Don’t Shoot the Painter

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by Donis Casey

When I write an Alafair Tucker novel, I work hard to authentically depict what life was like in the pre-World War I rural Oklahoma.  I decided early on that I wanted to try and evoke not just the events of the time, but the smells, the tastes, the sound, the hot and cold of it — the daily one-foot-in-front-of-the-other life of a farm wife with ten children. I love the language, too. When I was a teenager, my uncle walked into our house one day and said, “What in the cat hair is going on?” How could I let such a colorful way of expression fade into oblivion?

I’m very careful with dialect when I write, and often worried about it, too. The people in 1916 Boynton, Oklahoma, did in fact use terms and phrases that are now cliche. I know this is so because that is the way my grandparents talked, all four of whom were in their teens and twenties in the 1910′s. In truth, I don’t write exactly like they talked, because it would not be understandable if I did. It’s a beginner’s mistake to try transliterate a character’s accent onto the page. But the choice of words used and the very way that those words are combined will evoke the time and place.

The trick to writing dialect is to simply give a flavor of the language by use of grammar, word order, rhythm of speech, and regional phrases.There is a very big difference between dialect, which is the meaning and use of words and phrases of a particular region or ethnicity, and accent, which is the way words are pronounced. That is, a native Oklahoman in 1916 would probably have pronounced the word panther as painter, oil as awl, and point as pint.  But I would not have my character say, “I just shot me a painter.”  Because you would look at that, Dear Reader, and say huh?

Sometimes writing dialect for the near past is trickier than for the more distant past.  Would my teen boy have said “jeepers” in 1916?*  How about, “I’ll be f—ed?”** How can I know? Sometimes it’s tough, but we do our best. Popular literature of the time and etymological dictionaries like the good old Oxford English Dictionary help a lot.

In my experience, persons of Alafair’s particular era and place spoke with an amazing blend of ungrammatical, nonstandard usage and beautiful, flowery phraseology that would not look amiss in Shakespearean dialog. Here’s a passage from the fifth Alafair Tucker novel, Crying Blood:

“You’re a spiteful heathen, McBride…There’s no stud in Oklahoma can hold a candle to yon stallion and well you know it.  Talk some sense into the fool, Shaw. I’d have to haul my mares clean to Tennessee to find another half so fine, nor could I buy another of such quality even if I could afford to scour the country to find him.”

Some of the words used in the paragraph are archaic, but not unfamiliar, such as “yon”, or the way the character uses the word “clean” instead of “clear”. And the word order is different from what one might hear these days.  But I didn’t write ‘Yore uh spotful haythun, McBrodd.”  I trust that you heard it that way in your head, anyway, Dear Reader.

I’m fairly well educated myself, and I grew up determined to speak English in as standard a fashion as I could. My parents were college educated, but OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAtheir parents and older relatives weren’t, so I grew up around country people. My most schooled grandparent graduated from the eighth grade, which was as far as most people in that time and place could go. One grandparent only got as far as the third grade. But just because you didn’t get very far in school doesn’t mean you aren’t smart. Michael Caine, who is Cockney, once said that people too often judge your intelligence by your accent.

I fear I did that too often during my youth. Now that I’m not so young, I realize that my grandma knew a heck of a lot more about people and about living than I do, lack of advanced degrees notwithstanding.

Writing dialect is dangerous business, any as any writer knows. It’s really hard not to sound ridiculous, or worse, to sound like you don’t respect your characters. So most teachers warn students away from attempting it. Now that it’s hard to find strong dialect anywhere in America, I find that I miss hearing it. To me, an old Oklahoma way of speaking sounds like my warm and loving childhood, and that’s why I try to lovingly convey a flavor of it in my writing.

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*no

**yes

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Donis Casey is the author of six Alafair Tucker Mysteries, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, Hornswoggled, The Drop Edge of Yonder, The Sky Took Him, Crying Blood, and the recently released The Wrong Hill to Die On. Her series featuring the sleuthing mother of ten children is set in Oklahoma and Arizona during the booming 1910s. Donis has twice won the Arizona Book Award and her books have been finalists for the Willa Award and the Oklahoma Book Award. Her first novel, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, was named an Oklahoma Centennial Book. Read the first chapter of each book at Donis’ website.

Where do Characters Come From?

My guest today is Donis Casey, author of five Alafair Tucker mysteries. (I bought the first one, The Old Buzzard Had it Coming, strictly on the title!) I’ve asked her to elaborate on how she “discovered” and developed her main character.

 

 

Alafair Tucker

By Donis Casey

Hercule Poirot, Harriet Vane, Annie Darling, V.I. Warshawski, Stephanie Plum, Alafair Tucker. Where did they come from? What sort of mind does it take to create a character that seems to live and breathe? Yes, I dare to list the name of Alafair, my turn-of-the-Twentieth-Century sleuthing mother of ten children, alongside these immortals, because I’m confident that even though my books may not live forever in the annals of English-language literary tradition like Agatha Christie’s, Alafair sprang forth in the same way as Miss Marple did.

It was something of a miracle.

If you are an author, you may bring your characters into the world, but in a odd way, how they turn out really doesn’t have anything to do with you.

In 1999, after I closed my business and discovered I now had time to do research, I decided to write a family genealogy for my siblings as a Christmas present. In the course of the research, I ran across stories and anecdotes about ancestors, which led me to remember stories my grandparents and parents had told me about their parents and grandparents, and life on the farm. I began questioning my mother, and then to write down my own memories. When I shared my stories with my husband, he began to reminisce about his (extremely colorful) Oklahoma pioneering family. This led me to begin questioning his siblings. At the end of the process, I had a book length genealogy packed with stories from the French and Indian wars, the Revolution, the Civil War, World Wars I and II, ambushes, murders, adoptions, divorces and adultery — settlers and Indians, massacres, poisonings, axings, shootings, drownings, and smashing people in the head with beer bottles.

I plumbed my own memory as well as interviewed many relatives. Many of the details of farm life come from my mother, such as using kerosene-soaked corn cobs to start a fire. Many of the incidents related actually happened, both in my family and my husband’s (the less savory ones, he points out).

I began writing The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, the first book about Alafair’s life, early in 2000. The fifth entry in the series, Crying Blood, was issued by Poisoned Pen Press just last month.

The character of Alafair was cobbled from bits and pieces of all the beloved women in my family who came before me.  Alafair was the name of my father’s maternal grandmother, Alafair Morgan. Tucker was the family name of my father’s paternal grandmother, Selinda Tucker. Here is a photograph of Great-Grandma Alafair Morgan, taken when she was about twenty-five years older than the Alafair I write about.  You can see what having that many children really does to you.  But like the character, the real Alafair was the pillar of her house and the queen of her domain, and everyone loved her.

My Alafair is funny, reflective, wise to ways of the world and the ways of kids, and a bit sad because of the losses in her life, like my own mother.  She’s the center of her family, loving and giving to a fault, adored by her children, and a legendary cook, like my mother-in-law.  With the best of motives, she’s all up in your business and can drive you crazy, too, like a relative of mine who shall remain nameless, lest she read this (though she won’t recognize herself.  They never do.)

Alafair is also me, if I were totally different than I am.  Through her, I get to live the life I never lived and never will.  I imbue her with all the virtues and strengths I do not have.  She knows what she knows and takes action.  Then once she has, she doesn’t second-guess herself.  I agonize over every decision and sometimes take no action at all.  She’s kind and tolerant of human weakness.  Me: not so much.  She takes care of everyone.  Me: I know it’s suppertime. Order a pizza.  She’s patient.  Me: get out of my face.

I may have created Alafair out of pieces of all these women, but she’s much more than the sum of her parts.  The great British mystery novelist Graham Greene said, “The moment comes when a character says or does something that you hadn’t thought of.  At that moment, he’s alive and you leave it to him.”  I first put Alafair on the page, but then she stood up and walked away, and I just follow where she leads.  Anyone who has ever written fiction knows what I mean.  Your characters are not really your own.

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Donis Casey is the author of five Alafair Tucker Mysteries,The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, Hornswoggled, The Drop Edge of Yonder, The Sky Took Him, and the newly released Crying Blood. Donis lives in Tempe, AZ, with her husband, poet Donald Koozer.

Read the first chapter of each novel on her website, www.doniscasey.com,   She blogs about writing at www.typem4murder.blogspot.com, and about food in mysteries at www.fatalfoodies.blogspot.com.

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