“I Spy,” With My Little Ears…

This past week, I’ve thought a lot about the issue of  voice. The ways in which we speak: the accents and volume and pitch, the timbre and lilt  of our voices, what we choose to say, the expressions we use…all tell people a lot about us.

I “buy” a lot of free books for my Kindle, many of them written by new authors. Sometimes one of these writers creates natural and distinct voices for his or her characters. But the characters created by a majority of the authors have practically interchangeable voices. Creating unique voices is a skill that I am struggling to learn, myself.

For me, Barbara Kingsolver is a master of character and voice. I don’t need to see the attribution to know who is speaking in one of her novels. Whether characters are in dialogue or narrating, their voices are distinctive. Some examples, from The Poisonwood Bible:

“Before the great adventure is all over, Father expects  his children to eat rhinoceros, I suppose. Antelope is more or less our daily bread. They started bringing us that the very first week. Even, once, a monkey. Mama Tataba would haggle with the women at the door, and finally turn to us with her scrawny arms raised up like a boxing champ, holding up  our dinner. Jeez oh man, tell me when it’s over! Then she’d stomp out to the kitchen hut and build such a huge fire in the iron stove you’d think she was Cape Carniveral launching a rocket ship. She is handy at cooking anything living or dead, but heaven be praised, Mother rejected the monkey, with its little dead grin. She told Mama Tataba we could get by on things that looked less like kinfolk.”


“The children are named  Tumba, Bangwa, Mazuzi, Nsimba, and those things. One of them comes in our yard the most and I don’t know his name at all. He’s near about big, like my sisters, but doesn’t wear a thing on God’s green earth but an old gray shirt without any buttons and baggy gray underpants. He has a big old round belly with his belly button sticking out like a black marble. I can tell it’s him because of the shirt and underpants, not because of the belly button. They all have those. I thought they were all fat, but Father said no. They’re hungry as can  be, and don’t get their vitamins. And still God makes them look fat. I reckon that’s what they get for being the Tribes of Ham.”


“Late in the fall, the milky green bushes surrounding every house and path suddenly revealed themselves as poinsettias. They bloomed their heads off and Christmas rang out in the sticky heat, as surprising as if “Hark the Herald Angels” were to come on your radio in July. Oh, it’s a heavenly paradise in the Congo and  sometimes I want to live here forever. I  could climb up trees just like the boys to hunt guavas and eat them till the juice runs  down and stains my shirt, forever.”


“Oh, that river of wishes, the slippery crocodile dream of it, how it might have carried my body down through all the glittering sandbars to the sea. The hardest work of every day was deciding, once again, to stay with my family. They never even knew. When I pried open the lock meant to keep the beasts and curious children out of our kitchen hut, I nearly had to  lock it again behind me, to keep myself in. The gloom, the humidity, the permanent sour breath of the rainy season all bore down on me like a bothersome lover. The fresh stench of night soil in the bushes. And our own latrine, which was only one step removed.”


“In following Methuselah on his slow forays through the forest, I discovered the boys and men practicing drills. This was not the Belgian Army, official conscripted protectors of white people, but a group of young men who held secret meetings in the woods behind our house. I learned that Anatole is more than a teacher of schoolboys and translator of sermons. Ah Anatole, the lot an aha!”


“Brother Anatole, I fail to see how the church can mean anything but joy, for the few here who choose Christi-an-ity over ignorance and darkness!”


The speakers here are, in turn, Rachel, Ruth May, Leah, Orleanna (the mother), Adah, and Nathan (the father/pastor).

Rachel is distinctive in her preoccupation with appearances and her shallow mindset, particular expressions like “jeez oh man” and “charmed, I’m sure,” as well as in her amusing twists of vocabulary  (malapropisms such as “Cape Carniveral”). Though there’s much to dislike  in her character, she is observant of conversations and details, as well as being colorful and entertaining.

Ruth May is also a sharp observer with a child’s-eye description of what she is seeing, based partly on her innocent and sometime comical understanding of what’s been explained to her; she is open to all that she experiences, and tells it as she sees it, with no judgement or agenda.

Leah is enthusiastic, often taken by the beauty of the world around her; she is also open to experience and learning about the place she resides – a young woman who truly blooms where she is planted. Her growth in Africa begins as she loses her innocence and begins to question her father’s judgement. She often reminds me of the Greek/Roman goddesses, Artemis and Diana.

Orleanna often speaks poetically in narrative, and with a more mature version of local southern color when she is in dialogue. She walks a thin line in speaking with or in front of her husband – she reads, she’s intelligent and is concerned for her family’s situation, which often puts her in disagreement with her husband; yet, she lives in a world in which she’s supposed to cleave to her husband, and her situation is especially restrained since she’s married to an a narrow-minded Baptist preacher who tends toward angry, sometimes violent outbursts when anyone disagrees with him.

Adah, Leah’s twin, is intellectual, somewhat bitter and frequently mocking – especially of herself and her handicap, hemiplegia; for much of the book she does not speak out loud, but watches and listens and narrates her thoughts. She refers to Nathan as “Our Father.” Her most telling “verbal” characteristic is her habit of “saying” words and phrases backwards. As she matures in the latter part of the book, her tone is no longer bitter or mocking, though she retains her intellectualism, honesty, and some degree of cynicism.

Nathan speaks in terms of moralistic pronouncements, and does not believe that he has anything to learn; he is in Africa to teach from his point of view, and his refusal to adjust his ideas despite their clear inability to jive with the world in which he’s now enmeshed, leads to his slow unraveling.

True, guilt-ridden confession: when my youngest daughter was in grade school and wanted a bedtime story to help her fall asleep, I often read to her from The Poisonwood Bible, because I loved the language, and especially enjoyed “doing” the voices of the various characters. Being a grown-up book and not necessarily her choice, it did the trick of putting her to sleep quickly so that I could get on with my  own agenda for the night (and to my relief, despite my lazy habit of reading what I enjoyed and knew would get Gena to sleep, she has in adulthood become a Barbara Kingsolver fan herself).


Since I want to learn to create character voice with something approaching Kingsolver’s skill, I’m setting myself an exercise for this week, and you’re invited to join me in the game. As you go through your week, listen closely to people. You might take yourself to a park or a coffee shop, and just sit, sip your drink, and listen. Play spy. Jot down what one or two specific people are saying, note their accents and inflections, their peculiar turns of phrases, the laughs they intersperse between sentences. Choose one of these people (if you listened to more than one). What can you tell about this person from just listening to the way he/she talks?

Create a character based on your  observations of his/her voice. What tale does this character, with this unique voice, have to tell? Use your character in a story, or as narrator for a poem.

Post your piece of writing to your blog or in a Facebook note, and share your link in a comment here by Saturday evening. I look forward to “hearing” from the unique voices we all find, and characters we create this week!


Inspired By This Week’s Prompt: “Curfew”

Have you raised a teenager? Been one? Try to smother passion of any kind…just try.


Put a lid on it.

Suffocate the flame,

stopper the heat  coursing through tender

loins. It’s a slow burn, now,

a low growl,

tiny howl seeping through cracks,

twisting and bending

away from the hearth

you guard.

It won’t set fire to your straw house

tonight. But approached too soon, the lid blisters your fingers back.

It chills your touch come morning. And night after night,

the scent of curled ache whimpers,

lingers and

darkens your walls,



*originally, a fire-cover, covering of fires, time for putting out fires (Skeat, Rev. Walter W., Litt.D;, LL.D., D.C.L., Ph.D., A Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language. New York: Capricorn Books, 1963.)


Now, where’s YOUR response to this week’s prompt? Post a link in the comment section to connect us with your creation…

Fire! Inspired by Wine and Words…

After spending three exhilarating days laughing , shopping and wine-“tasting” with my sister and her children during their recent visit (note to Ray: your pre-schoolers did NOT participate in the wine-imbibing activity), I am slowly getting back to business. I also managed to sprain my ankle at some point just before or shortly after their arrival – not sure how. I think that it was while housecleaning, but I could be making that up since a natural preventive measure would be…don’t clean the house. And because I know what you’re all thinking, I’m positive that it happened PRE-wine consumption.

Anyhow, I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few days with my foot propped up and iced down (at least, when I haven’t been hobbling around on crutches during a shopping excursion, or headed to the kitchen for another glass of vino). It’s given me an excuse to do a lot of reading – not that I’ve ever needed an excuse. I’ve just finished  reading BEA Buzz Books: Excerpts from over 30 Top Fall 2012 Titles, and so my “to read” list has grown to a length that will make my husband cover his eyes and moan if he ever sees it. I’ll review some of those books as I read them, but for now suffice it to say that I’m especially excited about reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior (which was already on my to-read list, as is every Kingsolver book the moment I hear of it); Dennis Lehane’s Live By Night, Bill Roorbach’s Life Among Giants and Hanna Pylvainen’s We Sinners.  Note that these are all planned as FALL releases, so don’t expect to read any of these books in its entirety just yet…but you might check out the BEA Buzz Books title noted above (free as an e-book – link is for the Amazon Kindle), and get those first sweet nibbles, as I did. And you CAN pre-order them through Amazon.

Speaking of nibbling…a non-fiction fall release that served up a lengthy excerpt among the Buzz Books was Bee Wilson’s Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat. The excerpt details the history of “Fire” – how we’ve used heat to cook our food. Given my addiction to etymology, I was especially taken by Wilson’s explanation of the origins of the words “fireplace,” (from the Latin word “focus”) and “curfew” (originally “a large metal cover placed over the embers at night to contain the fire while people slept.”) I compared those word histories to the ways in which we use those terms today and wondered how I might incorporate the comparisons in poems or stories.

I find myself playing these sorts of games a lot: looking a word up in an etymological dictionary, and perhaps some words that sound as though they might be related, and playing with those relationships in my head.

So if you’d like to play along with me this week, try this: pick a few of your favorite words, and look them up in an etymological dictionary. Here’s an on-line source: .  You DO have a few favorite words, don’t you? If not, just pick a letter, and a number between 1 and 100; go to that letter in your dictionary, and count words until you get to your number. If it’s a dud (sometimes the origin is obvious and not very interesting), try again until  you find a word origin that causes your mind to begin sparking. Use this to ignite a story, poem or non-fiction piece.

If you start wondering about relationships with other words, look those up, too. Even if they don’t seem to have common origins, consider using a comparison to spark a piece of writing, anyhow.

Post your writing to your blog or as a note on your FB page and provide the link in a comment here. And participate further by reading AT LEAST the piece BEFORE and AFTER yours (the first if there’s no one after you…the last if there’s no one before you), and comment. If you don’t have anything useful to say, move on  to the next response to the prompt and comment on that. Remember the rules as outlined in my previous post…be kind in your comments. Let’s plan to post and link our responses to the prompt by Sunday morning, and to make our comments by Tuesday morning.

Right in Front of Your Nose

When my oldest daughter was in 6th grade, I taught creative writing to her class. This was my volunteer project for the school year. One day, I asked the students to spend some time outdoors over the next couple of days choosing objects they could compare to something else, creating metaphors or similes, and then use one of these in a writing project. I fully intended to do the exercise along with them…but somehow, it didn’t happen. With half an hour to go before the class was to start, I found myself in a school study room staring back and forth between a blank, white wall, and a blank, white sheet of paper, trying to come up with a metaphor-laden poem.

And I did – by just looking at what was right in front of my nose. The poem was later published in Cicada for Teens (under my then-pen name, B. Jeppersen Neff), and they paid me real money for it. Here it is:


My paper was
       a field
of trackless snow.
It told no story
       of fox chasing rabbits
       or of birds
          pecking desolately
for scant winter food.
       but I wrote and
          spring burst through and
             my field is a cornucopia
              filled with color
                  and wild intrigue.


For all you writers out there, and anyone else who would like to play: each Tuesday from here on, in addition to anything else I might post for that day, I’ll provide a writing prompt. I’ve spent many years reading books on writing, and have a mini-library of them. Some of  those are prompt books. And, my writer friends have exposed me to some of the prompts they use to trick their brains into creativity. Some of the blogs out there in the blogosphere have exposed me to still more. And I have a few of my own ideas….

You can use the prompts to write in any form you prefer – fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction –  and any genre. Post the products of your efforts to your blog, or if you don’t have a blog, to a note on your Facebook page. Then provide the link in a comment here. I’d like to see everyone commit to reading AT LEAST the link in the comment before theirs – and if you’re the first, read the link in the LAST comment posted. At least. If you don’t have a comment to make on that piece of writing, read on until you’ve read one that “resonates” with you, and on which you can write a comment. This way, everyone at least gets a reading, and many people get written comments.

A modified form of the golden rule applies here: MOST of us aren’t masochistic, and would not want others to be cruel to us, so be kind. And this is not a “you’ve gotta be cruel to be kind” situation, believe me. Sweet and sour together works (if the sour is mixed in gently), but writers’ hearts are broken very easily, so if you can’t say NOTHIN’ nice, don’t say anything at all. Please. And yes, I realize that this paragraph contains an incredible mix of pop-culture references.

Further, since this is a “kindness rules” sort of game, you don’t have to be a “Writer,” capital W, to play. Even if you normally just consider yourself a “reader,” please contribute your own writing as you see fit, read responses to the prompts, and comment on  those.

I’ll post my response to the prompt by Friday, also. And if there are a lot of responses to this prompt, I’ll read at least a random sample and like you, comment on any that resonate with me.


You’ve already had some foreshadowing of your prompt for today:

Close your eyes. Spin around so that you’re facing the opposite direction from your computer. Open your eyes. What’s right in front of your nose?

Create a metaphor/simile based on what you see. Create a poem or piece of prose around this.

Because this is a very busy week for me – my sister and her little ones are coming to visit tomorrow through Saturday, and I want to spend my time with them, not on the  computer – the poem above is my “response” for this week. I know, I’m cheating. I’ll start being original with my responses next week!