Voices and Stories by Catherine Czerkawska

Earlier this month, Alice Jolly’s interesting post for AE on ‘voice in the novel' gave me so much food for thought that, rather than posting a brief comment, I thought I’d contribute to the discussion more usefully by writing a post from my own perspective. Having published The Physic Garden, a first person narration historical novel (although not my first historical novel) a couple of years ago, I then found myself contemplating the challenge of writing a new historical novel, more or less set in the same period, late 18th and early 19th century Scotland, for the same publisher.

But I knew almost immediately that this wouldn’t be a first person narration – although it could have been - and this post will attempt to explore some of the reasons for my decisions.

I’m generally comfortable with first person narration because – wearing my other hat as a playwright – I’ve written a number of dramatic monologues: vivid first person narratives, with a strong voice and a strongly visual element too. In fact I think the key to writing a successful monologue is to cast the whole audience as another character, so that the actor is telling his or her story to the audience. I don’t mean audience participation, which can be at best surprising and at worst embarrassing. But for the audience to be engaged, they have to feel that the character is engaging with them, personally. I always liken it to the role of the wedding guest in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and in a play called The Price of a Fish Supper, I made a direct reference to the poem, with my fisherman narrator ironically aware of the poem from his schooldays and of the parallels with his own situation, his own personal albatross.

Experience of writing plays is useful for writing first person narrative fiction, since you inevitably find yourself casting the reader, whoever he or she might be, in the role of audience/listener/participant in the story of the novel, and this gives the narration an immediacy and intimacy it might otherwise lack. I think it worked well enough in The Physic Garden since by the time he was narrating the story, William Lang was an educated and experienced man – one who had become scholarly, but who was able to look back on his raw, youthful self with a measure of wisdom and understanding. The whole book was ‘about’ how he got there, the story of the harrowing events, the betrayals in his life that conspired to make him the man he turned out to be.

My new novel, The Jewel, however, is about the life and times of Jean Armour, the long-suffering wife of Scottish poet Robert Burns, and I was aware even before I began researching the subject that she had been somewhat neglected by the critical establishment, especially the Victorians, but even by those commentators who ought to have known better. In her 1930 biographical novel about the poet, Catherine Carswell was content to dismiss Jean as an illiterate and unfeeling ‘young heifer.’

I briefly contemplated telling the tale in Jean’s voice. Although I was born in Yorkshire, I’ve lived in Ayrshire long enough to be well aware of the vibrant language of this place, although like so many people nowadays, the poet himself seemed to find it remarkably easy to switch between Scots and what reads very much like standard English – and we’ve no reason to suppose that, with a good ear and a ready wit, he wasn’t able to do the same thing in speech, if he thought the situation and company warranted it. Jean was a different matter. Her father was a prosperous stonemason in the busy town of Mauchline which was busier in the 18th century than it is today. She would have spoken – especially as a young woman – an Ayrshire version of Scots, although like William Lang, time and experience would probably have changed it somewhat. But much of the ‘meat’ of the story involves the complicated courtship of the couple, with all its ups and downs. She had a level of education, was literate but not literary. She had a fund of old songs, and knew all their melodies, passed on to her from her mother and grandmother. It was one of the things that seems to have attracted the poet. She was never foolish and emerges as a kindly, sensible, down to earth woman whose sincere affection for her frequently errant lover, later husband, is never really in any doubt. She loved him although there were clearly times when she found it hard to like him much.

I could ‘hear’ her voice in my head, just as I can hear Ayrshire Scots spoken every time I go down the street or into the nearby town for my shopping. But would it be right to attempt to reproduce it on the page? I soon decided that it would be better all round if the novel was written in the third person, but very much from Jean’s perspective. We are with Jean throughout the whole novel, but the slight remove of a third person narration allows us to see through her eyes, to feel through her feelings and to hear her voice, without introducing the undeniable hurdle for many readers of fixing the whole narrative in 18th century Scots.

I wanted and needed a wider audience. I wanted and needed to convey the story in an authentic but accessible way.

So, I was listening for cadences of speech, for the shape of conversations, and for expressions that are – to a great extent – almost as commonplace now as they were then. People still call their children ‘weans’ here rather than ‘bairns.’ Still say that they are ‘black affronted’ by something. Still tell people that their coats are hanging on a ‘shoogly peg’ when they are overstepping the mark in some way. I have heard a woman call her husband a ‘knotless threid’ – a knotless thread who might slip away at time of need. It seemed to me enough to introduce words and phrases and the shape of certain conversations to fix the novel in the particular time, but just as vitally in the place of its setting. And to attempt to avoid anachronisms as far as I could, of course. But all while making the story as comprehensible as possible to the casual, non Scottish reader. And yes, there is a small glossary, even though I’d hope everything makes sense from its context!

Incidentally, anachronisms are not always what we think them. I remember an editor questioning the phrase 'ghostly gear' in The Curiosity Cabinet. She thought it was modern. But it isn't. It's a very old word for your 'stuff'.

The other vital element in all this, though, seems to me to be story. However authentic a voice, however firmly embedded in a time and place, if that voice does not have an absorbing story to tell, then the novel – or play, or short story – will fail. It doesn’t have to have a complex plot. There doesn’t have to be a twist in the tail. But there has to be a story for those voices, for those people to tell, something that carries us forward, that makes us want to find out what happens next, that satisfies the reader’s desire for illumination, for the perception that the book is perhaps about more than the sum of its parts – but that each of those parts really matters. The love of story is one of the things that makes us human. This is true for the writer, quite as much as for the reader. Whether successfully or not, we write to find out. Or at least I know I do.

What do you think?


Wendy H. Jones said…
What an interested ng, thoughtful and helpful post. I agree if there isn't a voice with which the narrator will identify then the reader will switch off. Loved the way the Scot's still use language which has been used for centuries. It makes us a part of history
Leela said…

Good to hear how you work out what kind of 'voice' suits your novels Catherine. Your new novel sounds really interesting and I'm sure I'll be reading it soon.
Like you said in the piece I find that many people are not aware of how Asians talk in English, often their second language. Some do a literal translation from their own mother tongue and it may sound incongruous and not 'proper' English, but as a dialogue between two Asians it is just right. So readers need to put themselves in their shoes. Part of the joy of reading books.

I enjoyed reading your post, in fact I used 'weans' in one of my poems and was told by my mentor to change it to 'bairns.'
Umberto Tosi said…
When the voice of the character speaks in your head, as you say, you know you have her spot on. A first person novel can make for an engrossing monolog - when it is at its best. But, as you also point out, first person narratives present some daunthing plotting challenges. I wrestled with this while writing Ophelia Rising, also an historical novel, albeit with a fictitious protagonist. I hit on a structure that mimics a "history" by a contemporary author, with first-person sections purporting to be from the "lost journals" of Ophelia. Now I'm writing the sequel, "Ophelia Regina" and again, tempted to go with first person all the way. Your insightful post gives me much to think about. Thank you. (Be the way, your posts will be missed. Good luck in your endeavors.)
Bill Kirton said…
You not only know how to write beautiful novels, Catherine, you articulate in a compelling way the processes behind their creation. Always a pleasure to read your stimulating thoughts on the craft.
Just checking in on my way to the Scottish Association of Writers Conference. Thanks, all. Umberto, I think first person narratives can be problematic, although if you can make them work, I reckon they work very well. Good luck with the next novel. I dramatised Stevenson's Kidnapped and Catriona for radio - and of course nothing happens that David Balfour doesn't know about, because he's the narrator - although it helped that he was a slightly older, wiser David telling the story of his youth. (And I think that really helped me when it came to writing The Physic Garden!) Leela, another fascinating perspective - and of course wean is right for the West of Scotland. I hope you told your mentor that!
Lydia Bennet said…
A very helpful and interesting post Catherine, dialect is always a bit of a poser in novels, if you want to reach a wider audience, and third person does allow things to happen that they didn't know about which let's face it is a common enough thing for most of us! I know from your postings here and on fb what a labour of love this book has been for you, and I look forward very much to reading it, I loved Physic Garden.
Dennis Hamley said…
First of all, Catherine, if this is your last post for AE then your final paragraph, on the necessity for humanity of the notion - and love - of story, stands out as a profound summation of the basic conviction of everyone who writes for this blog - and all others who aspire to write fiction. The final three sentences, before your last question, justify our whole existence. They could stand as our motto, our manifesto, and be printed on our home page as a reminder for us every day. A wonderful parting gift!

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