I’m a long time fan of Stephen King and his particular way of telling a story. In the mid-80s, shortly after I began working at my local library, I came across the novel Thinner. I picked up the book. As is my habit, I didn’t look at the author’s name; I only read the title and the first page. I remember thinking, “Wow. I didn’t know Stephen King had a new book out.”
What a shock it was to see another name on the front cover and an unknown man’s photograph on the back. I refused to believe another person could’ve written so convincingly in King’s voice. It was obvious to me Thinner was the work of Stephen King. For half a year, I argued with friends and my library co-workers, staunch in my belief it was King’s work. In 1985, King was outed as the writer behind Richard Bachman’s novels.
For a reader, a favorite writer’s voice is unmistakable, even when the writing is labeled as someone else’s. This holds true when writers cross genres as well.
When I think of voice in genre and subject, the word synergy comes to mind. Not just for an author’s voice in a particular genre, but for the intricate working together of a writer’s voice over multiple genres. I think of it as meeting the writer in different clothing, the opportunity to see them in business attire, tennis whites, or Sunday go-to-meeting dress.
In Solving the Riddle of Voice, I define voice as “an accumulation, a distillation of you the writer. Your topics, word choice, word order, sentence structure and rhythm.”
And voice is best understood when we can observe a writer’s work over multiple genres and formats. As both writer and reader, we are privy to the nuances and growth of a writer’s voice. No matter the costume change—with or without embellishment, it’s still you, the writer.
A Change of Clothes
Unsurprisingly, writers such as Zora Neale Hurston and James Baldwin put their indelible stamp on any and every genre they practice. Hurston was an anthropologist, folklorist, and writer whose works included novels, plays, folklore collections, folkways nonfiction and history. Baldwin’s oeuvre ranges from novels, short stories, and poetry to social commentary and political essays.
Rachel Caine and Susan Straight, are two contemporary writers whose voices indelibly cross genres.
Rachel Caine writes fiction across a wide array: short stories, novellas and novels as adult thrillers, young adult (YA) science fiction, adult urban fantasy, YA historical, and YA paranormal.
In the following two excerpts, Caine’s deft hand at rendering strong women’s voices is shown to its best advantage. “Marion, Missing” was my first introduction to her writing. I fell in love with Matilde (Tilde) Sands and her relationship with her investigating partner Warren Valentine, which pushed me to find Caine’s other works.
Excerpt from “Marion, Missing” in “Dark Secrets: A Paranormal Noir Anthology” (short story):
[ “Focus,” she said, and he snapped out of the memory and into the present like she’d put a cold hand on his forehead. She hadn’t. She was still sitting cross-legged in the wheeled wooden chair on the other side of the desk.
It usually creaked when she leaned forward, but it didn’t now. Because she’s not really here, he told himself. Because you’ve cracked like an egg, buddy. The diner down the block could make an omelet out of you.
“You need to get back to work. You’re good at this. You make the world better when other people tear it down. I need you to keep doing that.”
“What are you, my mother?”
“No,” Tilde said, and tilted her head to one side. It revealed one last wound, the one on the side of her head, right in the temple, where she’d been icepicked in the brain. A little trickle of red down the side of her face, bright as her lipstick, and the wounds in her chest took on brighter centers. “I have to go now,” she told him. “Listen to your partner. Don’t quit on me. Don’t you dare.”
She smiled, and it was the sweetest thing. Made him think of sunrises and hope.
Then the partner chair sat empty, and except for a lingering whisper of that perfume she always wore, Tilde was gone again.
“God damn you,” he whispered, and clutched the edge of the desk in shaking hands. “God damn you for leaving.”]
Excerpt from “Stillhouse Lake” (adult thriller novel):
[ I like to have order, so that I never have to waste a moment in an emergency. Sometimes I turn the lights out and run crisis drills. There’s a fire in the hall. What’s your escape route? Where are your weapons? I know it’s obsessive and unhealthy.
It’s also practical as hell.
I mentally rehearse what I’d do if an intruder broke in the garage door. Grab knife from block. Rush forward to block him in the door. Stab stab stab. While he’s reeling, slice the tendons at the ankles. Down.
Always, in my rehearsals, it’s Mel coming for us—Mel, looking exactly the same as he had in the trial, wearing a charcoal-gray suit his lawyer had bought, with a blue silk tie and pocket square that matched his denim-colored eyes. He looks like a well-dressed, normal man, and the disguise is perfect.
I hadn’t been in the crowd at his court appearance, where everyone reported he’d looked like a perfectly innocent man; I’d been locked up, awaiting my own trial. But a photographer had captured him at just the right moment as he turned and looked at the crowd, the victims’ families. He still looked the same, but his eyes had gone flat and soulless, and seeing that picture had given me the eerie feeling that something cold and alien was inside of that body, staring out. That creature hadn’t felt the need to hide anymore.
When I imagine Mel coming for us, that’s what’s staring out of his face. ]
Caine takes some of the same elements — a serial killer of women and the main female protagonist stumbling onto the killer’s lair — and weaves enthralling but different stories. Yet both are told with the appropriate lexicon and language for the respective genre.
I first encountered Susan Straight’s writing on Slate.com. Novels, short stories, reviews, essays on family life and social commentary are all part of Straight’s writing repertoire. Her work, in whatever genre, is compassionate, accessible, and real. She writes about life in a clear-eyed lucid fashion.
I was floored by how familiar Straight’s writing felt. It was as if she had observed parts of my Southern black childhood and faithfully chronicled them. Imagine my surprise when I discovered blond-haired Straight’s empathetic white face staring back at me. It brought home how the particular is universal and people are more than their external appearance. Her particular— locality and the sense of place—is in full effect in these seemingly disparate (an op-ed piece and fiction) excerpts.
Excerpt from “All Writing is Local” in the “Los Angeles Times” (newspaper op-ed):
[ It was all very amusing and fun to read. But at the end of the process—after I read the heated online discussions and talked about it with other writers—I believe exactly what I believed that day in Boston: There is no Great American Novel. There is no one book that can sum us up. There are only brilliant regional versions of what we are.
I love the regionalists.
In the same way that Americans love to savor and know, and brag about knowing, the best regional delicacies, there is a specificity and flavor and precise individuality that makes writing from a particular place the favorite of many writers and booksellers and readers.
We don’t just love Chinese food, if we truly and passionately love it. We love fiery Szechuan dishes, complicated Cantonese meals and food from Hunan. Mexican food? Please. Not if you know better than Taco Bell. Oaxacan moles and chilaquiles, seafood from Veracruz, the menudo from Michoacan (which is the favorite in my neighborhood).
The American writers who give us their unique fictional landscapes and languages and people are many. There’s Stuart Dybek’s Chicago, James Welch’s Montana, Sherman Alexie’s Washington state, Chris Offutt’s Appalachia. Ernest Gaines, even though he has lived for years in California, still writes great American novels such as “A Lesson Before Dying,” in which the small towns of Louisiana stand in for the entire world. And I love the New York of James Baldwin and Richard Price. ]
Excerpt from “Between Heaven and Here” (novel):
[ “Why you waste your money here?” she asked Sisia. The smell of the chemicals at the nail salon went through Glorette’s eyes and into her brain. Passed right through the tears and the eyeball. Through the iris, she thought.
“Not a waste,” Lynn Win said, moving around Sisia’s hand like a hummingbird checking flowers. Like the hummingbird that came to the hibiscus in front of The Lamplighter Motel. Mrs. Tajinder Patel’s hibiscus. “Only to you,” Lynn Win said.
“Please.” Glorette walked into the doorway to breathe and looked at the cars roaming past the strip mall. Every strip mall in Rio Seco, in California, in the world, probably, was like this. Nail salon, video store, doughnut shop, liquor, and Launderland and taqueria. All the smells hovering in their own doorways, like the owners did in the early morning and late at night, waiting.
Like she and Sisia hovered. Sundown first, Launderland in winter when it was cold in the alley, taqueria when the cops cruised by. All the standing and waiting between jobs. They were just jobs. Like clean the counter at the taqueria. Take out the trash. Uncrate the liquor. Wash the sheets. All up and down the street. Lean against the chainlink fence, against the bus stop but you couldn’t sit on the bench, shove your shoulder into the cinderblock wall outside Launderland and even sleep for a minute, if the fog settled in like a quilt, like the opposite of an electric blanket, and cooled off the night. ]
While Straight’s novels and nonfiction are filled with black or mixed race working-class people, Straight herself is “petite and blond”. Her writing is reflective of where she lives. Straight explains it this way:
“I still live in the same place I’ve lived all my life. And even though I look like this, most of the characters [in my books] are black or mixed race, because that’s the community I live in.”
Not in a Vacuum
While writing is not (always) autobiographical, the writer does plant a little piece of herself into everything she writes. As writers, our choice of genre and subject stems from what is in our minds. All those articles, snippets of overheard conversation, and preoccupations show up in our work.
In a Writer’s Digest article on multi-genre authors, Brad Meltzer opined, “Anything that you work on, if you’re being honest, shows your personality in it.” In developing and honing our writer’s voice, one trick is to not hide your predilections and obsessions. Self-determination shows up often in Zora Neale Hurston’s fiction. A logical but passionate tough-love permeates Baldwin’s political and fictional works. Fierce women and visceral tension defines Caine’s skip across genres. Family and place occupies much of Susan Straight’s writing.
We writers have to embrace ourselves and our writing; we must channel our inner-Zora Neale Hurston and love our writing selves when we are laughing. . . and then again when we’re looking mean and impressive.
We’ll take a look at how voice touches character creation in the next Writing Small.
Brenda Joyce Patterson is a poet, writer, librarian, and lover of short writing forms. Her poetry and flash fiction have been published in Vayavya, Gravel Magazine, and Melancholy Hyperbole. Along with works by Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Alice Walker, her travel essay “The Kindness of Strangers” appeared in Go Girl: The Black Woman’s Guide to Travel and Adventure.