by Caroline Lawrence...
When I was a teacher, I discovered that students prefer one of three learning modes. They are either predominantly visual (and learn best by seeing things), auditory (they like hearing things) or kinaesthetic (they get it by doing things). Of course this is a generalisation. Most students are a combination of the three. But good teachers will use all three modes to reach their students.
The same goes for storytellers.
In the world of storytelling I think movies appeal to the visual mode, plays to the auditory and platform games to kinesthetic learners.
A writer of novels depends on visual and auditory modes. We all know authors who are superb at capturing dialogue but not so good at painting the world. And vice versa. An author will strive to be good at both.
My main mode is visual. I want to be able to see my world and I want my readers to see it, too.
For me, dialogue has always been a challenge. Following a conversation I can rarely remember exactly what was said, only the gist. This was a disadvantage when my son still lived at home. He favours the auditory mode and could always tell me exactly what I did or didn’t say.
When I was writing books set in ancient Rome, I didn’t try to make the dialogue sound Latin. I just wrote in plain English with a smattering of Latin words and tried to avoid modern idioms and ideas. (A reader once took me to task for using the word ‘weekend’ which is not an ancient concept.)
But everything changed when I wrote a series of four books set in Nevada during the early 1860s. In researching my P.K. Pinkerton Mysteries, I discovered a vast wealth of primary sources. As well as books and short stories, there were diaries, letters, newspaper accounts and even reports of the proceedings of the Territorial Legislature.
The literature of Nevada and California around the time of the American Civil War is often dubbed ‘Sagebrush Literature’ after the scrubby little plant that dots the Nevada deserts and perfumes the air. ‘When crushed,’ wrote Mark Twain, ‘sage-brush emits an odor which ain’t exactly magnolia, and ain’t exactly polecat, but a sort of compromise between the two.’
The most famous of these ‘sagebrush writers’ was Sam Clemens, who would become Mark Twain. But there were a passel of others who were just as drily witty. Like Clemens, Dan De Quille, Andrew Jackson Marsh and Alf Doten were all journalists at one point. By dipping into their articles, essays, journals, stories and poems, you taste the primordial literary soup from which Mark Twain emerged.
Here are some examples of slang that has passed out of use:
Hell did pop - Alf Doten
He kicked up thunder - Doten
Flew like a streak of chalk - Doten
The new mines are a bilk - Dan De Quille
In ‘borrasca’ – out of luck - De Quille
He did it in a hurry-skurry fashion - A.J. Marsh
The whole capoodle - Marsh
The council met at high 12 - Marsh
I got the dead-wood on him - Mark Twain
I don’t care a snap - Twain
1860s slang that is still around:
Stuck up - Twain
Don’t get huffy - Twain
They entered the saloon to take a nip - Marsh
Keep your shirt on - Twain
That girl is one in a million - Twain
Ruffle your feathers - Twain
Phrases to make you chuckle:
First it blew, then it snew, then it thew, then it friz. - Doten
I like myself first rate and think I am some punkins - Doten
Expectation stood on tiptoe - Marsh
You are a liar from your midriff up - Marsh
Cast soft glances upon his manly form - De Quille
He was a love of a dog, and much addicted to fleas - Twain
The cat let fly a frenzy of cat-profanity - Twain
Would have made a Comanche blush - Twain
Some phrases require further research:
A basket of champagne - Marsh
Three cheers and a tiger - Alf Doten
Living on alkali water and whang leather - Rollin Daggett
I wanted my characters to employ these same delicious words and expressions. I wanted to have these phrases in the top drawer of my brain so whenever I reached for an idiom or word it is right there.
But I am a visual learner. Auditory stuff doesn’t stick.
So how did I get it in my brain? Audiobooks!
I listened whenever I can. Not just during my daily walk or while travelling on public transport, but when I was making my breakfast, doing the dishes, putting laundry in the machine. Even little five or ten minute chunks could be useful. I’d often hear a phrase and pause the audiobook to make a note. (The audiobooks are all on my iPhone now so I can stick it in my pocket put in headphones and have it wherever I go). For a while I tried putting on Huckleberry Finn or Walt Whitman during one of my afternoon powernaps. Unfortunately, it’s a myth that you can learn while asleep. You definitely have to be awake.
Here are the three modes of audio I employ to get the sound of period narrative in my head.
Primary Sources - I love listening to books written during my time period, the mid-19th century. Mark Twain’s Roughing It, The Innocents Abroad, Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn. Bret Harte’s The Luck of Roaring Camp has stories about the California Gold Rush, while it was going on. Ambrose Bierce, the cynical Civil War writer, also helps me get into the mindset of the period. Poetry from Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman set a mood. George Alfred Townsend’s contemporary account of Lincoln’s assassination, The Life, Crime and Capture of John Wilkes Booth, has more concrete descriptive detail than any other writer I’ve found; but is also richly peppered with period expressions. I even have Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens on my iPhone audiobook library, because that’s the book Twain and his pals were reading in 1861.
Historical Fiction - True Grit by Charles Portis is famous for its quirky narrative and dialogue, all historically accurate. My favourite audiobook of all time is Donna Tartt’s reading of True Grit. It is pure genius. A couple of other great Western novels I listen to over and over are Boone’s Lick by Larry McMurtry (read by Will Patton) and Appaloosa by Robert B. Parker (read by Titus Welliver)
Homemade Recordings - Some of the letters and legal proceedings I really want embedded in my brain are not available on audiobook, so I read them into my iPhone and then listen to myself reading them. This is doubly good because reading out loud involves the kinesthetic (doing) as well as the auditory (hearing) and the two together are a powerful tool.
If you listen to something over and over, it becomes part of you, and even if you’re a visual thinker and writer like me, you can begin to achieve the special voice that tells your reader they are in another place and time. The spoken word on tape, CD or digital download is a fabulous resource for many writers and one that has not been available until relatively recently. Long live the audiobook!
My sagebrush-scented P.K. Pinkerton novels are set in the mile-high mining town of Virginia City in 1862, when a 12-year-old misfit detective hero named P.K. Pinkerton rubs shoulders with Mark Twain, Dan De Quille, Joe Goodman and other sagebrush journalists as they witness shootouts, fires, poker games and furniture auctions.
The audio book of the first P.K. Pinkerton mystery, The Case of the Deadly Desperados, is read by Pat Rogriguez (above) with just the right amount of sagebrush-dry, deadpan humour. You can listen to a sample HERE.
(An earlier version of this article was first posted on the Booktrust site in 2012.)