Sunday, February 16, 2014

Observing & Writing Dialog With Mariah Warren

Mariah Warren

Unlike every other author in this interview series, I did not meet Mariah Warren on social media. In fact, I met Mariah before social media existed and in a place that didn’t yet have mail service, much less telephones and computers. Not only is Mariah a fellow Alaskan and fellow author, but like me, she largely grew up in the tiny “bush” community of Edna Bay. There aren’t many of us “Edna Bay kids” on the planet and I like to think that our shared culture and experiences make us more like expatriate cousins from a bizarre and miniscule country, than like former neighbors. I’m thrilled to introduce you to my friend, Mariah Warren.

Mariah Warren was born and raised in Alaska, and though work and wanderlust have sent her to far corners of the planet, she still makes her home on the Last Frontier. A lifetime of journaling, as well as non-fiction articles, short stories, and freelance editing, kept her pen busy through years spent primarily under way. In the winter of 2012-2013, ashore after the violent loss of a fishing vessel, a longer piece of writing was conceived: Gray Dawn Breaking, a novel about Alaska, the ocean, and events which permanently alter our perceptions of the world and of ourselves.

Please tell us a bit about what you write and why dialog is important in your work.

First of all, thanks for inviting me to be part of this series! I love writing dialogue, reading great dialogue, and dialoguing about dialogue. Now that I've worn that word out....The majority of my writing has been in the non-fiction realm: journaling, travel writing, essays. About a year ago, I started on a project which turned into a novel-length fiction manuscript. All of a sudden, dialogue was of paramount importance! For me, listening to a character speak is the single most honest view into who that person is. I've also found that my practice in writing this fiction work has given me more confidence to use dialogue in non-fiction writing. It can be tempting to summarize what was said in a given situation, but actual conversation is often more informative AND more interesting.

Listening is an integral piece of "people watching". Do you "people listen" automatically, or do you make a deliberate effort?
Oh, I can't even help it! Having grown up in a rural environment, with very few people around, I sometimes think I failed to develop some sort of filter that would allow me to ignore other people talking. This is occasionally annoying, but probably helps to keep my "dialogue reservoir" filled up to the top!

Humans exchange a lot of information paraverbally, that is, through intonation, pacing/rhythm, volume, and enunciation. What paraverbal cues are you most sensitive or tuned into as an author, an observer, and a participant?
Thank you for asking! This is absolutely one of the most interesting aspects of putting a conversation into written form. So, it's tempting to constantly describe what I'm imagining of the conversation: whether something was said abruptly, sharply, condescendingly, lovingly...the way he quirked his brow, the way she jutted her get the idea! Unfortunately, unless the piece in question is a screenplay with actor instructions, too much of that business just ends up looking overwrought and amateur-ish. So this is what I'm always looking for, in writing dialogue: the distinct and telling detail. Assuming I've done my job with characterization, assuming the plot is coherent and the relationships between characters somewhat clear, too much detail shouldn't be necessary. We don't need: "I can't believe your father died," Beauregard said sadly (or even, 'Beauregard lamented.' Classier, but still superfluous). I want to see the scene, and look for the cues that I would pick up if I were present. Maybe:
"I can't believe your father died." Beauregard's eyes shone with tears when he finally looked up. Lavinia slipped her hand into his, and they sat that way for a long time, in perfect silence.

Do you enjoy writing dialog? Is there anything about writing dialog that you find challenging?

I do love writing dialogue. It gives me a chance to really watch my characters in action, to hear what they have to say. Like children, even if the writer brings them into the world, they develop minds of their own very quickly!
As I mentioned, I do work at expressing what I see in those moments without overwhelming the reader with detail. I love my characters, I see them so clearly, and I just want to tell you every little-bitty detail of how cute, clever, evil, or sincere they can be! But, to return to the parenthood analogy, not everyone wants to hear all about the adorable face Junior makes when he's on the potty. No one will ever know my characters with the intimacy I do, and I remind myself that it's okay. Dialogue is a window to character, and we as writers get to choose how much the readers see. We must, in fact, decide how much they want or need to see.

What have you learned about yourself and your relationships by observing real life & fictional dialog?

In writing dialogue, the writer has to very closely observe the interactions taking place. Most people realize that in a conversation, more than just words are being exchanged. I've talked a bit about how I try to describe the interlocutors during their time on the proverbial stage, but this goes deeper into the scene--into what I see, when I picture these characters talking. It forces me to really consider how meaning is communicated: the looks, intonations, and word choices that reveal the feelings beneath. This serves as a reminder in my daily life that no matter what I say, I can't expect to rely on words alone. A fight could be laid to rest with the words, "I hate this." The end of a relationship could start with, "I love you."

Do you have any characters with catchphrases or verbal habits? What are they? How do these personal quirks add depth to your characters?

There's a character in Gray Dawn who's a bit of a codger...he's seen a lot of changes in eighty-odd years, and isn't entirely convinced of their worth. He tends to speak of these developments in mild malapropisms, in such a way that it's not entirely clear whether he's mocking technological progress, making fun of himself, or truly doesn't understand contemporary lingo. He is a very humorous and intelligent man, so it's fun to keep the reader (and, admittedly, myself) a little off-balance in this regard. An example:
"It's no secret or anything. It was all in the papers last summer--you could find out at the library, or on the...computers. In the net. Someone told me they read all about it, 'on line.' " He shook his head, the silvery fluff of his hair floating gently. "Can find just about anything there, I guess. We all think we have secrets, but they're probably posted up somewhere or other."

Do your characters ever interrupt, cross-talk or change the subject? Do you use communication interference in your dialog? Why/Why not?

I probably use these examples of interference much less frequently than they actually occur in daily life. Partly, this is because a written conversation is necessarily more concise and to the point. Our page count is finite. Readers would get bored; if you don't believe me, try reading a transcribed conversation (even an interesting one). Additionally, it is a quirk of my personality that I am deeply irked by these habits in real life. If I'm trying to say something, and I've thought it carefully through, being interrupted halfway is very frustrating. Maybe not ballpoint-pen-to-the-jugular enraging, but enough to maybe enact a teeny little stage play in some dusty back auditorium of my brain. Possibly featuring ballpoint pens. Likewise cross-talk, or a subject changed before its time. For these reasons, I usually save interference for times of tension in my writing; the speakers are angry, or desperate, or in a tremendous hurry. I guess I might use these habits to illustrate a character who was intended to be obnoxious, but so far I haven't invented that person!

Please share with us a dialog gem that you've recently overheard or participated in. What do you think makes this dialog interesting?

Okay, second-hand. My friend Leilani was recently on a flight grounded by poor weather, and spent over an hour as the unwilling audience to a man in the next row. He talked non-stop, alternating between his hapless seat-mates and his cell phone. Every word was negative, and he presented himself as an expert on airplane mechanics, airport procedures, and even weather patterns. When they were finally preparing for takeoff, she heard him say: "I have to go now--we're gonna try and take off. Thank gawd people can't talk on phones in-flight--can you imagine anything more annoying? It would be worse than a loud kid in the plane. It would be worse than those seat-mates who can't seem to shut up." This dialog gem is both hilarious and valuable. It illustrates the personality of this anonymous blowhard, and ultimately makes him the butt of his own accidental joke. Perfect.

That’s hilarious and cringe-worthy. For his sake, I hope it was a stunt or homework for an Abnormal Behavior class.

Please share with us a dialog gem from your own writing. (If published, please share the title & link to purchase site.) What do you think makes this dialog interesting?

In the following excerpt, a primary character speaks of his parents' unconventional relationship. It's from Gray Dawn Breaking, which isn't published yet, but thanks for asking! I like this fragment because it was from a writing moment in which I felt very connected to the characters. It also illustrates Lander's soft-spoken but astute way of observing the world.
She couldn't help asking the question on her mind. "Do you think they were in love, or did they come together out of love for you?"
Lander's eyes flicked back to hers, then away. "I remember he called her 'my little lady,' and brushed her hair in the evenings. He must have been the only man who ever made her feel dainty. She taught him how to clean a fish, sharpen a hook, how to steer the boat close to the rocks, where the big king salmon hide. She gave him every piece of the life she loved so much, but when he put them all together, the picture he saw was quite different. When he left in the autumn she would never cry, but would stand on the dock and watch the float plane until it disappeared into the clouds. They used to hug with me held between them, hanging around one of their necks until the pressure of their chests was so strong, I could let go and just be held there. I don't know any good definition of love, in words. But that felt like love. It felt like enough."

Is there anything else about observing and writing dialog that you’d like to add?

For observing dialogue, whether real or fictional, I just try to watch and listen with great awareness for those telling details. I consider what is going on in the conversation, other than just the words, and what exactly clued me in to those subtexts.
When I'm writing, I try to vividly visualize the scene. I'm just a sneaky eavesdropper, and I set the characters in a space together and let them go at it. I'm like a non-interfering referee.
Hello, character one. Hello, character two. You've met, and then some. I know you both, and you know each other. Here's the situation. Now, go for it!

Find Mariah at: 
Of The Sea

If you’re an author and interested in participating in this blog series, please contact me at to discuss scheduling (I have openings in April) and other details.

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