Those of you who follow me on social media or on my blog will already know that I am a huge fan of Quebecois traditional music—not only in regards to listening to it, but also playing it. I’m an amateur musician, and while my native instrument is flute, I also play some guitar, and over the last several months I’ve also been taking lessons on the fiddle.
This past July, I had the very great pleasure of attending Camp Violin Trad, a music camp in Quebec which is run by a few of my favorite musicians in the entire genre. This year in particular was their tenth anniversary, and they brought in several more of my favorite musicians as guest teachers. I’d been wanting to attend this camp for a few years now, and this year, I finally got to go. It was awesome, and I invite folks to come over to my blog to see my in-depth reports about how it all went. (If you’re interested, you can find those posts here.)
This post, though, is only tangentially related to that. Because I wanted to talk a bit about how this trip not only fed into my explorations of music, but also my writing.
As y’all know I am the author of the Free Court of Seattle urban fantasy series. I like to tell people these are my “music, magic, and computer geekery” books, because I love all three of these things, and they are ladled right into those books with extra-large ladles. My most adored music has already impacted those books twice, in that two of the major male characters are directly influenced by my lifelong fandom for the music of Elvis Presley, as well as my fandom for the music of Great Big Sea.
It was inevitable that Quebecois trad would eventually make an appearance in these books. And it will! I have another character in development who’s a young man of the Warder lineage of Quebec—or, as the Quebecois call them, les Gardiens. This boy will be making his first appearance in my next planned release, a set of novellas set in the universe, before I return to the main storyline of the Free Court of Seattle. HIs name is Gabien Desroches, and he’s a fiddle player, and he’ll be an important supporting character in Free Court Book 3, Warder Soul.
He’s also my first non-English-speaking character I’ve ever properly written—at least, in stories set ostensibly in our actual world. And because he comes from a culture that isn’t mine, part of why I wanted to go to Quebec in person for this music camp was to actually experience listening to Quebecois French in person. Since Gabien will be appearing in scenes written from the point of view of English speakers (my primary heroine Kendis, as well as a supporting heroine, Caitlin), I wanted to get an idea of how the language falls on an English speaker’s ear so that I could properly write about it.
So even though I have a hard time following rapid-fire conversational French—and I’m here to tell you, attending a music camp in rural Quebec is a damned good way to get immersed in rapid-fire conversational French—I still found it extremely valuable to just listen to the sound of the language all around me.
Most of the time, this meant listening to the French speakers speaking French, but it also involved the occasions when they spoke English as well. In the latter case, this got me more data to support things I’d already begun to learn: how certain phonemes sound in the accents, and how a Quebecois French speaker might typically handle certain things like conjugations of English verbs, or the lack of gendered nouns in English.
In other words, I wanted to learn about how actual speakers of the language would plausibly speak English. There are a lot of cliches that show up in works by English-speaking authors trying to portray non-English-speaking characters, things like never using contractions, or constantly saying “oui” and “non” instead of “yes” and “no”. Another one is loading the character’s dialogue up with obvious dialect, often to the point of making them a trial to follow in the storyline—either the reader has to constantly flip back and forth between the actual story and a glossary in the back, or struggle to parse how the author’s chosen to write an accent, or both.
All of these are things I want to avoid when I write Gabien. I want him to sound real. And it helped me a lot to surround myself for a week with actual speakers of the language he’ll have grown up speaking.
Fellow writers, let me therefore heartily recommend that if you want to write a non-English-speaker as a character, make an extra effort to acquaint yourself with speakers of that language if at all possible. Ideally, people you can be around in person—but if not that, find video or audio online. Musicians who speak the language are often good examples, particularly if they’re performing for an English-speaking audience, because then you will often get examples of how they speak in between their songs.
If you’re up for the challenge of actually studying the language, even better. I recommend at least enough basic knowledge for everyday vocabulary, and how the structure of a sentence in the language works—because when you’re writing that character, he or she will very possibly be thinking things in their native language, and translating them to English on the fly to talk to your English-speaking characters, and this will have an impact on their word choices.
It’ll also be important if you want to write scenes that involve multiple non-English speakers speaking their native language to each other. Your challenge will be how to believably portray your non-English speakers speaking in their own language, even though you're still writing about them in English. It’ll be all about your word choices, then, and the sentence structure. If you pull it off, it will absolutely sound plausible to any reader who has any familiarity at all with the language you’re writing about.
An excellent example of this: the historical romance novel The Spymaster’s Lady, by Joanna Bourne. She has characters who flip back and forth between speaking French and English, and even occasionally German. And she portrays it entirely based on word choices for the characters’ dialogue, and how they structure their sentences as they speak. Every single line of theirs is still written in English, but it is immediately obvious whenever they’re changing languages, because the rhythm of what they’re saying changes. I’ve studied both French and German, and seeing that rhythm change in their speech was amazing to me as a reader. I look to Bourne as a direct inspiration for my own efforts in this realm!
Fellow readers, what are some of your biggest pet peeves when you’re reading about a character who isn’t a native English speaker? Writers, what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve run into when you’re trying to portray such characters? Talk to me in the comments!
Angela, in addition to being the author of the Rebels of Adalonia series (as Angela Highland) and the Free Court of Seattle series (as Angela Korra'ti), is a flute player, a whistle player, a guitarist, and a newbie on the fiddle. She cannot shut up about Le Vent du Nord and De Temps Antan, either! C'mon over and geek out at her about your favorite music at angelahighland.com, or on Facebook or Twitter!