“How ya doon?” asks the pleasant man, stepping fast to keep up with his dog.
“How are you doing?” is what we hear.
“Wassup?” asks the polite teenager, on his way to a friend’s house.
“What’s up?” is what we hearl.
“Hey!” says the harried mother, chasing her two-year-old down the sidewalk.
“Hello,” is what we hear.
As a Caucasian woman of a certain age, “Great!” “Not much!” and “Good morning!” are my respective answers. What we have all done is greet one another in a distinctive voice. Appearance and bearing carry a message, of course, but each of us has also demonstrated our identity with the simple words we have chosen. Sometimes, as in writing, words and the way they are spoken are all we have to nail down that identity.
In my novel The Ninety-Ninth Reunion I chose to tell the story through the words of four different people. They individually demonstrate who they are by talking about themselves to an unseen listener in a way that moves the story along. There are a lot of similarities among these four. All are Midwesterners; all are mature people of intelligence; all are well educated; all have a role to play in the alumni reunion that brings them together. It’s their voices that identify them.
The characters include one man and three women. The man’s voice was relatively easy to access, since he was a farmer and I’d grown up surrounded by Midwestern farmers. His voice, then, would reflect direct connection between thought and word, and a degree of self-deprecation.
Two of the women were sisters, one a professional woman from the South. The other, the younger sister, has settled down in a comfortable small town and has few pretensions. I’d known plenty of both kinds of women so their chosen environments dictated the voices with which they would express themselves.
It was the third woman whose voice gave me trouble. She was going to be the villain of the story and needed to be solidly connected to the school reunion and everyone who attended. Logically, that pointed to her being a schoolteacher. I’ve certainly known hundreds of women teachers during my lifetime. I had been one, my daughter is one, a lot of my friends were teachers at some point in their lives. None that I have known were given to diabolical behavior.
So how was I going to distinguish this evil person from teachers in general? What kind of voice was she going to have, as she explained herself?
My conclusion was that I should make her persona reflect a good many of the things that are exactly the opposite of someone I, personally, would choose in a friend.
My least favorite class in high school was home economics. Aha! This person in the villain role would be a home economics teacher!
My politics are pretty liberal so this person would be something akin to a right wing advocate, with nothing good to say about conservation, human rights or the economically disadvantaged.
I love flowers and gardening, tending toward cottage gardens with riotous mixtures.
Well, okay. My evil teacher could be a gardener but she would have to prefer rigid borders of stiff blossoms.
My villain, whom I named Caroline, could eschew slang, disdain humor of any kind, and share her acid perceptions about her acquaintances but she had an unmistakable voice!
And so it went. Caroline might have her entire community of women in the palm of her hand, but I disliked her so much that whatever nastiness she was up to was no surprise to me. Within recollection, I’d never known anyone like her, but sometimes she seemed incredibly familiar.
The explanation for that eerie sense of familiarity came one morning as I lingered over coffee and my newspaper. I’d sometimes met Caroline’s doppelgangers in the letters to the Editor feature! She was no stranger after all, even though I’d continue to avoid her kind and be confident that she would do her best to avoid me.
If we listen, we can hear voices everywhere we go, it seems, whether on our morning walk for when reading the news of the day.