There is a love affair in writing that has nothing to do with character or story: a love of language.
Language is the musical scale of our art—the essence of our communication. We bring everything we have into the minds of others through words, with the sentences and paragraphs we create. And there is no smart way around that. Therefore, everything we create is dependent on the language we choose.
I was reminded of this again when I wrote Poison Makers, a novel set in the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Though I'd lived there for years and recalled enough Spanish to write with flavor, I realized early on that placing the reader into that culture required extra effort. My readers needed immersion in a culture and language they may never have experienced or imagined. Not only that, but they needed to be comfortable there, feel at one with the place and people they were about to meet through the language(s) I used and words chosen to tell the story.
Americans are avid travelers, viewing the world for a week or two from the windows of tour buses or poolside at the all-inclusive, and reclusive, tropical resort. But no such flash exposure can suffice to tell a good story. A cast of characters can't be gleaned from a few days talking to your waiter. Good stories consist of fictional people created from years of experience with real people in the culture where the writer is working. And they come alive through language.
In the beginning this novel seemed an easy task. I knew enough Spanish. I knew the culture, the people, the place. What I'd overlooked was that I needed to tell the story in English when much of it occurred in Spanish. The thoughts of the people in the story were in both languages—sometimes simultaneously—and I needed to add in some Haitians speaking Creole and practicing Voodoo in Creole. I'd have to explain that ancient black magic religion in English, Creole, and sometimes Spanish. Now it wasn't quite so simple, and by the time I had a few chapters in first draft, I thought it might be more fun to go fishing awhile instead.
Finally, I remembered that people tell a story, not authors. I'd been thinking about what I had to do to tell the story instead of allowing the people in the story to do it themselves, in their own words, in whatever language suited them at the time. After that my job was easier—listening, putting it all down.
The key to writing most fiction is the protagonist. Readers must connect with the main character. Some great writing never got off the pad because the main character was a dud, while other stories became classics because a key character was a fish—Moby Dick & The Old Man and the Sea, for example. The story must pull you in, of course, and often the place is so important that none of it could work in another setting. Imagine Jack London's famous short story "To Build a Fire" set in Hawaii instead of Alaska. So at the last minute I remembered to let my main character, a young Dominican-American, tell the story in his own words in both of the languages he spoke, Spanish and English.
That didn't solve all my problems, but went a long way in helping to manage them and create the believability so essential for a reader to accept what is happening in fiction as real experience. And it didn't hurt that I had a very clever daughter who is bilingual and worked with me on getting the language as truthfully rendered as possible.
I believe in story-telling and distrust "creative writing," but I can't imagine a good story poorly told. Language is important—well-chosen words are vital in stories spoken or written down. And sometimes if you just let the people in stories speak and think for themselves, the writer's job amounts to a kind of pleasing recollection. The hard work for me has always been finding the right words to describe a place that gripped me hard and held me fast. There may not be enough words in any language to perfectly accomplish that.
But if you can do it, that's art.