Getting the voice right

When you write historical cowboys, the voice, once you’ve got it, is really the same.

By voice, in this case, I mean the voice of the characters. Their word choices, their accent, even their attitude comes down to voice.

I reckon.

Now hold on there a minute, little missy.


It ain’t’a gonna do a lick of good.

I write these accents and word choices all the time. All day every day, when I’m writing, the voice for my heroes and mostly for my heroines, within the context of whether they’d shy or bold, aggressive or frightened, are much the same.

I’ve got this slang thing I do that’s… couldn’t’ve. wouldn’t’ve. He’d’ve. Three words crammed into one. I just enjoy like crazy this tone, this accent, this voice.

So in A Man with a Past I wanted something different.

I wanted a Tennessee Mountain Man. That is NOT a cowboy accent.

Example, the beginning of

A Man with a Past

When a man grows up in wild country, huntin’ food, eyes wide open for trouble, he knows when he’s being watched.

And that man there, back’a him weren’t out lookin’ for a place to have a Sunday picnic.

Falcon’d fought shy of a dozen towns and wanted no part of Independence, Missouri. Ceptin’ he didn’t know where in tarnation he was going and to his understanding this was his last chance to figure it out.

So he went ridin’ right smack into that beehive of a town on his old rawboned mule to find out how to get to Wyoming. And a man commenced to following.

To a lot of men, it might be right hard to spot a single man on these crowded streets full of shops and freight wagons. Everywhere he turned people swarmed.

But staying alive wasn’t easy in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Tennessee, where a man could find a way to die near every time he turned around. And yet here Falcon stood, as tall and rawboned as his mule, proving he was a tough, savvy man and he didn’t intent to trust to luck with that man on his tail.

He intended to trust to skill.

To get this voice, after trying a few different things, I used the Louis L’Amour book Ride the River.

Ride the River is one of my favorite L’Amour books. It’s one of the Sackett Books starring that rare creature a female Sackett. And Echo Sackett, which is also a favorite name, has this Tennessee Mountain Voice. The men Sacketts have some of it but they are soon Western Cowboys and have that western drawl I love.

But not Echo.

So I read Ride the River and started writing A Man with a Past, then I could feel myself slipping back into that western drawl, so I’d stop writing my book and read sections of Ride the River again, until I picked up the rhythm of that voice again. I didn’t COPY any words, just the tone, the accent.

So Falcon Hunt, my hero, has that voice…mostly. It was always a fight to keep him in the right accent.

And now I’m working on a book that has yet another voice. Three women from San Francisco, highly educated, extremely intelligent. These women are NOT saying, Howdy or “I couldn’t’ve done it.”

Oh no. They speak in full sentences, they use BIG words. They do not spout off or draw a gun. They think everything through. And here’s the thing I’ve realized a bout writing really smart people…honestly…geniuses… I’m not smart enough to do it.

So it’s a struggle not unlike my Falcon Hunt/Echo Sackett struggle.

So how to make these women really smart.

I’ve hunted around and found a few examples, beyond just their accents.

Excerpt from Inventions of the Heart (my heroine, Michelle is an inventor)

Jilly, sitting alone in the front row, rose and came to Michelle’s side, to stand as witness.

Michelle glanced at her and smiled, then turned back to Zane, that bright smile on his face drawing her like he was magnetized and she was a Euclidian vector field.

Excerpt from

The Element of Love

(This is Jilly but Laura is the heroine of this book–the girls have run away from home and are posing as servants, hiding from their evil stepfather)

“The work can’t be too heavy, Jilly. There are only two men to—”

            “Heavy’s not a problem. Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it and I shall move the world.”          

            The parson gave her a look through eyes so narrow and suspicious she wished she’d’ve skipped the quote.

He said, “You’re not, nor have you ever been, a servant, have you, Jilly?”

            Nope, she probably shouldn’t be quoting Archimedes. She clamped her mouth shut.

These three women…well…I’m doing my best but Michelle, Jilly and Laura Stiles are all smarter than I am, so I’m just struggling to fake being smart.

To an author, getting a character’s voice right is so fundamental that it’s in many ways the foundation of the whole character. What does she look like? Sure, that’s easy, what is her basic personality…well, beyond, for me, making their feisty lady ranchers, it’s not that hard to pick a character type. But their voice. What do they sound like, what words do they choose. It reflects what’s going on in their heads and that’s the person you want to bring to life on the page.

So right now I’m in the middle of trying to write Jilly, she’s book three of this series and she’s got a photographic memory. And that’s fun because she’s always coming up with exactly what someone said once, a long time ago.

It’s one of the harder, and more fun things about being an author.

So when you think of this idea, this VOICE, what comes to mind? Can you think of a favorite character from some book and how their voice helped you see them. I loved Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, that child voice telling this very adult story. The child gets only a little bit of what’s going on, but through her innocent eyes, we, the reader, get it. It’s a brilliant piece of storytelling.

Echo Sackett of course is one of my favorites. And remember Louis L’Amour almost always talked in that western cowboy drawl in his books so he had to get this Tennessee accent and use it to ground his character.

Who else? Who has a voice you love? Leave a comment to get your name in a drawing for a signed copy of A Man with a Past.

And coming in October, available now from pre-order, book #3 in the Brothers in Arms Series

Love on the Range

Wyatt Hunt is temporarily bedridden and completely miserable. Somehow Molly Garner’s limited skills have made her the most qualified in their circle to care for Wyatt. But by the time he’s healed, she’s fed up with him and the whole ungrateful family. For even worse than his grumpiness were the few unguarded moments when he pulled at her heartstrings, and she has long determined to never marry.

Molly gets a job as the housekeeper at Oliver Hawkins’s ranch. But really she’s with the Pinkertons, spying to find out if Hawkins has abused women and if he’s guilty of murder.

Wyatt refuses to let her risk it alone, convincing Hawkins that he’s abandoning his own ranch, angered by his two brothers’ coming to claim a big chunk of it.

But when another Pinkerton agent gets shot, they realize Hawkins isn’t the only danger. The Hunt brothers will have to band together to face all the troubles of life and love that suddenly surround them. 

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Author of Romantic Comedy...with Cowboys including the bestselling Kincaid Brides Series

34 thoughts on “Getting the voice right”

  1. Love an East Tennessee accent. My extended family is from the mountains in the Roans.

    The voices just make sense to me, whether they’re from the West, New York, New England, Lowcountry, Cajun, or even different dialects of jolly old English.

  2. The Appalachian dialect, such as that of East Tennessee, is the one I know best. It’s the one I grew up in.

    • Janice that’s home to you, then. Then book talks about how Falcon Hunt, the oldest Hunt brother, talks like his father. His father, the scoundrel who sets off the trouble in all three book, has traveled around but never quite lost that accent.

    • Hi Laura, I’m from Nebraska but we’ve got that western drawl here, too. Might be why, when I finally got a book published, it was a western. Because I could bring some authenticity to it.

  3. I haven’t thought about it much but the voice would make a big different. The books just wouldn’t be the same without the right voice. You do such a good job with your books a person just don’t think about it. It all depends on what part of the country you are from. I am from KY so I have a bad KY accent.

  4. I like the voices in Jan Karon’s Mitford series. The stories are set mostly in North Carolina. When I read them the characters come alive to me.

  5. I do love when authors try to incorporate the correct language with the area the story is set in or where the hero or heroine is from, I bet this is so fun for y’all. Yep I’m Texan!!!

  6. I enjoy all different dialects, although my favorite would probably be Appalachia’s dialect. There’ve been times after reading a book I find myself wanting to speak in the dialect of the book I just finished. Writing different dialects must be like being an actor having to speak different dialects. Looking forward to reading the book “A Man with a Path”, sounds good.

  7. My extended family lives in the NW GA, and I love the GA and AL drawls! I slip into that when I’m with my cousins, too.

  8. Mary, this is such an interesting post and got me thinking about some of my characters. But women overall tend to talk a lot differently from men anyway and use better words. Don’t fool yourself. I say you’re a brilliant woman and writer.

  9. I very much enjoyed your post as I have always appreciated tales of the old West. Taking the question in a different direction, i would say I enjoy the old James Cagney movies, as his voice was so much a part of the feel/genre of the movie – many of which were old gangster movies.

  10. Stoker Legend is patriarch of the Lone Star Ranch and sometimes I can hear him command his leadership amongst his cowboys, sons, cattle, and horses. He’s strong in book one of Men of Legend, written by Linda Broday, and then we glimpse him aging as other books are released. It’s simply life! But, to me, I still hear Stoker exercise his strong voice throughout the series. I hope to meet him someday … yeah right, but his voice is real to me.

    Mary, you are an amazing author. I love your books.

    • Hi Kathy, thank you for mentioning Stoker as a strong character with a unique voice. I had a pretty easy time getting his voice down and I’m not sure why. I think he’s one I’ve heard before. He just became so real to me from the very first. Houston Legend was the more difficult one. I really struggled with him because he was so much like Stoker. I’m so glad Stoker resonated with you.

  11. Hi, I enjoyed reading this post, yes voice accents are pretty nice, I Love the Texas accent, I also love the Brittish accents, I think I really like most of them. Have a great rest of the day and a Great rest of the week.

  12. This was a fun and interesting read. I was told my writing has an historical feel to it and should switch from contemporaries. I don’t entirely agree but do love writing historicals. Thus I was nodding as I read your excellent blog. Voice can make or break your story and if you’re working with an unfamiliar dialect, one really has to study them to make them feel right. My husband has that talent with accents. I can always tell if he’s watched a Samurai movie or one set in Ireland, etc.. Love your books, Mary.

  13. I loved your post today, Mary! It’s so true about the voice of the characters (and such a struggle when they are smarter than the author! I’m writing one of those at the moment!). Thank you for sharing this with us.

  14. oh my I love the Sacketts. Especially Echo. They were so fun and so all about “family”. Such a wonderful post today. I really love cowboy and texas accents.
    quilting dash lady at comcast dot net

  15. Wonderful post, thank you for sharing! I really enjoy the upper crust type voice, books set during the Victorian period really entertain me. I also enjoy the western and Appalachian voices too.

  16. I had never really thought about character voice, but it is important and can make or break the quality of a book. It is something I tend to notice if it is missing. If it is off it creates a character that doesn’t “fit.” You example of Scout in To Kill A Mocking Bird is really a perfect example. In her case, she has 2 voices – southern and child. Both provide to her authenticity and that of the story.

    As for other books I have read, those with Scottish Highlanders can be done vera well. Some authors try too hard and it comes across poorly pulling the reader out of the flow of the story. It turns out to be a case of trying too hard.

    I was a military wife for 24 years and was overseas for 3 years prior to that. Accents, both subtle and obvious, have been something I have picked up on and found it easy to follow and decipher. When my husband retired we moved to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Tennessee. The language is very different and not always easy to decipher properly. Even after 25 years the subtleties are easy to miss. “Bless your heart” does not mean what you might think it does. Falcon Hunt would fit right in with some of those back in the hills even today.

    Thank you for the interesting post. Made me think about the struggle it can be to get the voice just right and a bit more understanding when an author misses the mark. In some cases, it can be said the author didn’t have to try so hard. In others, they should have really tried harder. I am looking forward to both your Tennessee hero and your three intelligent young ladies.

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