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Accent-studded prose. Pigeon English. Yea or Nay?

If inclusion or eschewing comes down to a debate, on which side do you stand?

As usual, I boldly straddle the center line of my own question. For me, most of the time, accents and pigeon English in prose are like Mark Twain’s clarinet, the “ill woodwind that nobody blows good.” Or almost nobody.

I find accents in written form disruptive. Clunky. Pushes against the graceful flow.

Other paths to the end: not so much of a challenge for me. An odd sentence form that represents, say, a non-English speaker’s accent or a British cadence…or slang…these are acceptable to my reader-eye—especially once the device establishes itself as a character’s signature. They can be persuasive; even charming. Like any device, I suppose, the proof is in the skill with which it is executed.

But what other avenues are open to us?

Take an example from my own work. A character in progress. A street artist, Real Deal. The jazz-musician riffs and rhythms of his speech are indications that he is, as his reputation proclaims, “batshit crazy.” His circlings and repetitions and Tourette’s-like exclamations are the evidences of the unhinged nature of his mind.

Without relying on the trite executions of accents—especially in Deal’s case as an African American—we come away from the page in possession of something more and better. A seeding of a greater notion in the plot.

We realize as time goes on, that craziness is the carefully-cultivated front for what Deal calls “persona.” The device becomes even more useful and appealing when we realize that he is much saner than he lets on—in fact, saner, steadier and wiser than most of his other companions. The artful shedding of his riff-man guise reveals the truth of him under his personal veil. A subtlety even more impactful than if he had been slathered in an overwrought urban accent.

Eccentricity in dialog is, for me, far more useful and effective than the labored, open-to-personal-interpretation of accents.

And I now pass the question along to you: How do you feel about accents baked into prose? How to you deal with them? How do you exert mastery over them? To writers as we are, the questions are as interesting as the answers.


Call the writer “quirky”: It comes as no surprise to her. We know what we are; organisms just enough like our peers to pass as normal, but separate. Apart. In full knowledge of the fact that our seeming-normalcy is a pretense and a disguise.

In the pursuit if character, I am capable of feats of mental stalking that, exercised in the world, would put me in jail. I possess the infinite capacity to fall in love with strangers. I carry photos gleaned off the internet as points of reference. I can extrapolate a person’s entire nature from a few moments’ exposure. Mine is a joy that dances on the head of a pin.

A confession, this….

There is, in my current acquaintance, a man who is truly one of the most beautiful male beings of my experience, past or present. His is a charm magnified by a seeming refusal to acknowledge how extraordinarily beautiful he is.  Well-mannered, well-humored, even-tempered, an exemplary husband and father (at least by reputation), he has become the physical model for my title character. I do not know him, but I think the world of him. And adoration will avail me nothing.

Understand, I don’t expect it to. I do not—not even in wild, private fantasy—expect anything more than passing courtesy from a person who will never be a friend; who will never sit and talk and share with me. And that’s where the writer disconnects from reality.

The conversations I want—need—to have are simply unavailable to me. The emotional pickpocketing that would let me capture a reaction, a thought, a feeling are not within my right to request. In a perfect, nonjudgmental life, I would sit this lovely man down and question him about his regard of himself; his understanding about his place in the world, his thoughts about what happens around him. In my rarefied neighborhood, this is not an unreasonable curiosity…but in the “normal” world it would get me branded as a dangerous eccentric and harasser, not the innocent and well-meaning eccentric I am.

One does not approach another person saying “I want to pick your brain.” One does not spend time collecting secret glances in order to fix a mental image of how an eye crinkles just so, or a smile takes over, or a concern passes in a momentary cloud…or what makes that person weep or laugh. Well-socialized humans simply do not act this way. The honesty of our emotions—even innocent ones—is not acceptable public coin.

I don’t want to got all creepy over you, I want to say; I just want to borrow your brain for a few minutes. Not a nasty want, like a foot fetish or the want of someone who climbs the wall into a celebrity’s garden, or the acts of a teenage boy holding up a pinup poster with one hand. This is an odd thing, but an easy one to excuse. And the fact that it cannot, will not, come to fruition is my loss. And my regret.

As a writer, engaged in the perpetual collection of souls, I wish this one thing for myself: the courage to be truly insane. And the bail money to get me out of stir should I dare to exercise my curiosity.

A moment in the film Forest Gump, in which the title character realizes that he has fathered a son. His eyes flood; his face fills with terror that the little boy might be like him. A moment of extraordinary self-awareness that his seed might have carried a taint.

The question: Was that moment more than craft for Tom Hanks? Yes, an actor feels to portray feelings, but did the emotion leave a mark? Did he walk away with any lasting emotional imprint?

As writers, if we don’t feel those significant moments in our own work—in the preparation, in the laying-down of the words and after the fact—are those moments genuine?

I’ve mentioned here how emotionally invested I am in the end of The Spiritkeeper; how it still has the power to make me cry. I’ve mentioned the more recent Everything. Now I’m four chapters deep into the new work and I am the question unavoidable.

Soundtracking is a ligature to emotional intent. The music carries with it the nuances of a plot’s landscape-of-the-heart. But when that music isn’t playing…when one is gathering plot points into a tape recorder in the middle of the night or going full-immersion into the chapter to write it from the inside out…if a character absolutely refuses to give the writer an emotion to work with, what then?

In Everything, that refusal was actually a boon. The main character was full of not-ness. So write that. Here, the main character has found a concealment behind the preoccupation of his life; to the POV character, he offers the amiable distance that one discovers (rightly) in a celebrity whose life remains his own, not yours. Perhaps there’s a way to harness that, too.

We wear our characters on the inside. We blink and sigh and want with them. That truth, at least, remains constant. No matter how reluctant they seem sometimes.

For the moment, the inability to share in the closely-held emotion is merely vexing. A rank stubbornness. A vacancy.

But when the dam breaks, when the emotions finally come, stand out of the way. Things are going to get interesting.

What do we ask of our characters? What do we want them to be?

The answers to those questions aren’t nearly as simple as human. Or flawed. Or loving. We need them to breathe.

The arena in which we play out their lives is a fascinating one, when you think about it. Having 300 pages (less, actually, if you subtract the space required for plot and for other characters)to express what is essential, notable and memorable in 30, 40, 50 years of a created person—and to do it with such limited space—is a remarkable demand made upon the writer.

Many writers take shortcuts. One of the first I learned about is the convention of how the character is described. This description is offered, to often, in excessive detail, jammed into a single page or a couple of paragraphs. Worse, and lazier, is the observation of the character him/herself in a mirror. Awkward, graceless devices, these. They announce to the reader an unconfident impatience to get on with it. Seeing passages like these is enough to make me put the book down and never pick it up again.

The art of character is the art of complexity—and of presenting that complexity effortlessly. “After Joe’s wife died, he was never the same” is too little and too obvious. Complexity in character is like quirkiness in humans: It pervades everything. It may be carried on the shoulders of a trait or a habit or an action or a tendency, but it is a lifetime that reveals itself over the life of the work, the life lived between title page and postscript.

How well we know our character going in determines how vibrant that character will be on the pages. This is not to say that characters don’t open secrets to us as we transcribe them…McGill in The Spiritkeeper, in her final choices, was a total surprise to me. Terry Marsh in Everything had no idea who he was at the start of the book, which made the challenge of making the journey through not-ness an intriguing one.

Characters have journeys—call them arcs. As writer, we unwind the gifts of those journeys through the tale, even if the many of a character’s stations of the cross never make it to the page. Characters are a kind of haiku. They are distillations that draw crystal clarity from muddiest thinking. They are a kind of unique-yet-universal shorthand.

They are the embodiments and examples of the complex simplicity that makes us us.

Any wonder that great characters are so tough to reveal?

I am currently faceless. At least, my characters are.

I could make them up out of my head, the visages that inhabit my created world. I have done that in the past.

Don’t wanna. Not this time.

Part of the process is a kind of falling in love. One of the ways that happens is to write to a physical model. David in The Spiritkeeper. Terry Everything. They had faces I could look at; faces in the printouts and interviews that I would stare at until the clues to their owners’ natures came clear.

I won’t tell you who those faces belonged to in the real world. Folks close to me already know (an apologies to them for the regalement). For the folks who don’t, I risk being labeled as a stalker, a moniker that’s probably uncomfortably close to being true.

I stare as a kind of meditation; as a contemplation into a still, deep pool. I’ll admit this, although I probably shouldn’t: It is a kind of falling in love.

Is the love real? Yes. Intensely. Does it have a place in the real world? No. Am I aware of the difference? Mostly. Does the contradiction trouble me? Not one damned bit.

As writers, we build high towers of worship for ourselves, all the better to see to the horizon. Sometimes we have a tough time finding our way down. Much of the time, we don’t want to.

I can’t command the face to appear. Like the love who shows up unexpectedly one day in a real-life doorway, bearing in his presence a stroke of personal lightning, we cannot ask it to come. We can only wait watchfully. We can only hope. And once we find what we didn’t know what we were looking for, we will look at it longingly. We will dine with it and take walks with it. We will wish it good-night from the next pillow’s vantage.

We will write love letters to the image the image in our heads. And we will call it a book.

Characters. They are creeping up on me.

Like a paranoid schizophrenic, I find myself listening to voices; peering into shadows to find the shapes concealed there in the Big Empty. Unlike John Nash, I am obliged to acknowledge that these shades are present: They might have something valuable to tell me.

Trouble is, some of those characters I neither know nor like. At least not yet.

Not liking a character can be an advantage—for a while, anyway. McGill Forester in The Spiritkeeper, Byrne Davies in Everything…each of these characters is based upon the worst, the thorniest, the most insecure parts of myself. I used those icky qualities to their advantage, as a foundation for transformation.

In a new character, one who has not, as yet, wormed his way into the writer’s soul, that dislike is a whole other thing.

In a good character, one must also love what one dislikes—the Romance of Wrong. One must embrace the polarizing forces of quirk and complexity. A good character has a complicated purity about him/her…he or she boils with light, and some of that light may well be made of darkness.

A good character carries the potential of being the car wreck from which neither writer nor reader can turn away. The conflict that drives his/her story is as much internal as external…but to own it, the writer must first buy it.

Where an emptiness is found in a character, one will also finds serious restless-writer-discontent. At least that’s true for me. And even that law of literary thermodynamics has its exceptions. In Everything, the main character’s “not-ness” was an advantage: Not-ness was the quality from which the “everything” of Everything could grow. Not-ness is a stage on which some greater drama can play out. And still, the character without depth should be a rarity. The cipher-character should be strategy, not habit.

But back to the voices in the writer’s head. Back to the Big Empty.

In this, my note-taking-research-reading-listening-to-two-ayem-whisperings stage, I cast into the emptiness for clues and cues. I need to wear the character like a second skin. I need to listen in on his/her thoughts. It fidgets the crap out of me when I don’t know a character’s name: During the Big Empty phase of Spiritkeeper, I spent most of a three-hour drive bouncing names into the solo quiet of the car until one of them sang to me…and that discovery was the last of countless other hours of searching. It drives me nuts(ier) when I don’t know what a character does for a living or eats for breakfast. When the character has no face, I am plagued by ghosts.

Name, face, profession, breakfast choices, contents of clothes closet: All those details will come to me when they’re ready. I know they will. They always do. Like trains, characters arrive on their own schedules, not the writer’s. They will arrive when I least expect them to, and they will carry their own music with them. In the meantime, I must replace the adrenaline of The Fidgets with Zenlike patience. The Big Empty must be filled with surrender and the will to listen.

Waiting. That’s my job. That’s what writers do.


Here, then, the last-given thing.

These are the first words in the last section of the book-in-progress. A section no longer than a page or two. The near-end of a long and difficult road.

I will finish the book today, perhaps…maybe tomorrow…maybe by the weekend. Depends how forgiving of myself I am over the next few days. I won’t need to  say good-bye to the work—at least not  right away: I have several pages of refinements yet to be added to the final grooming…plot-points to bolster…clarities to find. I still have time to reflect, fix, appreciate, despise. I have days of work ahead. Weeks.

For that, I’m glad. I am not yet ready to say good-bye to this particular love.

Not an easy affection, this. The finding of the story has faced major challenges, many changes, in both the story’s development and in my own. My daily life is very different from the life in which I began the writing. The act of creation in this new situation has been, at times, a Sisyphean slog, an emotional melee. And the publishing world is very, very different today from the one that welcomed my first two published books; another shadow on the horizon that I have yet to face.

At the moment, I think I am content.

I am startled, facing the end, to realize how much I adore these characters. I loved them when I started…then, for a while, I wasn’t so sure. Maybe I expected to feel about them the consuming, unconditional love I felt/feel about David Emory in The Spiritkeeper, a person I carry with me, even now. These newer folks have often played an annoying and obnoxious game of hide and seek with me. Maybe I’ve just been afraid that if I pulled them too close, if I asked too much, they would abandon me. But, as one of the characters learns in that earlier work,

Everything you love. Everything that loves you. It stays. It always would. 

Today, my love for these new-made people takes my breath. I will miss them when they go; when I send them off on their journey so other people can find them, I will probably cry.

As it is, I’ll keep working on this suitably grey, chilly, rainy day. Tears from heaven for the last-given thing.

Creating a sense of immediacy and intimacy in a story is no easy task. When the characters ask us to be in the moment with them, sometimes the conventions of the King’s English won’t do.

Fortunately, when it comes to nowness in writing, we have a number of tools to help us.

Rhythm. We don’t necessarily think in complete, fully-shaped, grammatical entities. Sentences with a formal construct can be perfectly fine—exquisite, even—but sometimes fragments and phrases that approximate living thought can bring us into the character’s reality, into his head.

Here, rather than there. I realized this one a few mornings ago. Describing the immediacy of a place can mean nowness in the place. “The hilltop wanted them here” vs. “there” is being there rather than observing it.

Present tense. A tough one to use inventively and still keep the flow. As an experiment (not a finished product), try juxtaposing two paragraphs, either sequential paras or the same one written in a different tense. One will jump toward you. That’s the one to use.

And then there is the nowness of creating itself—the struggle to find the time or mental energy to immerse ourselves in the work. Sometimes, this is time spent at preparation, surrounding myself into the character’s life—becoming the character for a time. Other times, it’s finding an image, an emotion or a sequence that I love and wrapping my head in that; a passing glance, an angle of light, a smell in the air. Still other times, immersion requires transcribing the notes from the tape recorder…sheer copyist work.

Nowness. Being there. It’s necessary and invaluable. Because when we write—even if we’re writing about the past—we are always writing in the now.

We think we’ve got it licked, this sleeplessness thing.


Even when we’re not troubled, the brain buzzes; plays its attempt to order the Rubik’s Cube of the days and weeks ahead—what gets moved, what gets sold, in what order, what job to consider, what my life ought to be. The clock says 12:30. We went to sleep before 11. It says 1:30. 3:45. 4:30.

Come, Sleep. Come to me.

The tape recorder is my friend. Not the friend I speak to; instead, the one I listen to. The playbacks of chapters, completed or partial, are more than my test of how well the words and phrases sit in the ear. They are also the bedtime story; the comfort of the voice late at night.

In much the way I’ve been tapping my own emotions and experiences to help build plot and personality in the WiP, I created a character around the sound of a murmuring human voice. Carson speaks the serene singsong of an arcane and specialized craft. His voice bonds to the person to whom he is guiding to keep them anchored in the real world; to keep him alive.

Make no mistake…I’m not saying the sound of my own voice does not have lifegiving properties. Heaven forbid. But my own voice—even over the hissy distortion of this little recorder—does embrace the nuance of phrases, the songs of speech, the staccato pace of fragmentary sentences that act upon the reader’s ear as human thought does. And for me, late at night, it is something else….

It is the stories told to me before I was born. The campfire and nightlight moments. The little electronic pillow that helps me find the sleep that’s playing one mean game of hide-and-seek in my head.

I’ve talked about the imago for my male characters, the photo I carry to remind me of the look of them, the research, the gleaned psychology, the innocently stalkerish obsession. It works.

But what, I was asked recently, about the female leads? Who are they?

That’s a little simpler. They’re me. All of them.

This post will probably be a little more self-disclosure than is necessary—or wise. My female characters in the last two works have been thorny. Difficult. Insecure. Unsure about how love works and how they fit into that eternal puzzle. With a sometimes befuddled instinct to live the life of the giving heart.

As I said: Me.

That’s probably more than anybody needs to hear…but isn’t one of the first tenets of writing “Write what you know”?  That these women find some greater understanding by the end of the book, that they become more aware and comfortable in that awareness…that’s me, too. The madness, the snark, the uncertainties…and the gifts. All me. The best and worst of me. A laying-it-out-there that is the most honest self-awareness I can muster.

We spend our lives trying to come to some small understanding of who we are in this changing, mentally fickle organism. As writers, we get to work it out not in therapy but in chapters. Maybe no writer is secret. Maybe it’s mostly all out there on the page. With embellishments and exaggerations, certainly. But us. Our blood and skin. Our hearts. Our quirks. Souls in words. An endless hope in the possibility of love. The deepest truest things that connect us to others.

The secret me. Open to the world.

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