That’s a fairly broad subject we have this time, but that’s okay. They happen to be moderately related and to a certain extent are things I’m passionate about. Actually, as a general rule I’m passionate about writing. That’s sort of the main reason I chose it as a career.
I’m going to break this down rather simply. Rather, because it’s not exactly a simple topic, is it?
Still, we must try.
So, to begin with, what do all three of these things have in common? My answer (You’ll find the answer varies as much as fingerprints, I suspect) is simply this: They’re great cheats for moving a story forward.
What do I mean? Well, I mean that all three are methods that a storyteller can use (or MISuse) in order to progress the story without resorting directly to narrative voice. Jeffe basically said the same thing, but she said it more eloquently. I’m not notoriously eloquent. I tend to use the sledgehammer across the shin method of getting my point across. You’ve probably already noticed that.
We’ll start with accents. I rather like accents. One of my favorite sayings when I was growing up came from my mother who often said, “You should never make fun of a person with a foreign accent. They know at least one more language than you do.” There’s a certain element of truth to that. To be fair, if you’re living in Atlanta and the person talking to you speaks with a British accent, they actually know the same language, but likely know at least one more dialect. Her point was not lost of me, however. The fact of the matter is that MOST foreign accents indicate a knowledge of at least one more language and most of the people who would be making fun of said foreign accent would not know more than one language because if they did they’d know how damned challenging it is to learn the second, third or fourth new one. So her point is still a valid one.
Accents are wonderful. They can indicate a lot. Want to know who does a great job with accents by and large? Stephen King. Why? Because he doesn’t beat you over the head with the differences. Instead he gives a few examples and moves on. One of my favorites was pointing out the depth of a Maine accent by describing how a character in PET SEMETARY tended towards saying “ayuh,” instead of “yes.” It was direct and short and sweet.
Want to see one of the worst examples that I, personally, have ever seen of going too damned far with an accent? Well, here it comes. Because I want to be mostly kind, I will italicize the entire affair so you can skip it if it starts hurting your eyes and brain.
Here we go:
"Thar's whar it all begun - that cursed place of all wickedness whar the deep water starts. Gate o' hell - sheer drop daown to a bottom no saoundin'-line kin tech. Ol' Cap'n Obed done it - him that faound aout more'n was good fer him in the Saouth Sea islands.
"Everybody was in a bad way them days. Trade fallin' off, mills losin' business - even the new ones - an' the best of our menfolks kilt aprivateerin' in the War of 1812 or lost with the Elizy brig an' the Ranger scow - both on 'em Gilman venters. Obed Marsh he had three ships afloat - brigantine Columby, brig Hefty, an' barque Sumatry Queen. He was the only one as kep' on with the East-Injy an' Pacific trade, though Esdras Martin's barkentine Malay Bride made a venter as late as twenty-eight.
"Never was nobody like Cap'n Obed - old limb o' Satan! Heh, heh! I kin mind him a-tellin' abaout furren parts, an' callin' all the folks stupid for goin' to Christian meetin' an' bearin' their burdns meek an' lowly. Says they'd orter git better gods like some o' the folks in the Injies - gods as ud bring 'em good fishin' in return for their sacrifices, an' ud reely answer folks's prayers.
"Matt Eliot his fust mate, talked a lot too, only he was again' folks's doin' any heathen things. Told abaout an island east of Othaheite whar they was a lot o' stone ruins older'n anybody knew anying abaout, kind o' like them on Ponape, in the Carolines, but with carven's of faces that looked like the big statues on Easter Island. Thar was a little volcanic island near thar, too, whar they was other ruins with diff'rent carvin' - ruins all wore away like they'd ben under the sea onct, an' with picters of awful monsters all over 'em.
"Wal, Sir, Matt he says the natives anound thar had all the fish they cud ketch, an' sported bracelets an' armlets an' head rigs made aout o' a queer kind o' gold an' covered with picters o' monsters jest like the ones carved over the ruins on the little island - sorter fish-like frogs or froglike fishes that was drawed in all kinds o' positions likes they was human bein's. Nobody cud get aout o' them whar they got all the stuff, an' all the other natives wondered haow they managed to find fish in plenty even when the very next island had lean pickin's. Matt he got to wonderon' too an' so did Cap'n Obed. Obed he notices, besides, that lots of the hn'some young folks ud drop aout o' sight fer good from year to year, an' that they wan't many old folks around. Also, he thinks some of the folks looked dinned queer even for Kanakys.
"It took Obed to git the truth aout o' them heathen. I dun't know haow he done it, but be begun by tradin' fer the gold-like things they wore. Ast 'em whar they come from, an' ef they cud git more, an' finally wormed the story aout o' the old chief -- Walakea, they called him. Nobody but Obed ud ever a believed the old yeller devil, but the Cap'n cud read folks like they was books. Heh, heh! Nobody never believes me naow when I tell 'em, an' I dun't s'pose you will, young feller - though come to look at ye, ye hev kind o' got them sharp-readin' eyes like Obed had."
The old man's whisper grew fainter, and I found myself shuddering at the terrible and sincere portentousness of his intonation, even though I knew his tale could be nothing but drunken phantasy.
"Wal, Sir, Obed he 'lart that they's things on this arth as most folks never heerd about - an' wouldn't believe ef they did hear. lt seems these Kanakys was sacrificin' heaps o' their young men an' maidens to some kind o' god-things that lived under the sea, an' gittin' all kinds o' favour in return. They met the things on the little islet with the queer ruins, an' it seems them awful picters o' frog-fish monsters was supposed to be picters o' these things. Mebbe they was the kind o' critters as got all the mermaid stories an' sech started.”
See? That was painful for me I get the point and it works well enough, but reading that and having to interpret what the drunken, old, New England fisherman is talking about was enough to knock me out of the story. It broke my first cardinal rule of fiction: Thou Shalt Not Break The Suspension Of Disbelief. Seriously, that’s a big one for me. I write fantastic fiction. I don’t mean the prose is fantastic, though I hope it is, I mean I write fiction about fantastical things that are never likely to actually exist in our world. I’m already begging a favor of the readers. I’m asking them to go along with my fairytale. The last thing I want to do, then, is push that even harder than I’m going to push with the narrative. For that reason I prefer the idea of a quick example. The slice I’ve put up above is from H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” It’s one of my favorite stories of all time from one of my favorite writers. Yes, I know a lot of people couldn’t care for his writing, but to me he’s like cheese or wine: he’s an acquired taste. Very few people start off liking sharp cheeses or dry wines. You kind of have to work your way up to them. But I mean it. I love that story. And I loathe that narrative, because I have to strain to translate the entire thing.
Here’s the first paragraph again. This time, when it’s done, I’ll translate to see if I make my point clearly. (Yeah, I know, too late.)
"Thar's whar it all begun - that cursed place of all wickedness whar the deep water starts. Gate o' hell - sheer drop daown to a bottom no saoundin'-line kin tech. Ol' Cap'n Obed done it - him that faound aout more'n was good fer him in the Saouth Sea islands.”
And now in English:
“There’s where it all began – that cursed place of all wickedness where the deep water starts. Gate of hell – sheer drop down to a bottom no sounding-line can touch. Old Captain Obed did it – he that found out more than was good for him in the South Sea Islands.”
See? The way Lovecraft designed it the character’s accent makes a difference. But you know what? I can get that merely from the meter of the words without the endless, forced accent to slow down and stilt that conversational voice. Again, we’re talking one of my all time favorite stories here. How much do I like it? I wrote a sequel called DEEPER and I’ll soon be working on a sequel to that called FROM A LOWER DEEP. That’s how much.
To my way of thinking, however, Lovecraft broke that sacred rule of mine. I want readers to get lost in my words, to forget that they’re reading and become one with the story. I might never succeed, but I that’s what I want. For that reason, accents should be mentioned, much like seasonings should be added to what you are cooking to increase the flavor. But when you add too much salt to your beef stock, you stop tasting the beef and the vegetables and all you taste is the salt. Everything in moderation.
Slang is the same way for me.
Listen, I tend to write about regions. Most of us do. Currently I’m working on a series of books with Charles R. Rutledge that are set in the rural areas north of Atlanta. Believe me, slang is a part of it. It always will be I suspect. Some of the slang is endearing, some annoying, and all of it, if used properly, becomes as much a character in the story as the characters. When I write about fictitious towns (and mostly I do) I want the readers to feel like they could stop in at the local store and find what they’re looking for with ease. Like they would have no problem chatting away with the local sheriff. But I want it to be easy. For the exact same reason that I don’t go crazy with accents, I don’t want to bog down the story with details about the local eccentricities and quirks.
So, here’s a quick example from one of those books, CONGREGATIONS OF THE DEAD. The idea here to is to progress the story with narrative and dialogue both. Hopefully I managed. A good deal of what is here is dialogue. If I’ve done my job well enough, you’ll get a bit of the personalities from that dialogue. I didn’t go overboard with the colloquialisms and slang, but they’re there. Once again, for the sake of sanity, the section being added is in italics, the better to skip it if you so desire.
Carl saw the question on Wade’s face and was grateful for the silence. Most times he wanted advice, he asked Wade. This time, however, he already knew the answer.
Say, Wade, Tammy’s back in town and making noises like she’d like to be friends. What should I do?
Why, Carl, I think you should shoot the bitch and bury the body after the last four times she’s walked all over you and then left me to help pick up the pieces.
Okay, that wouldn’t actually be what Wade would say because despite common rumors, Wade could be very polite when he wanted. But that would be the sentiment. He knew Wade well enough that he didn’t have to ask. More importantly, he knew that Wade was right.
It was just his damned heart that kept squirming around in his chest and looking for a way to make things work out.
His phone rang. Saved by the bell.
“Carl Price. How can I help you?”
“Hey, Carl! This is Travis!” Travis Cobb was a tech down at the forensics lab. He was a nice enough kid but a little too enthusiastic when it came to talking about the morbid shit in his job. That was okay. It worked to Carl’s benefit and he was so enthusiastic that Carl remained mostly sure he wasn't actually involved in any of the dirty work himself. Mostly.
“What’s up, Travis?” he put on his happy voice.
“Got an ID for the guy you brought in this morning. You know, Broke Back Mountain?”
Sense of humor needed work. Had that comment gone out on the radio he and the boy would have had a serious talk. As it was over a phone line instead, Carl let it slide.
“So what do you have?”
“The man’s name is Vincent Fowler. He’s got a long rap sheet, mostly for trafficking in drugs and a few for prostitution. Not him. He likes to hire young girls.”
Carl nodded. He’d find out for himself but he wouldn’t be surprised to find out that Tadpole hung around with the man.
“Want to tell me what’s going on?”
“Can’t do it, Travis. I don’t even know myself.”
“Well if you need someone to take notes….”
Hell would freeze over first. “I’ll keep it in mind, Travis. Thanks.”
More notes to himself. There was a nagging feeling that he was missing something and it was bothering the hell out of him. He hated feeling out of the loop, especially inside his own head.
The sky overhead was dark enough that it looked like nighttime. The clouds were gathering and festering. There would be rain soon, and that was a plus. Maybe a good storm would calm down the insane heat.
He jotted Lazarus Cotton on his pad. After that he put down the name of the dead man. The next line on the paper was photo shop. That was it. He looked at the two words and then aimed himself back toward Wellman. He needed to have a look around the studio of Corey Phillips. Keeping one eye on the road he typed the man’s name into the keyboard mounted inside the truck’s cabin and let the miracles of modern science play their games. Nothing. The man was clean. No record worth noticing.
Then he typed in Ellie Campbell’s name. She had allegedly reported the family to DFACS and he needed to know what she had reported. The records weren’t showing up in his system, and that meant he needed to talk to the woman himself.
Finding her wasn’t hard. Her full name was Eloise May Campbell.
She answered when he rang the doorbell and introduced himself. The woman who looked at him smiled warmly and looked up at him with hazel eyes. She had a very nice smile on her round face. “Well look who it is.”
Carl managed to avoid frowning. Her face clicked into his mental database, but there had been changes. He vaguely remembered a mousy little brown-haired girl in high school who went by the name Ellie May. It turned out that they were one and the same. The differences were substantial. The grown up version had filled out, had a couple of kids and was confident enough to look him in the eyes. The girl in high school had blushed when any male looked in her direction. She’d been pretty enough in high school, but now that she was older and actually had a bit of confidence, she was beautiful. It was amazing how that happened sometimes. He’d have never expected the girl he saw in the halls to become an attractive woman. Then again, to be fair, he hadn’t thought of her in years.
“Been an awfully long time, Ellie.”
“Longer than I want to remember.” She chuckled. She had a nice, relaxed laugh. “What can I do for the sheriff today? You trolling for votes already?”
He caught himself blushing. “No, still got a while before I do the door to door stuff for that. I’m actually here about a complaint you filed a while ago. He lowered his voice just in case anyone might be listening. “You reported a couple of people to DFACS?”
Ellie shook her head and gestured for him to come inside, but she didn’t seem the least bit worried. “You’re gonna have to do better than that, Carl. I report a lot of folks to DFACS. It’s part of my job.”
He nodded his head and stepped inside. There were several pictures on the hallway walls of Ellie and a man who was likely her husband, and a couple of kids who progressed through infancy to preteen years in the span of the dozen or so pictures. The man was nice enough looking, but bland. The kids were kids. All kids were cute in photos. Long as they weren’t doing something deeply stupid or illegal, that is.
“Well, the couple I’m talking about is Corey and Sarah Phillips. They have a little girl named Amber?”
All the pretty faded from Ellie’s face and she got a nasty expression that made him reassess her completely for the second time in as many minutes. “Oh, I know the ones you mean.”
“Listen, can you tell me what that was about? I couldn’t find any information except that there had been a report once upon a time.”
“That’s because there were threats of lawsuits.”
Carl frowned. “Lawsuits? For what?”
“Slander.” She rolled her eyes and shook her head even as she walked into the kitchen and came back a moment later with a very, very large glass of iced tea. She didn’t ask if he wanted it, but instead just handed it to him. On the table was a matching glass, which she reached for as soon as he’d taken his. He nodded his gratitude and took a sip of the overly sweetened fluids. Southern iced tea was always overwhelmingly sweet, as if to compensate for the insane heat outside.
“Slander? What did you say about them?”
“Only what their little girl had told me.” She had a scowl on her pretty face. She pushed it aside. “She told me that her daddy liked to take pictures of her in the nude. Playing with things that no little girl should play with.”
“Child pornography?” He felt his skin tighten.
“That was the accusation. There was no evidence to be found and the Phllipses had a really good lawyer.”
She nodded her head and took a sip of her own tea. “Oh yeah, on retainer. Expensive fella, too. Has some serious clients.”
“Yeah? Like who?”
“You ever hear of Peter Blankenship?” She lowered her voice automatically.
“I am the sheriff.”
“Well then you have your answer.”
“Same lawyer huh?”
“Same lawyer. On retainer.”
“Well, looks like I might have to look into matters a little more closely.”
“What sort of matters?” She looked at him and then looked away as if realizing what she was asking and of whom.
“Their daughter, Amber, was taken from their home a couple of nights ago. I’m trying to find out who took her.”
Ellie’s face softened, the anger fading behind an immediate sorrow. “Well, damn, but if anything’s happened and they’re responsible I’m gonna feel like Hell about it.”
He put a hand over hers and patted it. “Don’t. You can only do so much.”
“I could have pushed harder.”
Carl nodded his head. “Without proof you would have lost your job. I’m not saying you aren’t right, but I am saying there’s some things you can’t control no matter how much you might want to. I’ve been down that path a few times.”
“I’m a teacher. I’m supposed to look out for the kids I deal with.”
“Yes you are. I’m the Wellman County Sheriff. I’m supposed to look out for everyone in this county. And I do, but there are limits to how much you can do and how much I can do. Those limits are put there to make sure everyone gets a fair shake.”
“Well that’s stupid.”
“Sometimes I agree. Right now, if that girl’s parents have anything to do with what she’s going through, I couldn’t agree more.” He sipped his tea while he tried to find the right words. “But there are processes. You can make reports and I can make arrests but if they aren’t with good reason, we get slapped down for being too enthusiastic.” He shrugged. “They have to be there, even when we hate them. Or we get another McCarthy era. Or we get witch-hunts. Or we get cops kicking down our doors for reading the wrong books. Checks and balances. I hate them, but I understand why they’re in place.”
Ellie stood up. “I just hate them. That poor girl.”
“Well, I’m gonna look into matters a bit deeper now. There are a few files I can look into, the sort of stuff I don’t want to look into.” Carl shook his head. There were a lot of files, actually, images and movies that he now had to look through that involved young children as yet unidentified, files that had been seized from different pedophiles and perverts throughout the county over the last few years. He could feel the muscles in his jaws and temples locking at the very notion. It was very possible that the face of Amber Phillips sent off warning bells because he had seen her before, but not in the context of a family photo or two.
“Any chance you can keep me posted about what you find, Carl?”
“Officially? Probably not. Unofficially? You might have to hear about something to help prevent any possible lawsuits in the future. We’ll see.”
The woman reached out and gave him a warm hug. He was tempted to seize up and back away. Carl didn’t much like unexpected displays of affection. Just the same, she was doing him a favor and she was a nice, slightly familiar face. He put an arm around her shoulders and hugged back a bit awkwardly.
A few moments later he was on his way, hating that he was now thinking about Amber Phillips stuck in situations no child should ever be stuck in.
The drive back to the office was annoying. It grew worse when he saw Tammy in the reception area. She was as pretty as ever. That was the part that bothered the Hell out of him. She was older, she should have been less appealing. Her body was not in as defined a shape and she had crow’s feet around her eyes and damned if she wasn't still attractive to the point of distraction.
No. She was just damned beautiful and he hated her a bit for that.
Tammy stood up as he entered the building, a look of worry on her face.
“What can I do for you, Tammy?” He did his best to leave everything as formal as he could and if his voice sounded distant enough that the three coworkers who saw him every day were looking at him as if he’d just vomited fire all over the floor, well, sometimes you couldn’t quite hide your feelings.
“I was hoping we could talk?”
“What about?” Here it was, the part where his stomach twisted into a painful knot.
“About everything? About…” She looked around and stepped closer to him. He didn’t quite look away from her. He could see her in his periphery vision. “About us?”
“I have work right now. I’m at work right now. Call me later. Maybe we can talk then.”
She wanted to say more. He didn’t give her the chance.
Given a choice between looking over criminal evidence of the nature that made him want to commit violence on the offenders and spending an hour or so of his life talking to Tammy about “us” and “everything” he wasn't sure which idea had less appeal.
No, that wasn't true. He did know. He was heading for the evidence lockers, after all.
The files were locked away and filed properly. He had Thelma McPherson and Nora Evans look into the files with him. He wanted company while he did it, and he wanted the sort of company that both helped him stay calm and simultaneously got just as pissed off as he did.
Unfortunately, he found what he was looking for. There were easily a dozen pictures that could be the same girl as the one in the photo Amber Phillips’s parents had provided.
He had the two women with him verify his findings and then he gave the pictures over to Nora with express and concise orders about getting computer matches using the facial recognition software. She knew the drill, but he wanted it done by the book.
While Nora was working on getting matches confirmed, Carl called DFACS again and talked to Susan Ortega. Then it was time to get a few search warrants handled. Two phone calls later and he was working out the details in his head. He was almost done with the paperwork for the search warrants when he decided on a whim to see about getting Wade’s church thrown into the equation. Different girl, similar problem near as he could tell. Either way, he figured it couldn’t hurt to at least start the process.
Tammy called him twice. He ignored both calls. His stomach tried to burn a hole through itself at the very thought.
Was it love? He had no idea. Felt more like a junkie trying for a fix if he was right in what junkies went through. He had never been addicted to a drug, not even tobacco, so he couldn’t really tell. He could just guess.
Whatever the case, Tammy felt a lot like withdrawal. And he hated her a bit for that.
The warrants were being worked on. He couldn’t rush Judge Harrelson and knew better than to try. Carl thought about the little girl in the pictures again and felt his hands clench. Christ, he wanted a drink. Quick math (Booze plus Bad Crimes multiplied by Tammy in Town times Sleep Deprivation equals Carl Kicks The Shit out of a few people who maybe don’t deserve it.) had him shaking that idea away.
When Tammy called again he answered. “Yeah?”
“Hi, Carl. Can we talk?”
“Talk to me.”
“I meant in person, Carl.”
“No. No, Tammy. We can’t.” His head felt like it was going to explode.
“What?” A long pause while she considered his words. He never said no. Not ever. That was one of the things that had maybe been wrong with the relationship from day one. “Why not?”
“There’s nothing to say, Tammy. You fucked me over. You dumped me. You walked away. Sorry your dad’s sick. Sorry you’re going through that, but I can’t be here for you.” He shook his head and tried to breathe. It wasn’t easy. “You can’t be here for me, and I can’t be here for you anymore. That’s all there is to say. Don’t call me again.”
He killed the call and shoved his phone into his pocket.
Time to leave. Time to go home and maybe even manage a little sleep. If that was possible. He had doubts.
He barely acknowledged anyone as he left the building and headed for his truck.
So he missed the people that were watching him as he climbed inside and headed away from the office.
And now, that ugly albatross we all know and mostly loathe, stereotypes.
Want to know something? I have no problem with stereotypes so long as they are handled the right way. Calm down, put down the pitchforks and the torches. Allow me to explain.
For me, stereotypes are shorthand. They’re a quick and easy way to paint in broad strokes. Call them a snapshot if you prefer. One quick look around the room of strangers and then close your eyes and what do you see? You see the stereotypes. Look to the left and there are four teenagers leaning against the wall outside the café. None of them is older than sixteen, but they are all trying to look older and failing. Two girls. One has long blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail and is wearing a letterman’s jacket that very obviously doesn’t belong to her. Her make up is nearly perfect, if a wee bit too heavy. Cheerleader. Next to her is a short boy, with dark, curly hair and bad skin. He’s carrying his backpack slung over one shoulder but his arms are crossed and he’s looking everywhere at once. When he nods it’s with enough enthusiasm to make his head rock back and forth and his backpack jiggle. His laugh is loud and just a little desperate. Geek. The guy next to him is half a foot taller and fifty pounds heavier. He has sandy blond hair and an easy smile. The girl with the letterman’s jacket is leaning back against him. Odds are he’s the one that owns that coat. The last girl has yet to blossom. She’s long and lean and gangly, and though she’s cute, she has nothing on the other girl and knows it. She keeps looking to the other girl without realizing it, checking to see if she should be laughing. She refuses to smile with her mouth open, because someone might see her braces.
That’s four people. Just a quick flash of details. Hopefully you can now at least get a basic idea of what they are like. Not enough to separate them out by name or date of birth, but enough to get a vague notion of what they MIGHT be like. Might be, because stereotypes only go so far. Or rather, they should only be allowed to go so far. They’re already breaking the stereotype rules, aren’t they? They’re all together outside of a coffee shop. According to most Hollywood movies, they should be natural enemies. Jocks and nerds never associate. Pretty girls and the awkward girl with really bad teeth are supposed to be predator and prey. There is always more to the story than initially meets the eye.
Remarkably few people reflect what we see when we make our first impressions. Listen, I’m 6’2” tall. I weigh in at a svelte 280 or so pounds, and I have a 58 inch shoulder span. I have long hair and a beard. I’ve been known to sport skull shirts because I like them. Most people seeing me on the street don’t think “writer.” They think, “Oh, shit, he’s going to eat my baby and rape my purse.” In fact, I have never eaten a baby and as a rule I consider all purses off-limits. Also, I’m a writer. I just don’t necessarily fit the stereotype. See my point? I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs, I don’t go out and party. I’m rather a geek, truth be told. I’m okay with that.
Stereotypes have their uses. They should never be more than a starting point as far as I’m concerned. Everyone has a story and as the writer, you should know their stories well enough to look beyond the stereotypes and well enough to escort your readers beyond those very same limitations.