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There’s something deeply satisfying about the Nobel Prize for Literature being given to short story writer Alice Munro. Munro is one of the few authors who have received acclaim on the basis of short fiction only, and the award is an affirmation of the story’s significance. She even told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, “I would really hope this would make people see the short story as an important art, not just something you played around with until you got a novel.”
Personally, I think stories can be more powerful than a novel. You can’t really escape in a short story, it demands too much concentration. It demands that the reader bring as much to the story as the writer. I recall in another interview Munro said she often took more than a month to write a single story, and I think it can similarly take about that amount of time to come to an understanding of a story.
Often Munro’s stories seem, at first read, a somewhat haphazard amassing of scenes and recollections. But the second and third time through, I begin to see a pattern, an arc that builds, almost like an argument. I agree with this comment by Peter Englund, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobel Prize: “If you read Alice Munro, sooner or later you will stand face to face with yourself and you will go from that meeting a different person.”
The cover story of our December 2013 issue is a new Lady Appleton tale by Kathy Lynn Emerson, “A Wondrous Violent Motion.” Kathy Lynn Emerson has appeared frequently in our pages with stories from her Facedown series, featuring 16th century herbalist Lady Appleton and from her Diana Spaulding series, set in the 19th century, built around a young female reporter in a Maine logging town. Ms. Emerson has drawn on her skills as a historical novelist to write How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries (Perseverance Press), and in her guest post below she writes about how she taps old letters for ideas and period color. As Kaitlyn Dunnett, she also writes a series set in present-day Maine. We’re particularly looking forward to next year’s Malice Domestic Conference in Bethesda, Maryland, where Kathy Lynn Emerson will be the Guest of Honor.
I admit it—I’m fascinated by gossip. It’s just that, in my case, the rumors and innuendos are over four hundred years old. Keep up with the Kardashians? No interest. But find some juicy tidbit about the Tudor kings and queens or their subjects? That makes my day . . . and might just become the germ of a story.
There were no supermarket tabloids in sixteenth-century England. No paparazzi lurking or chasing after the celebrity’s car (no car, either!). Not even the equivalent of People or USA Today. And, of course, with no modern media, there was no Entertainment Tonight or Twitter feed or other social media to track. However, there were still plenty of people reporting the latest news from the royal court and writing about the doings of lesser mortals, too.
Letter writing has gone out of fashion in the twenty-first century, but in the days of the Tudor monarchs—Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I—that was still one of the most important means of communication. Courtiers wrote letters to family members and to friends who were not at court. Ambassadors sent reports home. Sometimes what they wrote was wildly inaccurate. In addition, printed pamphlets and broadsides reported the juicy details of crimes, trials, and executions. All of this “news” was closer to what we would call “gossip” and it is fascinating to read. Details of love affairs, duels, business dealings gone wrong, and political machinations abound in these writings. Sixteenth-century Englishmen (and women, too) were also deliciously litigious and left behind a wealth of court cases, many of them quite scandalous.
I’ve been collecting gossipy tidbits for years, using much of the information in my online “A Who’s Who of Tudor Women.” There always seems to be more. Even after all this time, previously unpublished documents still turn up. These delight scholars and form the basis of new nonfiction, but interest in the period and its people isn’t limited to those living in an ivory tower. Tales from the Tudor era appeal to people of all ages and backgrounds. They devour them both on screen and in books. Personally, I think the gossip factor is responsible. Let’s face it—those Tudors led colorful lives.
For my short story in the December issue of AHMM, my inspiration was a gossipy account of the earthquake of 1580 contained in a letter from Gabriel Harvey to Edmund Spenser, later to become famous as a poet. Today we know that this quake probably had a magnitude of between 5.3 and 5.9 and that its epicenter was in the English Channel. Back then, pamphlets (at least six of them) promoted the idea that the earthquake was a manifestation of God’s wrath against sinners. Harvey’s letter has a lighter tone. He tells of playing cards in a house in Saffron Walden with another gentleman and two ladies, so intent upon their game that they at first thought the earthquake was just someone moving furniture on the floor above. Then their host stumbled into the room, terrified by the “wondrous violent motion and shaking” that had just taken place. That quote gave me my title. Reports of collapsed chimneys and walls provided the other essential I needed to start writing—a great place to hide the body.
I’m just back Albany, where I attended the Bouchercon conference for mystery writers. I’m happy to report that John Shepphird’s story “Ghost Negligence” (AHMM, July/August 2012) won the Shamus Award for Best Private Eye Short Story. You can download a podcast of his story from iTunes or PodoMatic.
The Short Mystery Fiction Society also presented their Derringer awards at Bouchercon, and though the winners had been previously announced, I’m happy to repeat that Randy DeWitt was the winner this year in the Flash Story category for his entry in our Mysterious Photograph contest. His short short “The Cable Job” was our Story That Won in September 2012.
Congratulations also go to our Macavity nominee, B. K. Stevens, for the nomination of “Thea’s First Husband” (AHMM, June 2012) and to Michael Nethercott, whose story “Mr. O’Nelligan and the Lost Fates” (AHMM, March 2012) was also nominated for a Shamus Award. You can download B. K. Stevens’s reading of Adjunct Anonymous here. A podcast from Michael Nethercott is forthcoming.
For years, sitting in a circle in various writing groups among my peers, I often tossed out the empty line “I like the voice of the story,” or my more insightful variant, “I liked the voice of the story very much.” Truthfully, I didn’t know what “voice” was, but I had an English degree, so I knew it was something.
As a “civilian” reader, I had encountered my share of stories, poems, novels, essays that had stuck with me—all composed of lines that came back to me over and over again. The line from Flannery O’Connor’s story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” “ ‘She would have been a good woman . . . if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life’ ” is one that speaks to me. And says different things at different points of my adult life. And there are so many other stories that just seemed to hum with meaning. It’s that hum that I have now come to understand is voice.
It wasn’t until I became an editor, though, that I really started to ask, What do we mean when we talk about voice?
Part of my befuddlement is the word we use: Voice. Whose voice? The author’s? A character’s? Essayists and journalists have a voice, a medium in which to lay out facts and present ideas. We talk about journalists “giving voice” to the people they profile that otherwise are overlooked.
Great character voices have a musical cadence that just sounds right. As a civilian reader, well-crafted dialogue would flow by me seamlessly; I was hearing it as the characters were speaking on the page, as if I were present in the scene with them, but I rarely stopped to think about what it was I liked about the naturalness of the speech. Only later, as an editor, I started to notice instances of wooden dialogue that would draw me up short when I read a manuscript. Or when character’s or narrator’s voice jumped boundaries, such as when I couldn’t tell two characters apart from their dialogue alone, or when I was hearing the character’s voice outside of the quote marks in paras of exposition.
But character and narrator voices are wholly separate from the voice of the text, the narrative voice. When I began to think about the elements that made a piece of writing so effective to me—was it the suspense, the vividly realized setting, the all-too-human protagonist—I always seemed to circle back to the power of the narrative voice, how the writing moved me. A character or narrator speaks in the here and now of the story or scene they are in or are relating. Narrative voice, on the other hand, spans space and time. It is the means by which the author communicates with the reader, the language of their conversation. Imagine yourself lost in a Rex Stout mystery and yelling at the fat man as you commute to work. You are in a conversation with the author—engaged, perhaps enraged.
The narrative voice engages the reader, and the reader answers back by bringing her or his full imaginative and empathetic ability to illuminate the text. Narrative voice makes the scenes of the story clear and vivid for the reader, using all the tools of writing: description, action scenes, a careful ordering of images and facts, to name a few.
Another stumbling block to my understanding what voice is was the canard that writers have to find their own voice. Huh? As a young graduate student, I remember thinking that if I only rooted around the deep pockets of my psyche, my naturally poetic voice would spring up and forth and great literature would be written. If only. From my own personal experience and my experiences working with writers, I know that writers don’t find their one voice, but that they must find it for each bit of writing. But with practice, years and years of writing, that process of locating just the right narrative voice becomes, if not easier, at least a little more familiar.
Just as language lives among people, writing lives among readers. A crucial step in finding the narrative voice of the story is knowing your audience. If you are writing you are communicating with someone. Even if you are stuffing your pages in a box and tucking it away in a closet, you are still communicating; there is still an assumed audience out there, across space and time. I believe if you can define that audience, you can start to hone the narrative voice of your writing. This is basic journalism, but it’s just as fundamental to fiction writers.
And if you are submitting your work for publication, then you know your audience—or you should. You should be familiar with the list of the agent or press, or content of the publication. The agents, editors, book buyers, readers are your audience.
Altogether what makes a particular narrative voice resonate is surely a magical combination of things. It’s the distance between the characters’ subconscious motivations and the words on the page. It’s the rhythm in the sentences, the pacing of the plot, and the choices the author makes about, say, what to show and what to summarize and what to omit. It’s the metaphors that lend hue to the story, and the poetry that quietly threads its way through the prose. It’s the black lettering of the type, or the pixels that blink on and off on our tablets.
It’s—you know—that reverberation you hear when you finish a great story. You’ll know it when you hear it.
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On the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, I am intrigued to note that this year is also the 50th anniversary of the publication of Dorothy B. Hughes’s final novel, The Expendable Man, in which race is an important factor.
Hugh Densmore is a young physician interning in Los Angeles. Driving one night across the desert to his grandparents’ home in Phoenix, he picks up, against his better judgment, a young female hitchhiker. Given the time of day and the deserted highway, Hugh fears she might otherwise be in danger.
Hugh is black, the young woman is white, and this is a racially divided America in the early sixties.
I don’t think I am giving too much away by describing the setup of the novel, though the author does craftily withhold this information at the outset. Instead, we see Hugh navigating this world: waiting while a waitress serves the white customers first, being heckled by a car full of rowdy teens.
The young woman—girl, really—calls herself Iris Croom. She is a self-centered, naïve runaway, oblivious to the danger she presents to Hugh by just being in the car with him.
Hugh, of course, is anxious to be free of Iris: he drives her to the bus station, lends her money for a ticket, gives her food. But his fate is bound up with the girl’s, and thus begins a taught, suspenseful, well-crafted mystery. The issues in the book are still with us today: racial profiling, unwanted pregnancies, social mobility.
Dorothy B. Hughes was a journalist from Missouri and a critic and novelist who made her home in New Mexico. Racial and social issues were persistent concerns for her. Her observations about people are astute and her characters are finely nuanced, and she credibly crosses the gaps of gender and race in presenting Hugh’s perspective.
Hughes’s criticism earned her an Edgar award and in 1978 she was named a Grand Master by MWA. The Expendable Man is her only novel still in print, though Sarah Weinman has included one of her short stories in the excellent anthology, Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives.