Are You Listening?

I go to the pool to use the hot tub for my back and to listen to people talk. I admire writers who give their characters distinctive voices. Word usage, sentence structure, even the tempo of the speech can distinguish one character from another without the addition of dialogue tags or mentioning their names.


Since my P.J. Benson mysteries take place in the mid-west—Michigan—it’s not surprising that many of the characters in those stories sound similar. But even though these “people” live in the same area, that doesn’t mean they should all sound the same. When I lived in Climax, Michigan (which has many similarities to my fictitious Zenith, Michigan) I was surrounded by friends and neighbors who came from different economic and/or educational backgrounds: the hardware store clerk who also taught chemistry at Western Michigan University; the housewife who didn’t have indoor plumbing until the 1980s and who left school after the eighth grade; and the farmer who graduated from Michigan State.

As I work on the third book in this series, I know it’s once again my job to make my characters sound natural but different.

So here I am, at the swimming pool. (Yeah, I know. It’s a rough life.) There’s Ed, who’s from Massachusetts. He packs his caa by the gate. (I love how he talks.) And there’s Kathy, from New Yack. Yah know wad I mean? Quite a few people come here from Canada. Eh? (A lot of them sound like my friend who grew up in Michigan’s U.P.)

Besides the way people from certain regions pronounce their words, there are differences in the quantity of speech. We’ve all met the person that just won’t stop talking. It’s hard to get a word in around them. And there are those who hardly say anything, at least not at first. (Maybe not until they’ve had a drink or two.)

Using those speech patterns can easily identify one character from another as well as tell the reader something about the character’s personality.

Writers often mention that men and women talk different with men using shorter sentences and offering suggestions on how to resolve a problem rather than simply listening to a woman’s rant. Yes, men do like to “fix” things, but as far as the shorter sentences or conversations, have you ever listened to a man describe his golf game? Or talk about his car? The two men in the pool in front of me are into baseball. They’re sharing way more information than I care to hear.

Actually, today it’s a woman’s seated nearby who has captured my attention. Her laugh is loud, hardy, and erupts often. It has a definite rhythm. Ha, huh, huh. She’s also a talker. She’s said something to everyone here at the pool, including me. And she worries about others—about their comfort. She’d make a wonderful secondary or tertiary character. All I would have to do is have her dominate the conversation with words of greeting or concern, have her give a laugh or two, and I could eliminate most of her dialogue tags.

So I’m here at the pool doing research. Ha, and you thought I was just loafing.

Saturday I’ll be in Sarasota, Florida at Sleuthfest on Saturday. If you’re there, say hi.

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8 Responses to Are You Listening?

  1. It’s actually very difficult to make characters sound different on paper. I love your method of research. Shopping malls are good places to research dialogue too. 🙂

    • Maris Soule says:

      You’re right, Shelley. Restaurants with booths also lend themselves to eavesdropping (I mean, listening). My husband knows when I get that far away look it’s probably because I’m listening to the conversation behind me.

  2. Melissa Keir says:

    I love people watching and listening. There is always so much to learn. Have a fun and safe trip!

  3. Great post….truth to the max. I could hear all the voices…and as I listen to your special voice, it reminds me that I must stay in touch, learn from you, embrace the joy of writer to writer talk…I need you……..

  4. Lucy Naylor Kubash says:

    Some tough research there. But sounds lovely. Your blog made me think of the different names people have for the same thing, depending on where they live. (Coke is a soda to some; pop to others.) A couple of words I grew up hearing: “I’m going to “warsh” my clothes and then I’m going down to the “crik” to fish. Then I might go to “Chi (hard ch)- cah- go, Illinois (with the s sound).” My husband still says we live by Hickory Crik. Yes, eavesdropping can be such fun!

    • Maris Soule says:

      Lucy, my grandmother used to say Chi-cah-go. Even now when I see that word I think of it the way Grandma said it, then have to mentally correct myself before I open my mouth. Oh, and I used to live in Walnut Crik.