“Write what you know” an adage made manifest OR How Mary really, really struggled to record French today.

So, I’m recording Glamour in Glass right now and I’m struck by the differences in my recording times when I’m comfortable with the language and when I’m not. I narrated the first four chapters, 68 pages, in about two hours. Then we hit Chapter 5, in the book this is “Travel and a Little Napoleon.” In this chapter, I decided to go all period authentic and have sections written in actual French.

Back in 1815, when the book is set, people assumed that you could read more than one language and would just use the appropriate language instead of needing to come up with some weird device to help your poor English-only audience understand. I figured since my main character Jane was in a situation where she couldn’t understand French, that I would just throw the actual sentences down on the page.

Since I don’t speak French at all — an important point later — I wrote the conversation in English and then asked Aliette de Bodard to translate them for me. She was a great choice because she’s a wonderful fantasy writer and French. Handy.

Until, of course, I realized that I was recording the audio book and don’t speak any French at all.  I don’t even have a particularly good French accent.

So the first four chapters? Set in London.

Chapter 5, which has all those lovely French sentences, took me an hour and a half to record. That’s 20 pages.

When we got to each of the sentences, I had recordings provided by Aliette and Philip Halin of the sentences. Why two different recordings? Oh… Well, because the book is set in Binche, in Belgium and I have both Parisian natives and French speaking Belgians. Aliette is Parisian and Philip speaks French with a Belgian accent. Granted, I could have gotten away with just the Parisian one but since I had access to both why not use them? I mean, aside from the fact that it made this harder or, oh, because I screwed myself by actually specifying, in the text, that the French there is a dialect.

And THEN as if the narrator Mary didn’t enough reason to hate the writer Mary, one of the characters is specified, in the text, as speaking very quickly.

What in the razzle-frackin’ tarnation was I thinking?

I mean… if I could say this stuff slowly I might have had a fighting chance but noooooo…

Much of the audio session actually sounded like this.

Basically, I would read until I hit French, and then we’d play the recording for ONE SENTENCE, which I would then try to duplicate. I had taken time to write down the phonetics for each sentence already, but that tells you nothing about flow.

After several takes, we’d do ONE sentence, and repeat until I got to a stretch of English. Or until we go to stretches where Jane was supposed to be speaking French and I could deliberately mangle the language. Those sentences I did not require instruction on.

We finished that chapter and then took a break because I was exhausted.

Then I did three more chapters in an hour and a half.

Without a Summer, I’ll have you know, is set in London. Valour and Vanity is set in Venice and the only languages that appear in it are English, Italian, and German — all of which I have taken.

What this really is though is a manifestation of the adage “Write what you know.” When writing outside my comfort zone, it  is harder to write and takes a lot longer to educate myself to the point that I can write without the effort showing, just as some of the sentences I recorded today were pronounced correctly but had the leaden sound of something learned by rote.

“Write what you know” shouldn’t be a proscription against writing outside the comfort zone, but it should be a warning that there will be a cost to doing it. In the case of the recording, I think the struggle today was worth it but I won’t actually know until people start listening to the audio book. I might just be showing my ass by having really terrible French.

With fiction, when I write outside the comfort zone, sometimes I show my ass by failing in different ways but I think the effort is still worth it.

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8 Responses

  1. Diatryma

    You’ve given me sudden insight as to why I cannot find affordable audiobooks of Dorothy Dunnett. After a key chapter, I vowed never to put an important plot point in French.

  2. Katya

    Sooo, I guess this means you’re scrapping that scene in the next book with the time-traveling Navajo code talkier? 😉

  3. Amanda J

    (New comment system?)

    It’s not just period books. I’m reading a couple biographies of George III right now, and his daughters sent him letters in French, which the authors cheerfully quote. In French. And I, having taken choir and Spanish, mumble my way through them: “Dear Papa…. thanks (for something) something something my whole heart something something yours, Elizabeth,” and I have no idea what point they are emphasizing in the text. Ach.

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal

      (Yes. Disqus kept delaying comments and sometimes I couldn’t get in to moderate. I got annoyed and went back to the native system)

      Maybe the authors assumed that since you are reading about George III you must be as well educated as his contemporaries?

      1. Amanda J


        Would that I were! Of course, if I were, I don’t know that I would need to read a popular history book on the subject, having access, in my great and varied education, to many more original sources than one can find at John Q Public Library.

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