The Voice

Kathleen Delaney, author of Murder Half-Baked and other books, retired from real estate to pursue writing full time. She’s here today to discuss the “voice” authors are always talking about and how she uses it in her Mary McGill series.

Murder by Syllabub, fifth in the Ellen McKenzie series, is available in bookstores now. Purebred Dead, the first in the new Mary McGill series, was released in August 2015 and Curtains for Miss Plym was released in April 2016. Blood Red, White and Blue was released in July 2017 and was a finalist for best canine book of the year in the Dog Writers of America annual writing contest.

Years ago, when I first decided to see if I could write something someone would actually want to read, I spent a lot of time going to writing conferences, creative writing classes, critique groups, looking for tips on how to construct a book. They all talked about ‘voice’ and how important it was. It might well be, but I had no idea what they were talking about. So, I asked. And asked. No one could give me a clear answer. They said things like, every author should be able to project their own voice. Not being an opera singer, I wasn’t sure how to do that. Neither was I sure the ones who said the voice of the protagonist was the only one that mattered were right. Surely there were other voices that needed to be heard. I really didn’t think the location needed much of a voice, but then, what did I know? Back then, I had yet to complete a single book. But I did wonder.  Eight and one/half books later, I’m still wondering.

I am currently reading an old Mary Roberts Reinhart mystery. I had forgotten her very distinctive style of putting her books together. The protagonist is the narrator and while they don’t always sound alike, the way they tell the story does. They go back in time, giving you little hints  about why something is important and that something exciting or important is still to come. I couldn’t get away with writing like that, but she pulls it off to perfection. But, is that voice? If so. who’s?

Or maybe the way Robert Parker portrays Spenser is. The manner of speech, the way he reacts to people, the calm control he exhorts over everyone but Susan is like no other character I know of. Maybe that’s voice.

Then there is Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody. The minute Amelia opens her mouth you know who is speaking, where you are and who you are going to spend the next few hours with. That’s voice all right, but is it what all those people meant?

Those are three examples only of very different authors with very different approaches. What do they have in common? Very strong characters and even stronger stories. Not voice.

So maybe voice is not that of a single person but of the book as a whole. A cake isn’t the butter on the counter, the flour in the canister, the baking powder in the cupboard and the eggs in the refrigerator, but a combination of all of them, carefully put together, measured out, poured into the properly prepared pan and baked at the required temperature for the right amount of time to make it that perfect light and delicious confection.

Maybe a book is like that.  I don’t think Amelia Peabody’s voice would be so distinctive if she didn’t have Emerson to bounce it off of.

So maybe they meant you take a strong protagonist, throw him/her up against an almost as strong antagonist, sprinkle in some interesting support characters, stir in a background that is not only interesting but backlights the characters and stir all together with a strong story line.

That is what I have tried to do in my books and especially with the Mary McGill canine mysteries, my latest series. Mary wouldn’t be as strong a character without Millie, her cocker spaniel, or without the support of her family and her many friends. Her voice wouldn’t be heard the same way if she lived in the city. Small town living suits her. A retired school teacher, a widow, she is efficient almost to a fault, but she is also empathetic and observant. She thinks things through, often bouncing her thoughts off Millie, who listens but doesn’t contribute too much to the conversations. The stories are somewhat complex, and there is always a reason for the killer to do what he/she did. It’s up to Mary to figure out the reason.

She is a woman who, I think, has a very definitive voice, but what’s more important, I think the books have one as well. Is that the way voice works? Like a cake, it is a true sum of its many parts?

I still don’t know.

What do you think?