Sometimes You Get the Bear…

What you don’t know about polar bears is probably a lot. Well fear not, the authoritative source of polar bear lore is extant in the form of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of the Polar Bear, by Michael Englehard. I bet you didn’t even know there was a cultural history of the polar bear. After all, the compendium of works of art produced by the Rembrandts of the species is scant. I suppose there is beauty in any “songs” the creatures might have developed to serenade the dark polar nights as aurora borealis flickers about the frozen landscape.

No, rather than a natural history, which has been done frequently, Ice Bear is a comprehensive and detailed account of how the polar bear’s attributes have come to inspire and underlie a variety of values and attitudes among human kind. The focus is on human perceptions and experiences more than on the lives of the bears themselves.

Through thousands of years, the human fascination with the exotic and unknown has placed Ursinus maritimus in the role of being everything from a food source and producer of fur to an icon of superhuman attributes and a spiritual force.

Representative of the polar bear’s attraction to human emotion in modern times is a cuddly cub named Knut, born in the Berlin Zoo in 2006, who spawned enormous revenues from sales of stuffed replicas and other merchandise.  Knut made a fortune for the zoo during his brief life. Like some other rock stars, Knut’s life, was tragically cut short. At the age of four he drowned in his enclosure’s pool after suffering a seizure.

The book makes much of the abuse inflicted on these iconic animals by the succession of human impresarios who sought to gain financially from their existence. Not that polar bears were singled out for more ill-treatment than other hapless animals who have historically been captured and corralled for our amusement. Bear baiting, in which bears were tied up and subjected to attacks by dogs, and included more brown bears than polar bears, was a popular blood sport for many years. And history is replete with examples of horses, elephants, reptiles, big cats, and various primates whose hold on our collective imagination has frequently led to horrific treatment at the hands of their human handlers.

As audiobooks go, this one initially struck me as one that might be relatively easy to narrate effectively. I assumed it would be somewhat akin to a National Geographic Channel voiceover gig (not that I’ve ever done one) in which the narrator fades into the background as the uncomplicated story more or less tells itself in pictures. And to a certain extent, thus it was. But the part about being easy to narrate pretty much evaporated as I began to run across the many references to Norwegians and other Scandinavians who were prominent in the story of these bears. Names and place names like Halvmåneøya, aka Halfmoon Island, near Antarctica, were sprinkled liberally throughout the manuscript, necessitating a few on-the-fly lessons in Scandinavian diacritical markings and the resulting pronunciations and vocal rhythms that characterize the elocution necessary for credibility.

Another challenge for me as narrator was to attempt to convey in part the pictorial aspects of the bear’s character and history. The print book is richly illustrated with art work, drawings, and paintings.  Magnificent photographs depict the polar bear as it appears both in nature and in the human context that is the focus of this book.  Much of the impact of the book comes from viewing these illustrations as you read the text. Of course, there is no way to add that kind of impact to the audiobook. But I did attempt to adopt vocal patterns and intonations that suggest the aura of majesty exhibited by these magnificent ursine specimens. I don’t really know whether my efforts in this regard succeeded or not. But I do know that if I were motivated to experience a book so lovingly devoted to polar bears, I would opt for the print version every time.

And so this project has now been notched up to the status of another finished audiobook available for sale on Amazon and Audible (iTunes is also a source of audiobooks). It was an interesting book, and I know a lot about polar bears. I hope it allows listeners to get a feel for these beautiful animals as well.

Curmudgeonry Light: A New Newsletter

I have begun a newsletter (see the homepage to subscribe) distributed by email. The idea is to create a monthly compendium of my observations and thoughts on the passing scene in a snappy prose style that entertains readers by virtue of being a bit offbeat and thought-provoking.

The content is unstructured and nonthematic. Often one item leads to another in no particular way other than that an idea somehow came to mind while I was composing the previous item. Other items begin as idle thoughts that I haven’t fully come to grips with as far as saying something useful about them goes. If they coalesce into a meaningful nugget they may stay in. If not, out they go.

I begin with rough prose, trying to get a sense of the list of concerns I will include, and then I spend a lot of time revising and honing to sharpen and focus my meaning. I often express an attitude or opinion. In drafting the most recent letter, I composed an entire page of rambling ideas about the troubles of the governor of Virginia that went nowhere until I distilled it into a short paragraph. Only then could I see what I wanted to say.

I have set a standard of including no more content in a given issue of the newsletter than I can fit onto both sides of an 8 ½  x 11 sheet of paper using a 12-point font. After roughing out the prose, the task is to get everything to fit. To do so I try to use economical language and efficient prose. I liken it to carving a human figure from a block of wood. (Take off everything that doesn’t look like a human.) The shape comes into view as I edit.

Very generally, my theme is to shine a spotlight on events and behaviors that I’ve taken note of in day-to-day living. Somewhere in each issue I endeavor to draw attention to the audiobooks I narrate. They’re fun and, I think, worthwhile, and I want people to buy them.

In keeping with the title “Curmudgeonry Light,” I come from the perspective that much of human behavior, stems from mercenary, misguided or sloppy thinking.  I like to dissect items that catch my attention as such and speculate on now we might think differently about them.

I bump up against politics now and then, but steer well clear, I hope, of preaching or espousing particular views that might hit a nerve in readers anywhere along the spectrum of partisan politics. Ideas expressed are mostly mainstream, and I try to find a common thread among various perspectives that might entertain and amuse rather than provoke.

To get the ball rolling, I sent Volume 1, January 2019 to anyone whose email address I happened to have who was more than a passing acquaintance. A Facebook pitch yielded additional subscribers for whom I had no email address. Word of mouth has also led to several requests to be added to the list. As of this writing I have about 60 subscribers.

What is my grand design in all this? I confess that don’t really have one. I enjoy composing my thoughts in this way. I can reach others with my ideas, and sometimes receive feedback about what I have written. Anything I may accidentally contribute to the common weal is by virtue of age and experience. While I fearlessly stand behind any opinions I may express, I claim no superior insights and seek no approbation as a pundit. There doesn’t seem to be a way to make money on this kind of thing, though I’d be willing to jump through a hoop or two if there was.

So there you have it. If for some reason you want to follow my thinking about our world, I welcome you. I will ramble on regardless, so jump on the bandwagon if you like. If you’d rather not, or if you decide to jump off after a short ride, my best wishes go with you.

Great New Western Novel

I just finished Carl Dane’s Canyon of the Long Shadows, my next narration project, and want to report that it is an excellent read.

Of particular interest is the complexity of the main character.  While it’s usually the kiss of death to call a western or mystery “intellectual,” it’s not too much of a stretch to say that Canyon is a novel that prods the reader into some soul-searching about moral dilemmas encountered in battle – including weapons of indiscriminate destruction (in this case, the newly-invented compound called Dynamite) and the torture of a combatant who knows the location of an innocent woman held hostage.

That’s the distinguishing feature of this series.  They are not philosophical treatises, but do provide a main dish of old-fashioned fun with some serious thought for seasoning.

Pronunciation: Getting it Right

As an audiobook narrator you are expected to deliver a performance that is free of distracting or incorrect elements. Something as simple as a stomach rumble that is picked up by your very sensitive mic or a motorcycle passing by whose engine noise penetrates even the most carefully padded audio booth make you stop and redo the copy that was intruded upon.

That kind of thing is easily remedied, but the bugaboo of many of us who sit before the mic in the lonely booth is pronunciation. I am currently narrating a history book about the French and Indian War. In some 411 pages, the author explores the actions of the people and the impact of the policies of the French government that ultimately led to their defeat.

Here is a fairly typical passage from Chapter 2

Jean-Baptise de Machault d’Arnouville served until February 1757, when he lost the same fight with Pompadour that had toppled Argenson. He was replaced by Françios Marie Peyrenc de Moras, who was succeeded in May 1778 by Claude Louis d’Espinchal, marquis de Massac. In October of that year, Massac was replaced bu Nicholas René Berryer, who clung to power until October 1758…

I’m sure a French language scholar would breeze through that list of names and titles, but though I have a French name, I am no Maurice Chevalier when it comes to sounding like an exemplar of my heritage.

As an audiobook narrator you are expected to deliver a performance that is free of distracting or incorrect elements. Something as simple as a stomach rumble that is picked up by your very sensitive mic or a motorcycle passing by whose engine noise penetrates even the most carefully padded audio booth make you stop and redo the copy that was intruded upon.

That kind of thing is easily remedied, but the bugaboo of many of us who sit before the mic in the lonely booth is pronunciation. I am currently narrating a history book about the French and Indian War. In some 411 pages, the author explores the actions of the people and the impact of the policies of the French government that ultimately led to their defeat.

Here is a fairly typical passage from Chapter 2

Jean-Baptise de Machault d’Arnouville served until February 1757, when he lost the same fight with Pompadour that had toppled Argenson. He was replaced by Françios Marie Peyrenc de Moras, who was succeeded in May 1778 by Claude Louis d’Espinchal, marquis de Massac. In October of that year, Massac was replaced bu Nicholas René Berryer, who clung to power until October 1758…

The solution is to fly to the Internet. There are numerous sites that can help, but some are limited in the range of names they will help you pronounce. YouTube can be a resource, but the selection of videos devoted to Claude-Louis d’Espinchal, marquise de Massac are far fewer in number than the numerous postings featuring cats falling into bathtubs. One good site is How to Pronounce, which seems to recognize most anything you enter into the query box, which then takes you to several recorded audio pronunciations in nearly any language you can think of.  But for your narration do you want a French pronunciation of the name or an English pronunciation? It depends on how you want to approach the overall project. My choice is to go with an English pronunciation rather than slipping suddenly into a mellifluous rendition as a native speaker might.

Next step is to practice the pronunciation until its sounds right to your ear. Your job is to interpret the passage in a way that communicates the author’s meaning to listeners. You can’t do that if you suddenly go into a halting recitation of the name and title that just gets the job done. The pronunciation cannot be the focal point of your reading. It has to sound natural.

All this takes a great deal of time if you want to get it right. If you just guess at the pronunciations you don’t intuitively know, you are very likely to get the recording back from the publisher with a request to do them over. You don’t want to have to go back over an 18-hour recording and find and correct every mispronunciation of Machault d’Arnville everywhere it pops up in the 411 pages you just spent weeks recording.

You get better at finding and executing a credible pronunciation as you gain experience, but this is one element of audiobook narration that accounts for the fact that you’ll likely spend three hours or more for every “finished hour” you produce.

Making a Good Impression

The book I am currently narrating takes place during the “Big Band” era just prior to the advent of World War II, and it includes passages of dialogue delivered by well known personalities of the era.

Among those who utter words in this book are Walter Winchell, Walter Cronkite, Bing Crosby, Orson Wells, Harry James, Jack Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Will Rogers. As narrator, it is my job to integrate each and every one of these characters as smoothly as possible into the recording without calling undue attention to them in a way that distracts from their role in the story. That’s a lot of people. And they require much closer attention by the narrator to vocal characterization than characters whose hold on existence extends only to the imagination of the author.

When a well-known personality is no longer among the living, and enough time has passed to leave few if any potential or actual listeners who ever heard her or him speak, I can just come up with a rendering that seems appropriate to what is known of his style and/or personality, and no one will know whether he really sounded like that or not.  Wyatt Earp, for example, or, as discussed in a previous post, Al Capone, can be suggested without trying to replicate their tonality and speech patterns. But, of course, there are many renditions of Bing Crosby, and many impressionists over the years have replicated his dulcet baritone voice with uncanny accuracy. This means that that a lot of people know precisely what he sounded like. And thanks to YouTube, there will always be such people. When they encounter a performance in which that character speaks, they want it to sound at least something like her or him.

In circumstances like these, my approach is to try to provide as close an approximation of what Bing Crosby or Orson Wells or Jack Kennedy actually sounded like as I can, given that I will never rise to the level of dead-on accuracy that someone like the great impressionist of a bygone era, Rich Little, achieved. He is unrivaled in his ability to render impressions of the likes of Jimmy Stewart, Bing Crosby,  Johnny Carson, or Carol Channing with which he entertained television and nightclub audiences in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.

As it turns out, I can actually do a pretty good impression of Walter Cronkite. And, thanks to Vaughn Meader’s wildly popular “The First Family” record album in the 1960s, I can pull off a reasonable version of Jack Kennedy without too much effort. But as familiar as Bing Crosby is to people, and as many renditions of his voice as there are out there, it does not come easily to me to develop the right combination of speech patterns, rate, pitch and intonation to really nail his iconic informal patter, let alone his singing voice.

YouTube is my tool of choice for honing my “impressions.” Its archive of news clips, television segments, and recordings of performances provides ready access to the voices and mannerisms of nearly any celebrity of the past half dozen or so decades.

So as I sit before the mic in my dark little padded studio, blithely reading along, and suddenly my protagonist is introduced to Bing Crosby who is sitting at a table in New York City’s Stork Club, the recording process screeches to a halt, while I pause to spend an hour or so watching YouTube videos of Crosby trading barbs, for example, with Bob Hope in a scene from The Road to Morocco while Ava Gardner looks on. Next step is to record take after take of the lines I must perform until I think I can offer a sense that I really am Crosby commenting that the case of wine he recently received from the Stork Club’s owner: “Must’ve cost more than a year’s salary for Hope’s joke writers.”

Fortunately, I am of sufficient age to have heard most of these people in their heyday. That helps with Walter Winchell, for instance, who rattled out his celebrity gossip-based radio reports to “Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea.” And I watched and listened nightly to Walter Cronkite as he delivered the evening news in a way that made him the most trusted man in American long after his stint ended as play-by-play announcer for the Sooners football team at Oklahoma University, as the audiobook has it. I have a tonal range sufficient to emulate the basso profundo pronouncements of Orson Wells, if not the precise midwestern accent that characterized his classic radio performances on The Mercury Theatre on the Air. But Harry James? Kind of a Texas drawl, but not quite. Toughest one I ran across.

So if you ever buy this book, and get to the passage that takes place in the Stork Club, you may be less than impressed with me as a spot-on impressionist of personalities of the big band era. But when you come to the passage that has Bing Crosby responding to protagonist, Lance Roark’s admiration of a recent Crosby box office hit, try to suspend disbelief and imagine that my interpretation of “der Bingo” conveys just enough casual nonchalance to make you believe it’s somewhat in the vein of the iconic Rich Little as he nails the way the crooner would sound tossing off a joke at the expense of his road picture buddy, Bob Hope.



Working With an Invested Author

Much of the process of producing an audiobook physically takes place within the confines of the sound booth where the narrator labors through the sentences and pages of the manuscript. This is done in isolation. At the top levels of the profession, there may be producers, sound technicians, and directors, but for a whole lot of us it’s just you and the manuscript in a sound insulated, padded room.

When narrating fiction, you need to become one with all the characters, both major and minor, good and bad, male and female, strange and normal. You also need to picture the action and depict it for readers, who have only your voice to create all this for themselves. The isolation of the sound booth and the unnatural silence can be helpful here to transport you to the world you need to dwell in as you try to find your way to credibility.

While you are engaging with your alternate world, however, there always lurks a bit self-doubt about how well you are doing at building a story in the minds of listeners that is both true to the author’s intention and an accurate rendition of the text.

There are mechanisms built into the process of moving from narration to finished recording that offer external feedback on your performance. The rights holder is required to give the go-ahead at certain points before the project gets too far along.  Changes can be requested or the project can be halted if it’s just not coming together. This is typically somewhat perfunctory and it is not intended to catch specific errors that may pop into the narration at various points in the story.

For that, an editor is needed. As in writing, there is truth in the idea that everyone benefits from an editor. You will always miss errors in your own work.

If the rights holder is casual about proofing the recording, which some are, it is a good practice for the narrator to set up some kind of third party review of the recording as things progress. (My wife, Candy, who will do this if I ask, once agreed to proof an 18-hour-long history of the French and Indian War that included French phrases, sentence-long honorific titles in French, and obscure locations and characters with unpronounceable names.)

Most authors, publishers and book producers do take this aspect of producing the project seriously, and any flaws are usually caught and eliminated. Some rights holders, however, simply choose the narrator, approve the initial clip of the project, and ultimately approve it for sale, after only a random sampling of the recording to get a general sense that it’s basically okay.

My most recent project was a novel about gangsters in Chicago during the Prohibition era. I was selected for the project by the author himself, who coordinated the publication of the book. He was thorough from the get-go, and turned out to be the most involved rights-holder I have encountered. We interacted frequently throughout the production of the audiobook.

Before contracting with me, he wanted to know if I felt confident with the Chicago/Italian/Irish accents needed. He asked good questions about my style of narration and the timetable for completion. He sent me a written profile of each of the characters, describing them in terms of their temperaments, physical aspects, and even vocal attributes. This character analysis was immensely helpful to me as I began to develop my approaches to creating the personalities of the characters and their vocal styles and quirks.

As each chapter was finished, I posted it to the web, where the author would most often review it within a day of my posting of a chapter with comments and suggestions on what I had just completed. An example of an issue in this project was that I always pronounce the word “status” with a long “a.”  The author’s preference, though, was to pronounce the word with a short “a.” Dictionaries list both as acceptable. The word came up often, and I would tend to absent mindedly toss off my familiar locution of the word using the long “a.” The author missed not one of these slips, and I had to go back and change each of them to the author’s preference.

This book also had a relatively large number of characters, some of which appear only once or twice in the book and many pages apart. It was easy to forget how I rendered the voice of one of these characters the first time around when he or she popped up again 100 or so pages later. More than once I thought I had correctly reprised a character’s vocal mannerisms, but I did not. The author caught the inconsistency and showed me where to look for the original utterance. I had to go find it and make the character sound like she did the first time around.

This close attention to the minutest details by the author made me a bit nervous. Did I get the voice right for Al Capone? Does Dean O’Banion sound like he did back in Chapter 6? There are many renderings in film and television of the voices of these historical characters as done by prominent professional actors. I listened to them on YouTube, but I worried that I had not quite captured all of the inflections and rhythms that would make people believe these characters were authentic. Would I have to go back and find all the places I did Capone’s voice and redo them? No, the author seemed happy with my renderings.

So, did I find the authorial feedback a professional problem? Quite the contrary. He didn’t second guess every little item or voice rendition. He was very courteous in requesting changes, and complimentary when the changes were made.

And the process was a two-way street. I found some glitches in the manuscript, and the author happily acquiesced to my suggestions for changes to the book itself, which improved the overall product.

This close reading by the author and his requests for changes was also reassuring. That nagging self-doubt is assuaged, and my confidence in the quality of the final product was enhanced.

The narration process for this project became copacetic, and I could focus my attention on who might get whacked next as my mob figures vied for dominance in Chicago’s North Side.



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.



A Rainbow of Audiobook Characters

In narrating a work of fiction, to a certain extent you are an actor who gets to play all the parts. That is a common observation by experienced audiobook narrators who have developed a style that allows the listener’s attention to drift away from the narrator and focus on the story itself as conveyed by the words of the characters in the work.

Of course with the fulfilling task of “playing all the parts” comes the challenge of distinguishing characters one from another, and offering credible performances that successfully depict a variety of character types, personalities, and genders.

I have written before about some of the techniques that work for me when trying to interpret various types of characters, but in some works, simple tricks of the trade like lightening the force of delivery for female characters while slightly raising the pitch, are not sufficient to address the situations depicted in the narrative.

I am currently producing a boxed set of four different books—classic westerns by the likes of Zane Grey—which were originally published more than 100 years ago. In one of the works in that collection, there are numerous characters, and a number of passages in which those characters engage in good-natured banter about the goings on that take place on a cattle ranch. In several such passages that take place in a bunkhouse, seven or more characters trade rapid-fire wisecracks about other characters and situations in the story. The characters have names like Shorty, Slim, Weary, Cal, Chip, Happy Jack, and Jack, and their lines are intermingled in a snappy repartee that reflects the quirks of each character’s personality.

The obvious challenge for the narrator is to represent each character’s persona succinctly and accurately while clearly differentiating the characters from one another as the dialogue unfolds.

In my previous outings narrating western fiction, characters have most often interacted in short scenes involving at most two or three characters at a time. And those characters appeared off and on throughout the book. It was not difficult to differentiate them when they had conversations.

A multifaceted dialogue, though, is considerably more challenging for a number of reasons. How do you establish a presence for the individual characters? How do you make it clear, using only your voice, who is speaking while keeping in mind that you are not performing a drama, but reading fiction from a book?

Here’s what I came up with to address this challenge.

First, I decided I had to read well ahead of where I was in my recording process to get as detailed sense of who these characters are as I could. Do they have any distinct physical characteristics? What are they wearing? Do they possess any special skills or abilities that might help me get to know them? In the bunkhouse scene, for example, the character called Slim was so named because he was quite the opposite of what the name implied; he was portly and short of stature. But he was also a good horseman, and highly respected as such by his fellow cowhands.

Once I got a sense of who the characters were, I had to decide what they sounded like, and how I could render their unique voices in my performance.

I did this by thinking of classic characters that I am familiar with. For example, I decided that the owner of the ranch should sound something like Ben Cartwright of the classic TV western, Bonanza. The protagonist and title character, Chip, would have a John Wayne quality because he was often engaged in taunting exchanges with the lead female character, Della, reminiscent of films featuring “The Duke” and Maureen O’Sullivan. If the voice of an actual person did not come to mind, I characterized a person as a “Granny, well-met,” or simply as “morose.”

I made a sheet of notes using a kind of shorthand to describe my assessment of the key traits and voice types I had decided on for each character. It is posted in front of the mic in my announce booth.

Characters are listed with brief notes on their quirks and personalities. They are assigned colors to link them to their lines in the manuscript.

On the sheet I also assigned a color to each character, and beside each character’s name, I drew in a small box using a colored pencil. So, for instance, next to the minor character, Mr. Denson, who sounds like Strother Martin (Cool Hand Luke), is an orange box, while James G. Whitmore, the ranch owner, gets a green box.

Next I went through a printout of the script and marked each character’s “lines” with the corresponding color for his or her character. This is helpful because passages often just begin with a line of dialogue and don’t identify the speaker until the end of a lengthy speech. So, when I see a passage underlined in blue, I know that the character is Chip, and I know to affect that voice. If Della speaks next, I can see that coming when I note the red colored lines beneath her words, and I switch to the modified Maureen O’Sullivan that I’ve chosen for her voice.

Next I had to rehearse. I read the script aloud until I felt comfortable that I had the voices down (I don’t do impressions, so my Ben Cartwright will never be confused with the real Lorne Green; the best I can manage is to “suggest” his intonations, pitch, and force when he created Ben’s character in the classic western series.)

When I’ve gone over the dialogue enough to acquire a good sense of who’s speaking and how they all sound together, I record. There is a lot of starting and stopping, but with skillful audio editing, the finished product sounds reasonably credible. I backstop my own opinion about this by asking (coercing?) my wife Candy to listen to the book, chapter by chapter. So far I’m meeting the “Candy Standard,” so I have reasonable confidence in the outcome of my process.

My background as the narrator with a resonant authoritative baritone is of little use in these heavy dialogue situations. That’s a hurdle to overcome, but it’s also rewarding to learn new skills and approaches and produce something fresh. The chapters in this book are relatively short, so I get a frequent sense of accomplishment as I finish one little melodrama at a time in the march toward a believable and, I hope, entertaining completed audiobook.

More Than Just Another Narration

As an audiobook narrator/producer, I do not have a strict set of criteria that I use in looking for promising projects. Of course I want to find a book that is likely to sell, and I try to steer clear of the wide selection of usually self-published “whacko” books that proliferate on Amazon and elsewhere. I also try to match my talents to the requirements of books seeking narrators. I look for those that seem right for an authoritative baritone voice and avoid those with exotic characters who speak in accents and with inflections that I know I cannot pull off.

All this is to say that seldom is the choice of books I audition for motivated by their being books that I would read purely for pleasure. Nor does the fact that I have chosen to narrate a book imply that I do or do not endorse the content and ideas therein.

Now and then, however, a book unexpectedly becomes more than just an exercise in interpretation. That is the case with a book I am currently working on. The book is titled Combat Chaplain, written by James D. Johnson.

It is a memoir that describes the day-to-day experiences of a 27-year-old Army chaplain, who volunteers for duty in Vietnam where he ends up serving with combat troops in the Mekong Delta in 1967—the height of American involvement in that war.

The author kept meticulous records of his experiences for the year he spent with what were generally known as riverine forces, troops that patrolled the rivers, canals, and rice paddies of the Mekong Delta looking for Viet Cong troops and engaging them in combat.

Reported as a series of journal entries, Johnson’s book is unblinking in its descriptions of what this kind of life entailed for the soldiers and sailors who were assigned to this duty. Chaplain Johnson, an unarmed non-combatant, accompanies his “guys” on combat operations that exposed him to the same high risk of injury and death the others faced. He ministered to his men in the midst of combat and in base areas between operations. He was awarded two Bronze Star medals with V device for valor during combat operations, though that activity did not include shooting at or personally trying to kill the enemy.

It’s a terrific book that shows rather than tells what life was like for those facing unrelenting misery and the likelihood of being killed or wounded on a day-to-day basis without ever really understanding why they were being called upon to do it or what it was intended to accomplish. They just did their duty. Many are heroes, some are slackers, but they are all there participating, experiencing, and enduring as best they can.

When I submitted the audition for this book, I didn’t know much about it other than what I could surmise from the title and the few short paragraphs that I recorded for the audition. I had an interest in it because I too had served in Vietnam at nearly same time as Captain Johnson.

I have to say that narrating this book has been difficult at times for me. Not because it revives difficult memories; I never even came close to the kinds of searing experiences that Johnson and his fellow troops endured on a daily basis.

What makes it difficult at times for me to read and record this account is complicated to articulate. At times I come close to tears when reading about a particularly horrific loss of life or a touching moment. And there are many such throughout the book. Often I have to stop and compose myself.

But why such an intense reaction, given that I completely escaped the misery and danger that pervades these pages?

I think it is some kind of manifestation of survivor’s guilt. Many veterans struggle with this. I took active steps to avoid ending up in combat situations, including volunteering to go to Vietnam on condition that I be assigned the job I wanted in radio broadcasting in Saigon. (One passage in the book describes how far removed from the chaplain’s war is the gleaming Armed Forces Radio broadcast studio in Saigon where he came to record a series of devotional radio programs for the troops. These studios were just a few steps down the street from the compound where I advised Vietnamese Army broadcasters in similar surroundings.)

When I am reading this riveting account it comes dramatically home to me how different the lives of these troops were from mine. We were in the same country at about the same time, participating in the same war. But they were living in mud, facing the likelihood of horrific wounds or agonizing death, and doing so day after day for their entire 365 days in country. I feel a strong sense of guilt that while they were out there dodging incoming mortars, cruising down the middle of the rivers ducking rifle fire from both banks, getting wounded and killed and sleeping in mud, I was enjoying steak at the officer’s club in Saigon and going back to my BOQ to sleep in air conditioned comfort.

A part of me begins to feel that what they went through was something they did for me. Instead of me having to be there, they were there in my place. They were out there in the bullet riddled rice paddies so I didn’t have to be.

But it was too much to ask of them. They suffered so much. And the suffering for too many of them didn’t end when they returned from Vietnam. I should have been there with them. I should never have tried to avoid doing my bit.

This is no mea culpa; in my heart I know that nothing I did or did not do would have changed the lives of the heroes I met in this book. And I do not really believe that I was derelict in not opting for combat and misery.

So what’s the bottom line here? There isn’t much of one really. I feel deeply honored to add something to the telling of this magnificent story of James D. Johnson’s. I am grateful for the opportunity to offer another medium through which audiences may engage this story and be inspired by it.

I am halfway through narrating this book. When I’ve finished it, I plan to contact the author. I want to tell him that his book made a difference in my life. I won’t be able to say exactly how, or what exactly changed, but I want to let him know that one fellow veteran is very glad he had the chance to know what this heroic chaplain and his “guys” went through those many years ago in that awful war. That’s not much really, but it seems important to me somehow.

A Staff of One

If I could clone myself, I would be better able to handle the workload I need to manage to make a go of audiobook narration.

The dilemma for narrators who who take this work seriously is that sometimes there are too many projects with too many deadlines that are too close to each other. And only one person to perform all of the functions connected with getting an audiobook from print to a recorded product ready to sell.

For example, when I began doing this eight months ago, I submitted two auditions for projects listed on the ACX site, thinking that I might get one of them if I was lucky. I was offered both of them. Then I received another offer for a project that came through someone finding my profile in a search of the site by an author looking for a narrator.

With a marathon effort (these were all long projects that required hours of recording, editing and processing), I completed them all by their specified deadlines. I was off and running, but after that I became a bit more circumspect, submitting auditions in a way that avoids this clustering of work.

Currently however, I have run into another aspect of the clustering effect in doing projects. Here’s how that can happen.

I auditioned for a work of western fiction offered by a company that produces book projects for writers. These companies coordinate the print and electronic aspects of book publishing for their authors, and at the appropriate time in the life of the projects offer the book for auditions on ACX. Then they shepherd the audiobook projects through the steps that ultimately see it posted for sale on Audible and other platforms.

As I signed on for the western book I auditioned for, the producer offered me a second western by the same author. When I completed the first western, the book producer praised my work and asked if I’d be interested in other projects the company was handling. I answered in the affirmative and the producer sent me a list of about 25 books that he hoped I would consider.

I was still working on the second western, so we left it at that until I finished that one. Meanwhile, I had begun working on a long non-fiction project that I received while working on the westerns. Having no commitment about the additional books I was asked to consider by the western producer, I decided to back myself up by auditioning for another western listed on ACX, this one a four-book boxed set of classic westerns.

Turns out I immediately got an offer for that project. In addition, the producer for that project liked my audition enough to ask me to consider another boxed set project when I finished the one I just accepted, and indicated that there would be a lot of other work beyond that if I wanted it.

Suddenly I am faced with the possibility that I could be lining up work that would comprise some 40 books with deadlines to be determined.

Because all of these projects are paid on the basis of a percentage of royalties, I need high volume to make the work worthwhile. The royalties continue over months and years, so for any given project they tend to be modest to say the least. With a good number of modest royalties paid monthly over years, a narrator can compile reasonable compensation only by pumping out books regularly and in fairly large numbers. (Top narrators, which I aspire to be, can command per hour rates, or other stipend-based compensation, but I’m not there yet.)

So I am inclined to accept all of these projects if and when they are offered. But how to manage them without going into hibernation in my little padded room of a studio for the foreseeable future?

I don’t know the answer to that. Of course there are no guarantees that all of the projects I have been asked to consider will be offered. Things change in this business as in all others and there are no guarantees that offers made informally will actually come to pass when push comes to shove.

I have decided, however, that I need to consider a way to streamline my operations. At present I do everything: narration, recording, editing (a surprisingly time consuming activity), and audio processing and mastering.

One can hire out many of these activities, but with the low potential for profits, that can be financially counterproductive to say the least.

So where can I turn for help? My grandson likes playing with technology. He’s 10, though, and for some reason has to spend a lot of his time in grade school.

Wait, my wife was a broadcasting major in college! Don’t say anything to her. I want to find the right time to try to sell her on the idea of sitting in front of a screen all day listening to me drone on about cattle drives and feuding drovers while she manipulates representations of audio waves on a computer screen.