Today it is my pleasure to welcome author Caroline Pignat on her blog tour for her new book. Unspeakable is “a heart-wrenching, beautifully written story based on a forgotten Canadian maritime tragedy that rivals the Titanic disaster.” It tells the story of Ellie, a stewardess aboard the ill-fated Empress of Ireland in 1914. It is a story of hope, faith, secrets and love. (My review can be read here.)
The reader is told the story of Unspeakable through several voices: through Ellie’s narration, through her love Jim’s journal, and through a reporter’s notes. For her guest post, I asked Caroline to discuss finding and creating her character’s voices. Welcome, Caroline!
I love fiction told in multiple voices. It fascinates me to see things from another person’s perspective. Writing multiple voices, however, can be a challenge. Each voice is another main character, really, and must be as thoroughly developed to be believable.
My first novel, EGGHEAD, shows bullying through the POV the friend of the bully and the friend of the target as well as diary entries of the target. It was really interesting to write the same scenario through opposing views. I still get many letters and emails from young readers who relate to one specific character—though not all are relating to the same character. I guess multiple voices give them multiple ways to enter the story. Had I only written it from the victim’s POV, it may not have connected with as many readers.
When writing historical in first person or multiple voices, the same holds true, with the added challenge of making sure the characters are historically accurate. There should be ways they think, speak or act that are specific to their time period and culture and yet not so “different” that today’s reader can’t relate. I think the key is feelings. The emotions are what are universal and timeless. Readers know grief, loss, jealousy, or betrayal—they can relate to the feelings even if they have never experienced those exact circumstances.
I wanted to write Jim and Ellie in alternating chapters telling their experiences on the ship, but the factual events of the sinking made that nearly impossible. Unlike the Titanic which had been at sea for several days and took several hours to sink, the Empress had just left port earlier that day, it was struck in the middle of the night and sank in 14 minutes. There was no time to do alternating POV or develop much drama if I wrote it chronologically. While researching at the archives, I held some tattered journals recovered from the wreckage and it fascinated me to wonder if their author had survived. That’s when I knew Jim’s voice would come through on the pages of his journal.
Caroline Pignat is the award-winning author of four critically acclaimed YA novels, including Egghead, a Red Maple Honour book, and Greener Grass, the 2009 Governor General’s Award winner. A high-school teacher, she lives in Ottawa.