Saturday, January 05, 2008

Dialog and Accents in Spymaster's Lady

Early on in writing, I knew I was going to have my folks speaking French for half the story and English for the other half.
How to handle this?
I didn't want anybody's internal 'voice' to change in the middle. That was just a non-starter. No can do. The character HAS to sound like himself.

So I gave everybody their 'native voice' from the start. Whether they're speaking English or French, their voice stays pretty much the same.

Picking what the voice would be took a little head-scratching.

Grey speaks and thinks in standard English. This one was easy.

Adrian is also standard English, but he has the slightly formal register of someone who speaks completely fluent, accentless English, but as a second language.

Now Doyle gave me hours and hours of agonizing.

Doyle mostly chooses to speak Cockney-with-a-bit-of-rural dialect in English. But what to do with him in French? I couldn't have him speak 'standard English' when he was in France and then suddenly go Cockney the minute he set foot in England, could I?

So I wrote him as Cockney all through. And I described him as having a Paris-argot-with-a-bit-of-Breton dialect, which would be the equivalent.

This is a weird choice. Sometimes you just have to pick something and go with it.

Annique's voice is French in cadence and word choice, of course.

My major problem was always deciding 'how much' to do this. Enough to make the point. Not enough to intrude. On revision, every line was a conscious decision that called for a bit of twitchy adjustment.

Her spoken language when she first lands in England is the most 'French' she gets. I'm trying to show her 'translating' in her head for a chapter or so.

As to creating Annique's voice... Mostly, it just comes natural. That's the best way I can put it.
This is what Annique 'sounds' like in my head.
This is how I hear her. I do speak workaday French.

Especially in revision, I'd 'parallel write' -- thinking of both the English and French of the sentence and shifting the words to give it a French cadence.

And I spent a long time listening to French folks speak English and dissecting how they sounded.

But by the time I came to write Annique, I had the voice inside me. It's not translation. It's the old 'voices in my head' that is either madness or being a writer. (Or, of course, both.)


  1. Karla9:16 PM

    Annique's internal voice was wonderful. She "sounded" French without using a lot of clunky French words.

  2. Hi Karla --

    I'm glad you liked the way I did it.

    I had to use this voice for the whole book, so the dialect hand had to be delicate.

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  4. Vicky Dreiling11:24 AM

    I'm unsure if you'll see this late post. Just bought your book yesterday. I'd not read any reviews or your commentary on language choices. However, when I began reading it, I was amazed at Annique's voice. Recently, I returned from a 6-day business trip to Paris, and Annique's speech patterns in English rang authentic to me. You've an amazing writing voice. Congrats on a stunning debut!

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  6. Hi Vicky Dreilling --

    I am so glad you liked my Annique.

    In The Spymaster's Lady I had a major technical problem. Half the time my French heroine was speaking French. Half the time she was speaking English. And the whole time she was thinking in French.

    I didn't want to match an unaccented set of thoughts and internal monologue with Annique's highly accented English-language dialog.

    So I made everything inside her head and all her speech in any language sound 'French'.

    I agonized over how to do this for weeks, way back when.

    Now I'm writing Maggie's story.

    Virtually all her dialog is French. And she speaks totally fluent English. But, of course, she thinks in French.

    How to do this one?
    What 'voice' to give her .....

    Thinkthinkthinkthinkthink ....

  7. Vicky Dreiling11:58 PM

    Hi, Joanna,

    Just a follow up on the dialogue for your French heroine. As I'm reading the book, I'm reminded of my tour guide at Versailles this past January. Annique's speech patterns sounded very similar to those of my French tour guide speaking English. The guide struggled once or twice for English words and the entire time she spoke, she used her arms and hands in grand gestures. I couldn't imagine any of my Brit or American colleagues doing this. ;-) As for your Maggie who is a fluent English speaker, would she not think in French? I'm not fluent in any other language, so I've no idea. I will leave you with this thought. My former Russian manager, who was extremely fluent in English, even taught English in Russia, used to struggle for English words after a trip home to Russia. She is married to an American, but while in Russia, she thought in Russian. I don't know if that helps, but I thought I'd share. Au Revoir!

  8. Hi Vicky --

    Interesting take on how bilingual folks handle language. The 'groping for a word' may be a useful thought.

    I'm working on 'language' very hard right now, on the MAGGIE manuscript. It's what comes next, before I can actually write.

    That is to say, I have the plot outline essentially done. I know what happens in the story.

    But I don't really know my characters yet.

    I'm doing rough drafts of some of the early scenes.

    Marguerite/Maggie is speaking and thinking almost standard period British English, both in her dialog and in her thoughts. But there's just a slight, slight turn of phrase once in a while that marks her as French.

    Doyle. You would think, the amount of time I've spent with William Doyle, I'd know how he sounds.
    I don't.

    And I've never been in his POV, so this is all new.

    Now Doyle is a character who has one voice inside his head and another when he's talking. That's going to be interesting to write, and the first time I've done that.

    Then there's Adrian. Oh my. This is really hard, finding his voice at this stage of his life.

    I've moved the start of MAGGIE to the summer of 1794. We're going to condense the timeline.