A word about speech tags…

A friend of mine–who is rather a darling–has asked me to write about these things known as speech tags and explain it all in detail. 

Well, I don’t know really what to say about them.  I’m not a world expert.  Though yes, I was a respected book critic for twenty-some years though, so supposedly I do have a clue or three about literary technique and style. 

(But there’s probably lots to be said about them and I’ll probably only be skating over the surface.  Nevermind.) 

(And I’ll be frank–if anyone wildly disagrees with what I say, I don’t care.  And I am so not interested in an argument about this or any thing that if anyone is after that, I suggest they find an angry wasp or something…Life being too short and all that.)

So speech tags.  What are they and what purpose do they serve?

At the basic level they are nothing more than a means of identifying the speaker. 

We, the readers, already know the difference between setting or description and dialogue, because we’re all very clever, and because the text identifies dialogue by speech marks (I believe in the US, these are called quotation marks). 

So those little suckers are the giveaway–someone is talking.  And probably not to himself. 

And let’s imagine we have this conversation which is maybe even a quick-fire round of quipping and teasing.  The first and foremost job of the speech tag is to identify the different speakers. 

Now obviously, if you are Shakespeare and you’re adept at writing dialogue that is so individually distinctive–as he did in Henry V, with Fluellen especially–then you don’t need to worry about speech tags or even consider them.  Your readers will know who’s speaking from the second word of every speech. 

However, for the rest of us…

Anyway, quite often, one will have effectively captured mood and character and all that, so that a speech tag is unnecessary.  The reader knows exactly who’s speaking because that’s how they talk and it’s so obvious through their word choice or syntax that they can’t be mistaken for any other character. 

But because I like to make things easy for readers (sometimes) even in that case, I would use one at least about every four or five lines, just to keep it clear for the reader.   

So that’s the basic reason for deploying the little chaps. 

But beyond that, there’s a whole wealth of mood, emphasis, emotion, and all sorts of other things that can be conveyed beyond the identity of the speaker. 

Search out the synonyms of ‘said’ in a thesaurus and what have you got:  murmured, mumbled, muttered, whined, complained, demanded, exclaimed, whispered, shouted, yelled, burbled, snapped, scolded, barked…

And each of those communicates something far beyond the identity of the speaker.  Those words tell the reader mood, they express ‘how’ the words were said, they even–some of them–carry the tone of voice…

These are powerful words.  These help us build a character. 

For example, if one has a female character and she’s forever scolding, whining, tittering, snapping, and complaining, is the reader inclined to like her?  To engage with her?  Or to hold a negative view of her? 

Because you see, like people, words have emotional baggage attached. 

Those synonyms listed just above, they carry a wealth of meaning beyond just what’s on the page–we can hear them, we know the tone of voice regardless of what accent we speak with, we can even feel them grating on our nerves. 

And so whilst I wouldn’t overload a text with these, I certainly wouldn’t avoid them or hesitate to use them for fear of some ‘style police’. 

I mean, we’re not, I assume, writing primers for five-year-olds and needs must reduce everything to the easiest and most simplistic. 

Obviously, one should be careful not to overdo.  And it may be that once one has established character in the first fifty pages or so, fewer speech labels will be necessary, because the character’s dialogue will convey all those messages of tone and emotion without our needing to spell it out. 

Below, I’m including a passage from Dorothy Dunnett’s novel, Gemini, to illustrate the former method: 

Her voice had hurried a little.  Gelis said, ‘It’s all right.  I thought of it too, Esota.’  The woman who had been understanding and friendly–too friendly–to a very young child then called Claes.

Kathi said, ‘It wasn’t all bad.  It was just a pity she didn’t find her own Tristan to make love to.  Being stuck with King Mark de Fleury would make anyone odd.  And speaking of oddities:  what do you think the Princess will do now she’s widowed?  She didn’t mind being married to Hamilton, but he was the King’s choice, not hers.’

‘And now she has a chance to show her independence,’ Gelis said.  ‘Nicholas thinks she’ll demand some sort of security for the Boyd children–she’ll have to bring them up with the Hamiltons, anyway, without a husband to finance them.’

‘That’s what my uncle expects,’ Kathi said. 

And there you have it, each speaker clearly identified for the reader.  And in Dunnett’s hands, the word ‘said’ is such a part of the wallpaper, the fact is, we almost don’t see it, we barely notice it, it’s just there for clarity and it works just as it ought.

Here is Charles Dickens’ use of speech tags, from Martin Chuzzlewit

‘Was it in Pecksniff’s parlour?’ said Tigg.

‘In Pecksniff’s parlour!’ echoed Jonas, fetching a long breath.  ‘You don’t mean when–‘

‘Yes,’ cried Tigg, ‘when there was a very charming and delightful little family party, at which yourself and your respected father assisted.’

‘Well, never mind him,’ said Jonas.  ‘He’s dead, and there’s no help for it.’

‘Dead, is he!’ cried Tigg.  ‘Venerable old gentleman, is he dead!  You’re very like him.’

Jonas received this compliment with anything but a good grace…

(N.B. Victorian novelists often use ‘cried’ for ‘said’.  It’s very common–but it’s my impression that for a modern audience it’s a little too Victorian melodramatic to work well…it seems to be overstating the case, where understatement might–to our ears–be more effective.) 

Patrick O’Brian, on the other hand, often doesn’t use speech tags at all, and leaves it all to the reader to sort out for themselves.  And given that he is so enduringly popular, it’s possible that our readers do not need as much hand-holding as we imagine they do.  Here’s a passage from The Nutmeg of Consolation:

‘Firkins is cousin to Lowe and he is connected with the whole Macarthur tribe.  What in Heaven’s name possessed you to run the fellow through the body?’

‘I did not run him through the body.  I pierced his sword-arm, little more; which was moderate enough, I believe.  After all he had knocked my wig off.’

‘But surely he did not just walk up to you and do so without there had been some words beforehand, some quarrel?’

‘I only told him during the course of that dismal feast that Banks did not choose to be acquainted with a man like Macarthur.  He brooded over that for the rest of the meal and attacked me as I walked down the steps.’

‘It was most irregular.  If you had killed him without calling him out in due form, without seconds, there would have been the devil to pay.’

‘If it had been a regular encounter I could scarcely have closed and dashed my hilt in his face, which brought him up with a round hitch.  Besides a formal meeting would have made much more noise–would have done the lout too much honour.  But I do admit that it was a sorry performance:  I am very sorry for it, Jack, and I ask your pardon.’ 

And there, at the last, is yet another manner of identifying the speaker:  the insertion of the listener’s name.  In this case, it was Stephen Maturin, speaking to his friend, Jack Aubrey.  But other than that, O’Brian relies on the reader’s knowledge of and affection for his characters and doesn’t interject speech tags. 

Does it work?  His success would suggest it does.

And here is a final scene for your consideration.  This time written by self.  From the book, Of Honest Fame.  And in it, I used speech tags (and adverbs, haha), or sometimes something altogether different, to create mood as well as to identify the speakers. 

“Right,” Jesuadon concluded.  Apathy, apathy.  I would spell the death of them all.  “Anything else?  Do we know where else he might have gone?  His contacts?  No?  Find out.”

Barnet nodded and drank down the last of his ale, holding it for a long moment in his mouth before swallowing, then motioned to the tapster for another.  He slid a coin across the bar-surface, then leaning heavily on the bar, regarded the head of foam on his refilled tankard with affection.  And then, softly, sweetly even, he murmured, “Tom Ladyman’s brung you a parcel.”

Jesuadon, in the act of downing a glass of porter, narrowed his gaze in surprise.  “What?”

“Tom Ladyman’s gone and brung you a parcel,” Barnet repeated.  And there was a thread of humour in his quiet voice.

His voice now higher:  “I beg your pardon?” Jesuadon gaped.  This was too much.  “What in the devil is Tom Ladyman doing this far north?” he ground out.  “He’s meant to be down in Hampshire, the plaguey sauce box!”

His companion slanted him a glance, the first of the evening.  “‘Tis a very special parcel,” he averred, giving a quick nod of approval.  And again that thread of humour.  “‘Tis waiting for you at Sparrowhawk’s, from what I hear.”

Jesuadon’s temper snapped, that edge of temper which had been threatening all day to break out, now wholly erupting.  “What the devil is all the buggeration about parcels, you fecking poxy quire?”

The lashless man, who had been savouring his information, treasuring it, enjoying it as a sweetmeat in Lent, smiled, showing his decaying teeth.  “‘Tis a lady,” he said, with a swift appreciative wink.

Jesuadon looked at him hard, fury mounting.  “What in the name of all that’s holy would Tom Ladyman bring me a woman for?” he barked. 

The repellent, confident smile grew.  “Well, now, it would appear he grew tired of waiting for the weather to clear, what with Warne being none so keen to take shipments in the rain, as I understand it.  On account of the paths through the Forest being so mired and all.  So he’s took to the High Toby…and as chance would have it, he’s brung you a lady,” Barnet said airily.  And added:  “Perhaps he knows more o’ your habits than me…”

Jesuadon nearly screeched:  “Taken to the High Toby?  What?”  In sudden rage, Jesuadon caught at his hair.  “Tom Ladyman is a hell-born babe and a cursed idiot, and the devil may fly away with him!  Od’s my life, it is bad enough having old Charlie Flint sending the Revenue Officers off in every direction to keep that fool from harm.  But now he’s meant to interfere in Bow Street’s business as well, is he, to protect that bloody young lobcock?  I shall damned well kill him for this!”

I don’t know.  I quite like–have always liked–that scene.  Indeed, it’s one of my favourites.  And I’ve always thought the key to it was balance.  Yes, there is dialogue, but it’s peppered with action and emotion.  There’s nothing static about it. 

Then too, I think that excerpt may illustrate how one can identify the speakers without always relying on he said and she said.  And one can vary the methods used to identify speaker.  There’s ‘said’.  But there’s also those other ‘said’ synonyms. 

There’s the odd use of the effective adverb too. 

Yes, I’ve heard–more times than I’ve had hot breakfasts–of the modern diktat against adverbs. 

And let me tell you, that’s just silly.  No writer worth their salt is afraid to use any part of the language.  Employed properly and well, just like everything else, adverbs are invaluable.  I wouldn’t recommend drowning your text in the things, but use them when you need to.

I mean, compare and contrast: 

“No,” she said vaguely.   

“No,” he said hotly. 

“No,” he said patiently. 

In your mind, did those all not sound differently, perhaps with quite distinct inflections?  They did.  Of course, they did. 

So, when you need an adverb to individualise that tag, use it.  (If you find yourself over-adverbing, I’d suggest taking out half of them on every page.)

And that’s what I know about speech tags. 

Which can be summed up:  have more than one method in your quiver and use what works best at any given time.  What creates the mood you the writer want and need?  And don’t get stuck in a rut…

If you find yourself in a rut and everything’s reading the same, then vary your speech tags with actions or expressions and however many times you need to rewrite to get the scene right and as strong as you can make it, that’s the right number of times to rewrite…


In Praise of Book Critics ~ the proper ones…

A few days ago, I was reminded of these lines from a novel by Patrick O’Brian, lines so deliciously wonderful, I knew I had to pick up the book and treat myself to a full wallow in O’Brian’s unerring use of language and perception:  “Just how big is she?  I mean,” he added, seeing the look of deep stupidity in Stephen’s face, “what does she displace?  What is her tonnage?  What does she weigh?” 

Not just stupidity, but deep stupidity.  It’s too uncannily accurate for comfort.  I love it that O’Brian is not above telling the truth about his characters.

But whilst carrying about this novel, upstairs and down, as I tickle my way through it, I happened to notice this quotation on the back cover, by Richard Snow of the NYTimes:  “On every page he [O’Brian] reminds us with subtle artistry of the most important of all historical lessons:  that times change, but people don’t, that the griefs and follies and victories of the men and women who were here before us are in fact the maps of our own lives.” 

Holy wow, I thought.  Must read that again! 

For is not that the summation of what great historical fiction can and should achieve?  Crikey!  I think I must blazon that on my forehead or somesuch useful place.

But then, you know, I started poking at the other critical excerpts on the back and inside back of the book and I found these:

Mary Renault wrote, “He does not just have the chief qualifications of a first-class historical novelist, he has them all.”

A.S. Byatt wrote, “What is so gripping about O’Brian’s novels is the completeness with which he invents a world which is our own and not our own…”

William Waldegrave wrote, “O’Brian has shown us that in our literary silver age, authentic gold can still be mined…He is a man whose books you would dare to give to Sterne; whose conversation would have delighted Coleridge.  It is his misfortune, but our great good luck, that he is our contemporary, and not theirs.”

Max Hastings wrote, “While his stories of men at war, he is a novelist of great gentleness of spirit.  A pervasive serenity, a generosity towards human frailty, are among the qualities which have made his books irresistible…”

Geoffrey Hodgson wrote, “The harmony between setting, character, narrative and method achieves an extraordinary power and intensity of emotion without ever betraying the slightest sign of effort.  It is a story that does not so much speak as sing, with the haunting purity of the ancient rhapsode or the bard, yet in a voice as modern and direct as today’s newspaper.” 

Note those names, if you will.  Byatt, Renault, Waldegrave…These are top writers, top intellectuals, top thinkers of the last and present centuries. 

And these are the quality of individuals who used to write book reviews.  These are they upon whom we used to rely to read and analyse and understand new novels, and then bring their extra-ordinary gifts of literary erudition and breadth of experience to the reviewing of them. 

Reading their reviews was an education in itself and a glorious one.  It was a daily treat of throwing open the windows of one’s mind on a daily basis to the wonders of language and intellectual achievement. 

What do we get now when we peer hopefully at the Books pages in any national newspaper or review site?  “I liked it.”  Well, that’s broadened my intellectual horizons.  Not.

Or we’re given an 80-word precis of the plot–preferably four per article in a round-up of historical fiction…And that tells us precisely what? 

Something that we couldn’t have worked out ourselves by reading the blurb?  (Nor is a precis a ‘review’, because it doesn’t re-view anything.)

Are any of the reviewers nowadays even capable of analysing style, tone, metaphor, imagery?  Do they themselves know how to put together a well-balanced sentence, let alone paragraph?  Do they know the writers’ art of weighing the language and forming it into a whole world?  And if not, how can they possibly discern or judge the literary merits or demerits of the works they’re intended to review? 

There is a consensus that our literary standards have slipped in the last few decades.  Many cite the plethora of self-published e-books as proof of this, pointing out the pervasive lack of proper editing and even proof-reading alongside the more worrying weaknesses of any proper grasp of plot or character development or literary style.  I can’t disagree. 

Yet surely those who complain the loudest–the broadsheet old-school newspapers–are just as culpable in this cultural slide toward mediocrity.  Instead of reviewing books as they ought, as they used to, they pander to the modern diseases of celebritocracy and lobotomocracy. 

The new books, the new novels, the new writers and old writers (I use the word in its strictest meaning and do not include ghost-written tripe in my definition)–writers of genius or not-genius–cannot get column space. 

There is no praise and certainly no eloquent praise as written above for those novels which raise the bar, which set a new standard, which re-engage the readers with the map of their own history, to borrow the wording above.  And rather than review the books that fail to meet a standard and demonstrating why a given work falls down, our Books editors just don’t bother. 

They’re always lamenting the loss of literary achievement and historical knowledge–yet do they do nothing to rescue or even ameliorate the situation.

The Daily Telegraph has recently treated us to a repetitive round-up of their favourite Dickens’ characters.  They’re on favourite character number 26 now.  Oh joy!  Oh rapture!  Throw spaghetti!  Perhaps the dozy twit who edits the Book page would like to offer Baseball cards with their pictures as well? 

(Forgive me, but I already did my time with O-Level English, dearie.) 

(Or, on another variation on a theme, they cram the Books pages with reviews of the latest television version of a book.  God give me strength…)

Because, you see, this is the problem.  The fact is good books and good reviewers can’t get page space these days.  At all.  Even the big publishers (never mind the medium-sized or indies) can’t get their books reviewed… 

The Books editors may maintain that people don’t want the intellectual challenge of a great reviewer–but that’s just a nonsense.  The fact is, they can’t be asked to find them, or to pay them.  Or to shuffle through the thousands of books they’re sent and find some likely ones and assign them to reviewers.  (What?  Would it be too much like hard work?)

And because of it, because of this complacent, idle, fatuous attitude towards the greatest invention of mankind–the book–that medium of one person’s thoughts straight into the thoughts of another, the most intimate relationship there can ever be, with no third party involved–everyone is impoverished.  But most of all, the future generation…

The value of historical fiction…

Yesterday, whilst rolling my eyes for the nth time over a tome I’m currently reading…

Can I just stop here?

You need to understand how badly this book is written.

We’re talking dessicated prose here.  We’re talking genius of a historian who absolutely cannot write in plain English, who cannot say what he means with anything approaching engagement and relies on words like periphery and atomised and transhumance.  These, I swear to you, are his favourite words.

To say that he has rendered a human story, a story of great tragedy, of loss of life and culture, of oppression and imperialism, bloodless doesn’t begin to tell you how dry this stuff is.

I read a passage or two out to a friend last night and after the initial shock, he collapsed into fits of laughter and said it reminded him of the stuff they write about music theory–where the writer clearly has forgot there’s any music involved.

That’s how bad it is.

Right.  So where was I? Continue reading

What do I think about…

Georgette Heyer?  Hmn?

At the risk of making myself immensely unpopular, I shall say I respect her work very much.   I think she was a brilliant stylist, killingly funny on aunts, sisters and mothers.  I think she has a wicked sense of irony which few people appreciate, and I rate her work alongside that of P.G. Wodehouse in that they both created a bright comedic fictional world entirely of their own. 

However, I also feel that Heyer’s work has done an immense disservice to our understanding of the early nineteenth century.  Because by calling that world the Regency, this period of extra-ordinary political and social change and international upheaval of the most catastrophic nature has been trivialised, ‘frivolised’ and demoted to ‘unworthy of consideration by serious writers and thinkers’. 

(Curiously, no one ever mistakes Wodehouse’s fictional world of Blandings Castle and the Drones Club for reality.)

At this writing, we know that over 5 million people died in the Napoleonic Wars.  Considering that the population of Great Britain in 1800 was only 16 million, that is a considerable proportion of the European population.  What we do not know, and may never know, is the number of civilian casualties.  Nor have I ever come across any attempt to discover that.  So those numbers remain unaccounted for, although they are likely to be at least another million. 

We know, from excavations of mass Napoleonic graves in Lithuania, that roughly 80% of Napoleon’s army was infected with syphilis; we also know that gang rape by Napoleon’s soldiers of civilians was commonplace.  Thus, there are all those women to be accounted for. 

Did they commit suicide as did the women who were so treated by the Russians in Berlin in 1945?  Or did they die a lingering and horrible death from the effects of syphilis?  We don’t know.  And no demographic study has ever been undertaken to try and answer the question of the female casualty rates at that time.  But what we do know is that the European population did not recover its former levels until 100 years after the French Revolution began. 

And all this, and so much more, has been lost or ignored, because who wishes to count the cost of human suffering on such a grand scale–and so much of it caused by one man’s imperial greed–when we can look away to that splendid shimmering quasi-historical world created by Heyer?

Napoleon used to say that he had an income of 85,000 men (some accounts of this saying cite 80,000).  Where are the novels of those families whose sons never came home to set alongside Heyer, or even Austen?

I do not mean to imply that Heyer’s research was in any way inaccurate.  It wasn’t.  It’s just that with the exception of An Infamous Army, the whole of her work is one-faceted and is set firmly within the boundaries of this fictional romantic comedy world she created.  Thus, what a shock to realise that Mary Webb’s Precious Bane, for example, is set at the same period and included much talk of the terrible harvests, the effect of that on the countryside and the introduction of the Corn Laws. 

I’m possibly ranting now.  Okay, yes, I am ranting.  And I do not wish to be a doom-merchant or a grumbletonian.  But I do feel that the interminable focus on the party and courting aspects of the early nineteenth century has robbed this period of both its human cataclysmic disasters but also of its great  triumphs of human courage, tenacity and sheer bloody hard work.  And the only equivalent I can come up with is this:  how would people feel if there was a whole genre of fiction devoted to parties and dresses and bonnets, set in Washington, D.C., circa 1860-1865?

If I may draw a parallel with another another historical novelist, a contemporary of Heyer’s, C.S. Forester, whose Hornblower series, like Rafael Sabatini’s works, drew a veil across the blood and guts of historical conflict.  As did almost all novels published in the 1930s and 40s.  It was the custom of the age.  

Subsequent novelists of the naval or military genres–Patrick O’Brian, Julian Stockwin, and Allan Mallinson–building on Forester’s work, have written much more seriously, much more accurately about the same period.  And they have been rightly lauded for so doing.  Indeed, one sometimes feels that O’Brian and Mallinson are historians first, novelists second.  Yet the novels of early 19th century home front, as it were, the British social and political front, or Heyer’s so-called world, have atrophied–stymied in the web of Heyer’s success. 

It’s curious too, that lacking Heyer, writers from other European countries have been able to set serious works of literary fiction in this period–Gilles Lapouge’s The Battle of Wagram springs to mind.

Still, I have always found The Corinthian particularly amusing–the sisters and mothers aspect, do you see?

Why Write Historical Fiction?

A friend asked me recently why I write historical fiction rather than non-fiction, especially since what I tend to read is non-fiction:  history or biography.  Why I didn’t just sit down and write a history of what happened in 1812 and cover just the whole of that year?  And it was a question which stopped me in my tracks. 

And the answer is:  Because I think historical fiction is a great communicator, if you’ll pardon the hackneyed expression. Because I remember when I was studying at St. Andrews and skiving, and so I wandered into Innes’ Stationers and Books, climbed the stairs to the panelled haven where the book department was, sat down on the stool they had there and started reading Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond sequence.

And for the first time, someone was talking about the Renaissance and Europe as interconnected–artistically, economically, militarily–and doing it through a set of characters with whom I became wholly engaged.  It may have been history made easy, but it was also history made embracing.  And that was an extra-ordinary experience for me.

Some years later, I met Lady Dunnett, and she became a friend–well, she and Sir Alastair both. And yes, she is still sorely missed.

So, here I am, years later, and the truth is, yes, I could continue to go to the historical conferences, and research all this, and I could write non-fiction.  And it might cause some positive ripples in the small world we historians inhabit.   

But look at how many people were engaged by Patrick O’Brian’s work. Probably more than half the bearded blokes (never saw so many beards in all my life!) at the conferences leading up to the bicentennial of Trafalgar were O’Brian devotees. And that’s how many of them had come to it.  O’Brian had been their window to the past. 

And the fact of the matter is I want to see our history, our past, alive and available to all. Not just to those of us in our linen-fold panelled libraries. Not saying I don’t like faculty libraries or their reading rooms. But I want more than anything to see people today realise that the past isn’t names and dates, it’s people–good people, bad people, all of whom loved, lived, fought, triumphed, had families, contributed, didn’t contribute, died or survived to fight another day…

And historical fiction can do that.  And do it most effectively.  It can, if skillfully written and well-researched, bridge the gap between our modern-day lives and views and theirs, however many centuries ago they lived.  It can throw open the shutters of our minds, show us their lives–their strengths, their courage, their fears, their failures–and in the process, teach us not only about the challenges of the past, but about answers for the present. 

And how cool is that?