Eighty-three Characters in Search of a Narrator

My most recent audiobook project was a collection of four classic westerns which will sell as a “box set.” The writers were classic authors who published at the beginning of the 20th century, i.e., the likes of Zane Grey, Bret Harte, etc.

The stories were written with finesse and wit and the characters were interesting and well drawn. The total list of different characters numbered 83 individuals and included cowhands, innocent maidens, Indians, macho heroes, stage coach drivers, and a collection of doctors, cattle drovers, and innkeepers, all in need of voices and personalities that would distinguish them one from another.

I ran into a number of unexpected and often challenging vocal requirements as I worked my way through these books. For example, I had to render a variety of animal sounds: an owl whose sound was something other than “who,” a horse that snorts in the way that horses do when they stamp their forelegs and lower their heads, and most interesting of all, a turkey call, which author Zane Grey rendered as “chugalug, chugalug, chugalug chuck.” I gave it a rapid high-pitched rendering, which didn’t sound too unlike an actual wild turkey, or in this case a Huron Indian imitating a turkey to lure settlers into the woods for abduction.

As a male narrator, when called upon to render a woman’s voice, I have developed a fairly standardized delivery in a slightly higher pitch with a softer, lighter intonation than male characters. In this project, however, there were a number of instances of two or even three women in conversation with one another, which meant that my single female voice was insufficient. I had to exaggerate the pitch differences among characters in conversation with each other without sounding like I was doing some Monty Python version of female characters in the Eric Idle mode that relied on an extreme and highly accentuated falsetto.

When any of the four authors wrote dialogue for ethnic characters, they usually helpfully deployed creative spellings, adaptations, punctuations, and phoneticisms that helped me come up with the appropriate characterizations. There were, for example, backwoods men and women that said “ye” for “you,” “kin” for “can,” and sprinkled words like “kalcilate” throughout and made generous uses of words like “reckon” and “ain’t” that displayed the ethnicity and backgrounds of the character. There were characters who used Mexican/Spanish accents, Chinese locutions where the letter L sounded like an R and vice versa, Swedish accents, and even a Kentucky colonel who had that Foghorn Leghorn sound. (“Pay attention, son!”)

Perhaps the most unexpected characterization I ran into was a backwoods female of simple origins who is encountered in her sylvan cabin by her suitor as she sings what is said to be “a Negro camp meeting song.” There were mysterious phrases like “glory hallalugorum” and “Lord Bress de Lamb,” which evidently made sense in some context other than in modern parlance. As I said, she was singing this little ditty, and she did not stop at just the one verse. With no idea of how the melody went despite my best efforts at Googling it, I finally decided that if I can’t find it, no one else can either, and so I made up a melody and sang it in a simple, soft, high pitched voice with a slight woodsy warble.

Pronunciations were not really much of an issue in this project in terms of difficult names, foreign words, and locations. It was bit of a challenge, however, to maintain a Mexican/Spanish accent through several pages of a drawn out, detailed ghost story recited in dramatic tones by a character named Enriquez. I also had a long story to tell in the voice of Myeera, an Indian maiden, who followed the convention, exclusive to Indian characters, of referring to herself in the third person, eschewing the use of personal pronouns.

I suppose this is the kind of an account that might be better told in a podcast, where I could use audio clips to show how these quirky sections sounded on the finished recording, but that’s a bit more than I want to take on after the long three-months-plus of intense work that characterized this project for me. Despite its 30 hours of finished recording, the project received quick approval from the rights holder when I submitted it, and in a week or two it should appear for sale on Audible, Amazon and iTunes. I don’t know yet what it will sell for, but I’m guessing it will be an attractive price for four full books composed by skilled storytellers who allow you to get to know a variety of unique characters whose fictional lives involve adventure, romance, acts of derring-do, and hard won accomplishment.

Despite the complete disregard for matters of modern gender, racial, and ethnic sensitivities, these writers had a knack for yarn spinning, humor, character development, and the imaginative use of elevated language to move stories along in a way that is guaranteed to engage even modern readers/listeners for many hours.

I will probably never again undertake a project of such duration and complexity unless the compensation is substantially more than this one will turn out to be after all is said and done. For just this one time though, it was a rewarding undertaking, and I feel like I obtained a graduate education in how to figure out and then interpret characters of widely varying temperament and personality types using only the one voice I was born with.