September 17th, 2012 by Carrie Vaughn
Voice, Tone, and Costuming

I’ve been asked a couple of times recently if it’s hard jumping back and forth between projects.  It isn’t, for me.  In fact, I’m happier working on several stories at once, because I like being able to switch when I get stuck on one, and I think writing lots of different things keeps my creativity and writing skills sharp.

I got to thinking about how exactly I move between projects, and why I don’t find it difficult, and the best metaphor I can come up with is costumes.  Every project has its own “costume,” and I mentally put on that particular outfit when I move to another story.

The more I think about it, the better the metaphor works.  One of the keys of good costuming is identifying the components that make that costume easily identifiable.  In Regency costuming — clothing from the time of Jane Austen — one of the most important characteristics for women’s gowns is the empire waistline, the very high waist that hits just below the bustline.  Whatever else you do with your gown, it pretty much has to have that if you want the outfit to be identifiable as Regency.  If you’re making a Wonder Woman costume, you can do just about anything you want to — as long as you have a gold eagle on a red bodice and a blue star-spangled bottom.  Like Victorian Wonder Woman, and even the Renaissance Wonder Woman I did a few years ago.  There’s a reason young Clark Kent spent most of Smallville in a blue T-shirt and red jacket.

In writing, I think these traits might be what we mean when we talk about aspects like voice, tone, mood, or atmosphere.  I don’t change up my whole writing style when I move from project to project.  Rather, I think not just about the character and what that character’s voice is like, but also about what I’m trying to accomplish, what I want my reader to feel, and how I need to write in order to convey those feelings.  What kind of words do I need to use to depict humor, tragedy, or horror?  A dark and stormy night versus a sunny day?  What tone am I going for?  I have to slip that voice and tone on like a costume.  I can’t put on Superman’s red cape and then be surprised when people don’t recognize that I’m trying to play Wonder Woman.  I can’t wear an empire waist gown and then say I’m from the Renaissance (I would need a big hoop skirt and corset for that).

Here are samples from two projects I’ve been working on simultaneously.  From my current novel in progress, a superhero novel called Age of Tin:

Celia West sat alone in her office, a corner suite in the family penthouse at West Plaza.  She kept her wide, preternaturally slick desk neat, the few files stacked in a corner, pens lined up, computer screen conveniently placed, laptop dock accessible.  Everything else was put away in drawers and filing cabinets.  Anyone standing before her wouldn’t be able to tell a thing about her, except that she kept her office tidy.  People might make assumptions based on that.  They might even be right about some of them.

The voice I’m going for on this one is clean and modern, with a little snark.  I want to establish the setting as contemporary and urban, and the main character as someone who is very much control of her world.  I want the tone to be straightforward, but to hint that there’s lot going on under the surface.  That’s Celia’s mindset, so everything I can do to put the reader in that mindset will help the story.  And it helps me write the story, being able to put myself in that voice.

This one’s from a short story called “Roaring Twenties,” that takes place in a supernatural speakeasy in the 1920’s.

    The alley she turns down looks like any other alley, and that passage leads to another, until we’re alone with the trash cans and a yowling cat, under iron fire escapes and a sky threatening rain.  She knocks on a solid brick wall, blocks from any door or window, and I’m not surprised when a slot opens at head-height.  She leans in to whisper a word, and the door opens.  Either a door painted to look like bricks, or the wall itself swinging out, I can’t tell and it doesn’t really matter.

The music of a three piece combo playing jazz drifts in from down the hall, and it sounds like heaven.

This one, I want the story to read like jazz.  I chose first person point of view and present tense because it made the story feel fast to me, and made the world seem multilayered and dangerous.  The narrator, Pauline, isn’t a magician, but the friend she’s with, M, is, and so the voice I’m putting on is one of wonder.  Pauline moves comfortably enough through the world, but she constantly encounters the unexpected.  I’m trying to capture the same feeling I get when I watch the video for Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal.  Stylish, dangerous, alluring.  How to capture that in prose?  Fast-paced, immediate, poetic, jazzy.

I’ve since finished the short story, but I’ve got another short story on deck that I need to start work on.  This one is a supernatural horror set late in World War II.  You can bet that will have an entirely different voice than either of these.  Sometimes, if it’ll help me put on a new voice, I’ll listen to music, look at pictures, or even watch a video or two. . .

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5 comments to “Voice, Tone, and Costuming”

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