On Voice

I was born in Springfield, Missouri, “Gateway to the Ozarks,” where my grandparents called anything they liked a “dandy,” made “throwed biscuits,” and lived down the street from “The Poor Boys Market.”   I loved the way they spoke, with a Missouri twang, and was always aware of the difference between their speech and mine because we left Springfield when I was only two.  I think that’s what made me sensitive to language, able to imitate different kinds of speech and loving the sound.  And probably why I have a Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Composition, because I loved learning all about language.

In “Mary Mae and the Gospel Truth,” Mary Mae speaks Appalachian English, the speech of many of the kids I knew growing up in Norwood, Ohio.  Appalachian speech is a “dialect,” a way of speaking common to a group of people from a certain place or of a certain group and differing from standard English.  Many writers of children’s books use dialect.  Sharon Flake writes stories in black English.  Several characters in Because of Winn Dixie speak non-standard English.  And in  Strawberry Girl by Lois Lenski, which I read when I was ten, I remember enjoying the backwoods Florida dialect of the Slater family.

My own character, Mary Mae, is 10 years old and excited about digging up fossils.  One night she sees a crab swimming around in a restaurant tank:  “There’s this little crab a-setting in the corner all by hisself.  If you ain’t seen a crab, here’s what one looks like.  He’s got a top like a mushroom, only it’s hard, and all these little legs that come sprouting out like a spider’s, and then under his chin, he’s got these two little feelers he’s a-rubbing together like he’s trying to think of what to do next. . . . And I know just by watching that crab that my trilobite was alive, whether Mama thinks so or not.”  Mary Mae’s observations grow out of her voice (not out of my head) and when I was working on this book I would read aloud because the voice could send me further into the story.

Often, when I visit my hometown, I carry a notebook and jot down words or phrases I overhear.  Sometimes I drive around with a tape recorder, reading the names of the stores:  My Humble Abode—a second hand furniture store, Gabbie’s Home Cookin’, Riddle’s Tree Service.   I like to soak myself in the language.  It’s what feeds the voices of my characters.

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