shame anybody or point out his or her flaws in public. It doesn’t do anybody any good. If I don’t like them, I ignore them. If I like them and they are a tad odd, I would rather protect them and their quirks.

Of course, if you are talking politics…all bets are off. But I don’t go too far out on that political limb in my stories, either. I use historical fact and let that tell the story. If a reader has a different view of history, that’s their problem.

My name (or a close facsimile) turned up in a book, Tommy Gun Tango, written by a friend, Bruce Cook, who wanted to use my hyphenated name for a character. The girl is wild as they come, not necessarily based on my personality, but hey, maybe Bruce knows something others don’t know. (You can wait for my memoirs.) But seriously, he did ask permission to use a variation of my name. I told him I’d be happy to be a potted plant in one of his books, so go ahead.

Newspaper 2Next to never have I started a character based on somebody in a current news story, but if I chanced to take a fraction of somebody’s tale, I would invariably flesh out the character and make him or her into my own creation. My story would take a totally different path, too. After all, we have been inundated with the wall-to-wall coverage of high profile cases in the news for decades, who would want to read yesterday’s news?

Since I wouldn’t be privy to the motives of the people involved in real stories, I would be making it all up anyway. So I prefer to create the entire character on my own. It’s the character’s inner feelings that I want to capture and then craft my own story about who they are and what they do. That makes the character real to me and hopefully to the reader.

Actual people might be a starting place, even if their characteristics are totally off the wall. But I would rather create my own people with motives I think fit the part they are playing in my story. And anyway, when the character takes over the writing, which they do, they can fill in the blanks themselves.

In my Ginger Caulfield novels (Media Justice, Hedge Bet, and Damning Evidence), I definitely use my husband, Richard, as the character Fred; and Gin Caulfield is mostly me, personality-wise. My agent at the time asked if I would deepen Gin’s character. In “agent-speak” that means give her a flaw, something gritty. So, I had to add some backstory to make Ginger a slightly darker character. It does make her more interesting and I have added sub-plots using this flaw, so it works. But the creativity is mine. I’ll take the arrows if it doesn’t fly.

So lawyers and the police and the Feds can move on. Nothing to see here. I write fiction. If I do use a real person, more chances than not they are no longer living and you can’t libel the dead. (There are a lot of lawyers in my family and I know the drill.)

How about you, my fellow writers? Do you use real people – family, friends, or someone in the news in your writing? Do you have a good lawyer?Lawyer