On Creating a Voice

Of the many lessons learned over seven years of writing Line of Flight, one of the most challenging was figuring out the voice of my narrator, Simone Levitsky. I knew in my gut that I needed to tell the story from her point of view, and I wrote early drafts as her journal. It was an intuitive choice, because I’ve kept journals on and off for decades, and I always write when I travel. It seemed a good entry into her deepest, most private thoughts on her odyssey to find her daughter in war-stricken France. And it provided a logical structure for the novel.

Only one, big problem. Several years into the writing process, I realized the format was too constricting. I’d been warned by writing instructors that it was a risky choice. Nonetheless, or perhaps in spite of those warnings, I’d proved to myself that I could write an entire novel this way. But the story needed more room to breathe.

So, with trepidation, I blew up my structure and started over. Adapting the parts worth saving, I found a better approach, with Simone writing a long and deeply personal account of her journey to her three-year-old granddaughter, Zoé, which Simone plans to give her when she turns 21. This opened up some really interesting opportunities to explore mother-daughter relationships across several generations and freed me from a too-rigid chronology.

As Simone’s voice evolved, one constant remained. She writes like a woman of her era, in sentences that conform to the proper grammar she would have learned while in school in the 1880s. No fragments. (Well, maybe a few, but used sparingly and with clear intention.) And no sentences starting with conjunctions (unless she’s reporting dialogue). I gave her em-dashes—even if that might have been a stretch—to set off phrases within longer sentences, just to improve rhythm and readability. Most of all, I gave her room to fully express her observations like correspondents of her day, who cherished the written word.

It was a complex balancing act, to create a voice that feels authentic to the WWI era, to use an older style that still feels vibrant, to keep all those choices in the background so the words melt away in the telling. I can only hope that I’ve succeeded.

Evelyn Herwitz writes about the journey of writing her first novel—a work of historical fiction set in World War I—the vagaries of the creative process, and her quest for publication, at evelynherwitz.com.

Image: “Old Time Letter Rack” by John Frederick Peto, via Wikimedia Commons

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