Death by Dissertation
Genre: Cozy Mystery
Publisher: Emerald Prairie Press
Date of Publication: April 17, 2019
Number of Pages: 355
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Ambitious Cassandra Sato traded her life in Hawai’i for a dream position as Student Affairs VP at Morton College in tiny Carson, Nebraska. She expected the Midwestern church casseroles, land-locked cornfields, and face-freezing winters would be her biggest challenges, but it’s her job that’s rapidly becoming a nightmare. A deaf student is dead and the investigation reveals a complicated trail of connections between campus food service, a local farmer’s beef, and the science lab’s cancer research. Together with her few allies, Cassandra must protect the students caught up in the entanglement. Dealing with homesickness, vandalism, and a stalker, Cassandra is trapped in a public relations disaster that could cost her job, or more. No one said college was easy.
Is anyone else having a hard time keeping up with all the ways writers convey dialogue in their books? If two people are in the same room having a conversation in person, we have quotation marks and “he said” or “she said” tags to help us follow along. But what if one of those people is on their phone and texting another person at the same time? Then a phone rings and a separate conversation starts from there. . .
Since Death by Dissertation was my first book, I faced this problem in early drafts. Not only are people speaking in person, on the phone, by text and email, there are also deaf characters in the book who use American Sign Language.
To make it even more complicated, sometimes there’s an interpreter speaking the ASL into English for the people in the room who don’t understand sign language. If we were all watching a movie, that could be handled by using subtitles, but I struggled to make that all clear without confusing or irritating readers.
I haven’t even mentioned social media posts or emails. Or what if someone is SHOUTING? Or a word needs emphasis?
I remember reading books where the story unfolded as letters or emails back and forth over years of a relationship. It was beautiful and seems old-fashioned now.
How does a writer show all these different types of communication without making readers’ eyes cross? We need to understand how the dialogue is happening but do we want ten different fonts, bold, italics and indents to indicate what type of message is being delivered?
If a writer gets it wrong, readers at best are scratching our heads trying to guess who said what to whom and how. At worst, we get annoyed by all the different typefaces and put the book down.
In an early draft, I used
indented type to show a text message.
I used italics to show when someone was using ASL. But when Cassandra Sato, my main character had a thought in her head, I also used italics to show those moments.
It was a hot mess. And a kindly early reader pointed out to me that in the end, it’s all dialogue. My solution was to treat everything someone said as dialogue with quotation marks. Then I went through the entire manuscript and made sure I identified what type of communication the person used before the quotation marks.
Like this for a text:
Meg’s text pinging on her phone served as Cassandra’s Sunday morning alarm: “Your place @6:30 tonight before the memorial service?”
Cassandra fluffed her pillow and replied: “Did you just invite yourself over for dinner?”
Meg quickly responded: “Too obvious?”
This is what it looks like when a deaf character signs:
There was a pause while Lance looked around in bewilderment. When he signed, the interpreter spoke his signs in English. “He was asleep in his bed when I went down to eat breakfast. When I came back to the room, he was gone.”
I did keep the italics for times when Cassandra is thinking to herself or wanted to emphasize a word.
Cassandra tried to read his expression for clues. He’s taking a long time to answer.
When Meg signs ASL and speaks English at the same time, it looks like this:
Meg interjected, signing while she spoke. “That’s her job, Deputy Kobza.”
I’m curious to know what others think about showing dialogue. Have you ever stopped reading a book because the type formatting was too confusing? How do you prefer to read different types of communication when you’re reading a novel.
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