Voice in writing: what is it and how should you use it?

Voice in writing
Voice: louder isn’t necessarily better…
“You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression” is possibly one of the most commonly given pieces of advice to prospective job interviewees. At least part of the first impression you give comes from your voice – its volume, pitch, tone, speed, and, unsurprisingly, the words themselves.

Well, it’s exactly the same with writing. Your voice, or the specific, almost indefinable way in which your words are put together, will help a reader (or literary agent) decide within a matter of seconds whether or not they can be bothered to turn to page two.

So what is voice? How do you know yours is a good one? And how can you find it if you have no idea where it’s gone?

What is voice?

Voice was one of the weekly topics covered by my self-editing course, and, to me, the single most useful thing we learnt.

Many elements contribute to voice and these are just some of them:

  • Atmosphere – whether you want the reader to instantly feel the story is spooky or funny or sad.
  • Whether a character or separate narrator (or some combination) is telling the story – you might want the voice to differ drastically between characters / narrators (should you write from the perspective of more than one). Whether you want to write from a first person or third person perspective (broadly “I went” compared to “Kirsty went”) will also have a bearing on how you employ voice.
  • Where the storyteller is “standing” in a figurative sense, i.e. whether they are experiencing events along with the reader or looking back, and who they are telling their story to (and why) – do they know, and therefore, allude to later events of the book, or is everything as much of a surprise to them as it is to the reader?
  • Dialect – do you want this to be more authentic to the character or (potentially) easier for the reader to get to grips with quickly?
  • Rhythm of your prose – sentence length and structure, how varied they are, any patterns you employ.
  • To what extent the character’s thoughts and emotions colour the prose – psychic distance (i.e. how far inside the character’s head the reader gets) is closely linked to voice. I plan to cover it more fully in a future post, but read this very useful blog if you want to find out more (incidentally it is by Emma Darwin, one of our course tutors).
  • The types of words you use – big ones, small ones, descriptive ones, functional ones, commonplace ones, unusual ones etc etc.
  • The things you focus on – people or objects, colours or shapes, the big picture or small details, the whole forest or an individual tree.

In short, voice comprises both the style and substance of your writing. It is the thing that makes a reader want to read on for a reason they can’t quite put their finger on – essentially, they like both what the storyteller is saying and how they are saying it.

So how did we use this information to enrich our writing on the course?

Voice – what did I learn?

Before the course, I already knew what voice was, at least theoretically, and I knew that mine was reasonably good (or “idiosyncratic” as my year 10 English teacher put it) but I had never really thought about it, or experimented with it in any way. I mentioned in a previous blog post that I have always favoured writing in third person, and this is the perspective I have chosen for my book.

So when we were told that our week 3 exercise was to take a two-character passage from our book and to make three versions of it (third person, and then first person from the perspective of each of the characters), I was very excited about the challenge and what I could make of it. The purpose of the exercise was to see how our voice differed from extract to extract.

Here’s what I did:

Third person (as in my book draft)

Sadie frowned as she scanned the pack.

‘Tell you what?’

She already knew what her friend wanted though. Her pulse raced as she reached towards the cards. She picked them up, looked at them one by one. Five cards. Five ambiguous cards. Lora beamed.

‘Tell me whether I’ll see my baby again.’

Sadie patted around the blanket for the bottle, unwilling to look up from the cards, to see the look on her friend’s face. Her mouth felt dry – she needed more brandy. The magician. She had always liked that card, liked to pretend it was her. Fortune telling was magic, was it not? The brandy slicked her tongue but her lips still rubbed like parchment. The empress. Perhaps a Peruvian empress? She looked exotic in the picture, a bit like Lora’s sister but less surly. The next card was justice. She put it to the back. The hermit. The moon. What did they mean?

Sadie had asked a question once before. Three pence, no refunds. The answer had been no in her case. Lora wanted to see her child again – her friend Lora who was always so happy. She didn’t look happy now though, biting her bottom lip, a crease of skin between her eyebrows. Perhaps that was a good thing. Use your skills to get what you want, the old man had said. Sadie wanted happiness. She looked up at her friend.

‘No, I don’t think you will.’

First person (Sadie)

’Tell you what?’

I didn’t need to ask that but I wanted to buy some time, to delay a moment longer. My heart raced, my temples began to burn. I picked up the pack of cards, slowly, slowly. There were five. Five cards that I stared at but didn’t really see. I glanced at Lora. She was smiling.

Why did she have to be smiling?

‘Tell me whether I’ll see my baby again’, she said.

Just as I had thought. Where was the brandy? Perhaps I’d let liquor make my decision for me. I opened the canteen, tipped it back. I was parched anyway, tongue like a paper bag. I flicked through the cards again, anything but see the look on Lora’s face. The magician. I swallowed a smile. I’ve always liked that one – fortune telling is magic, is it not? I licked my brandy-laced lips. The empress. Exotic, Peruvian perhaps. Better not tell Lora the empress looks like her sister, that’d snatch the smile from her face. The next card was justice. I put it to the back. The hermit, the moon. What did they mean, really?

I had asked a question once, a long time ago. Handed over my coins but the answer was no. I looked up at my friend. So happy usually, but not today. Why should the answer be any different for her? She bit her bottom lip, creased her eyebrows. Use your skills to get what you want, the old man had told me. I wanted to be happy, like Lora.
I took a breath, my pulse slowed.

‘No, I don’t think you will.’

First person (Lora)

It was just a bunch of symbols really. Nonsensical magic-type stuff. But Sadie glanced from card to card, searching for an answer or reading something I couldn’t. She obviously hadn’t found it this time. She looked confused, distracted. I wasn’t sure if she’d heard my question but she looked up.

‘Tell you what?’

I clutched the blanket to my neck. It was itchy, but better itchy than cold. I looked back at her, forcing a grin I didn’t want to give. Just ask the question for God’s sake. She’s your friend.

‘Tell me whether I’ll see my baby again.’

There. She had to answer now. She had to say yes. The cards always said yes. I waited. Sadie clawed at the lid of the canteen, glugged back my brandy. The air inside the tent was hot with the fumes of her breath, my breath. I didn’t want any more to drink though. I just wanted my answer.

Sadie looked at a card, smiled, looked at the next one. Why was it taking her so long? The canteen lay on the camp bed between us, soaking the blanket, water droplets reflecting the lantern light. I wanted to reach for it but I couldn’t, not until Sadie answered. I waited, nails digging into palms. The cards always said yes, didn’t they? She stopped shuffling, looked up. She took a deep breath.

‘No, I don’t think you will.’


That single exercise took less than an hour and yet it taught me so much – one of the main things being that I should use “close-in” psychic distance a lot more when I get down to the nitty gritty of editing my book. This will hopefully add to the distinctive flavour of each character’s voice even though I am writing my book in third person. I thought I was doing a pretty decent job of using psychic distance effectively until I read my original third person piece straight after my first person pieces – it felt rather flat and dull in comparison.

I also realised how useful it is to consider the wants and needs of the other characters in any given scene – you might not want them to be the focus but how do their emotions colour any interactions they have with the main character? Finally, the most important thing it taught me is to experiment, experiment and experiment some more! Write in first person and third person, in past tense and present tense. Write scenes about characters you love and characters you hate. Write comedy even though you hate laughing, and tragedy even though you can’t bear to cry. Much like your speaking voice, the more you practise, the more confident your writing voice will become. And much like your speaking voice, should you lose it, well, that’s nothing a tot of whisky, honey and lemon won’t solve…


Historical fiction: what is it and why should you write it?

Historical fiction
Henry and his wives: historical romance or historical horror?
If you have read my blog post on genre, you will be aware that I don’t necessarily consider historical fiction to be a genre in its own right. I view it more as a setting, a complement to the story and the characters. Despite this, Mamacona does have a historical setting and so the tag “historical fiction” is one I can’t really hide from.

But what does it mean? What makes writing historical fiction different to writing, say, contemporary crime or near-future romance? And why have I chosen a historical setting for my introduction to the world of novel writing?

This is my first blog post in quite a while (and so it is a long one!). Real life has an annoying habit of carrying on, even when all I truly want to do is power through my editing as quickly as possible and start querying agents. Over the past few months, real life has been conspiring to wrestle my attention away from my book, my blog and my self-editing course. Sadly, my blog has been the loser, hence the lack of recent posts. On the bright side, my course has provided plenty of fodder for future musings.

The self-editing course didn’t expressly cover genre, but it did get me thinking about the nature of my book and why setting it in the past was a natural choice for me. I go into the many and varied reasons for this below, but first…

What is historical fiction?

To paraphrase this description from goodreads.com, historical fiction is fiction set in the past, in which the time period is an important feature of the story. It matters not whether the characters are kings and queens, well-known villains or entirely made-up ordinary people. Important battles and other dates that we are all encouraged to remember as schoolchildren might be significant to the plot, a mere backdrop to the setting or not mentioned at all. Where they are mentioned though, they shouldn’t deviate substantially from what actually happened.

And that’s it. Outside of the above, historical fiction can be whatever you want to make it – creepy, romantic, gloomy, laugh-a-minute, or any combination of those things. This, to me, is the reason I don’t consider it a genre in and of itself. “Historical fiction” can’t possibly communicate the differences between a Bernard Cornwell novel and one by Philippa Gregory. Yes, the fact that a book is set in the past interests me, but which time period? And more importantly, what happens? What are the characters like? How will it make me feel? I prefer to use “historical” in conjunction with another label. Historical romance, historical thriller or historical crime tells a prospective reader far more about what they can expect if they begin to turn the pages.

I mention above that, in historical fiction, story events usually shouldn’t deviate too much from actual events. So what if yours do? What if, for example, the wheel was never invented or World War II went on for 15 years? That’s fine, but your book then falls into the category of “alternate history” or, more generally, “speculative fiction”.

The description from goodreads also states that historical fiction, in addition to adhering to the path of history, should obey the laws of physics. Mamacona doesn’t, not entirely. Strange things happen, inexplicable things. Historical fantasy might, therefore, be an appropriate description of my book.

But why did I choose to write a book that fits this description?

Why historical fiction?

  • I love both storytelling and playing with words. When it comes to the former, my absolute favourite thing about it is using my imagination, pretending to be someone vastly different from me in order to come up with a story. This generally means inventing a character from somewhere very unlike Britain, from a bygone era or from a different world entirely. Now that I think about it, most of my story ideas involve one of the three. To me, it isn’t the historical setting per se that I find exciting, but the challenge of writing about something I know very little about to start with. So it is fortunate that…
  • I love to research. I think the amount of reading and note-taking required to write a story set historically would be off-putting if it wasn’t something you enjoyed. But I love the weird and wonderful facts I have come across in the course of my research. In fact, part of the reason I chose the Inca Empire as one of my settings was that it was a time period I wanted to learn more about. The whole process can be very involving – from initial ideas, via museum visits and photography collections, to last minute fact-checking. I now know how efficient the 1880s South American rail network was, how to make a bottle of nine oils and what the Incas used to wash their hair (urine, in case you were wondering).
  • I would probably say this no matter which genre I was writing in, but it’s a great excuse for a trip (all in the name of research, obviously). I still want to make it to Peru (particularly to Lake Titicaca, the setting for Mamacona), but in the meantime, I have ventured to the circus to research the later portion of my book, and to various museums. Having said that, if you keep your eyes open, inspiration for potential historical stories really is all around us – on a recent visit to Tintern Abbey, I decided I wanted to write a story about ancient monks and the devil…
  • I really enjoyed primary school history. My enthusiasm waned as time went on because we stopped learning about the everyday lives of ordinary people and started learning about politics and military timelines. I continued to miss the Tudor banquet menus and Roman bath layouts of old, but now I get to write about precisely this type of thing as much as I want to (my stories tend towards the “entirely made-up ordinary people” rather than the kings and queens and well-known villains).

But as enjoyable as writing historical fiction is, it isn’t completely free of problems.

So, what are the difficulties?

  • Naturally, writing a fictional story involves making things up even where the setting is a real historical period – some things we just don’t know, and sometimes the truth simply isn’t that interesting. Received wisdom is that the truth should be adhered to in the case of significant events. But just how far can you deviate from the truth in other cases? Can you make up locations and invent recipes? I read an interesting blog post (that I now can’t locate) written by somebody who was both a historian and a novelist – they were very much of the opinion that the story comes first, and I am inclined to agree. It should be clear to readers that you are not writing an educational tome and so you would hope that nobody would attempt to use your book to revise for GCSE History. The setting should add to the richness of your story, not act as a distraction or an impediment to taking the plot where you want it to go. And if all else fails, and you absolutely HAVE to have Queen Victoria living to the age of 203, then there is always speculative fiction…
  • Despite this, I still have doubts about how I have interpreted the Inca Empire and its people. I regularly ask myself, “What would an expert think?!” and have visions of them slapping their tummies in mirth at my description of the Festival of the Moon or the potato-drying process. My feelings are compounded by the fact that the Inca Empire is rather difficult to research due to the relative lack of primary written accounts. I recall spending a disproportionately large amount of time trying to find out what precisely filled Inca doorways and how they were secured against intruders. Quechua, the Andean language of old, is another problem – I want to use the odd phrase in my book, but it is not widely spoken nowadays, at least not among people I can access easily. You can trust online dictionaries to a point, but I think only to a very small point. So if anybody out there is an expert on Quechua (or Inca doorways!) then please feel free to get in touch.
  • Should you choose to incorporate real events, what is the best way to do this? My book alludes to a few of these rather than mentioning them explicitly. The smallpox epidemic is hinted at, as is the incursion of the Spanish invaders. These events are not important elements in my story, but readers with a knowledge of South American history might notice the date of 1526 and realise my book is set at the brink of the Empire’s demise. I have opted for a combination of matter-of-factness and poignancy in my treatment of these events – other writers might choose to play the events up a little more or make them more central to the story.
  • How “authentically old-fashioned” should speech be? Too much and you might alienate and annoy the reader, not enough and the dialogue might not seem authentic. I have looked up the origin of many a commonly uttered phrase to check whether it was in use at the time in which my book is set. My approach has been to keep the speech relatively familiar, with just a hint of “otherness”. This is obviously much easier in the case of the Victorian chapters of my book, as I have no idea how native Peruvians spoke in the 16th century…

No doubt I will come across countless more problems as I work through the editing process. I have a little notebook (kept safely next to my bed in case inspiration strikes at 3am) filled with things (potential plot inconsistencies and historical facts) I need to double check, and the prospect of opening it up is pretty daunting. I suppose I just need to keep in mind the following quote from Tolstoy:

“A historian and an artist, describing a historical epoch, have two completely different objects. As a historian would be wrong if he should try to present a historical figure in all his entirety, in all the complexity of his relations to all sides of life, so an artist would not fulfil his task by always presenting a figure in his historical significance.”