Q Is for Quotes

“Quotes” is short for either “quotations” or “quotation marks.” They are related, so we’ll deal with both of them here. While we’re at it, we might say a few things about dialogue, even though it begins with d, not q.

So: quotations. A quotation consists of words — one word, a few words, or many words — from a source other than you. For writers of academic nonfiction, these sources are often published or unpublished written works. The source for each quote has to be noted, in fairly excruciating detail, in a footnote or endnote. Then the works and manuscript collections (etc.) consulted must be listed in a bibliography or reference list. (Aside: These are not the same thing, but we’re not going into the differences here. If you’re interested, leave a comment or consult the Chicago Manual of Style.)

Working journalists — reporters on the ground — also rely on quotations from other sources, but their sources are often living breathing real people. These days they may be able to record what their sources say, but this is not always possible. In the not-too-distant past it was almost never possible. Reporters scribbled notes in their notebooks and then, often under deadline pressure, reconstructed their notes into a quote that was then attributed to a source. (You begin to understand one reason why sources often choose to be quoted “off the record”?)

Plenty of essential nonfiction these days is written by journalists who’ve done their initial research on the ground and then been able to step back from day-to-day deadline pressure, explore the connections among the stories they’ve reported, and provide context for them. I recently read an excellent example of this: Seyward Darby’s Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism.

Isabel Wilkerson’s brilliant Warmth of Other Suns began as on-the-ground reporting and grew into an indispensable, Pulitzer Prize–winning work of U.S. history, and one that has had and continues to have profound effects on how we USians understand our past.

Whether written by academics or by journalists like Darby and Wilkerson, these books depend for their credibility on their sources, whether manuscripts or published works or interviews or works in other media. Hence the importance of citations: it should be possible for readers to verify both the accuracy of those sources and the author’s care in quoting them. The overwhelming majority of readers won’t do this, of course, but the knowledge that there’s a paper trail that could be followed tends to inspire confidence.

Writers of what’s often called “creative nonfiction” (note the use of quotation marks there, eh?) use quotations too, but they generally aren’t held to the same standard as academics and journalists. The author of a memoir may use quotation marks in recounting dialogue recollected from childhood, but the savvy reader will probably assume that the conversation has been reconstructed from memory and is therefore, at best, inexact.

I worry, though, about less savvy readers, and about those to whom the quotes are attributed (if they’re still alive, which they often aren’t), and about everyone close enough to the situation to have their own memories of the people involved. I’m old school enough to expect that in nonfiction quotation marks indicate at least an attempt to replicate a conversation or speech as it happened — unless, of course, the author has noted that memory is notoriously tricky and s/he has taken liberties in reconstructing remembered dialogue. Some authors do indeed note this. On the other hand, a few years ago I copyedited a memoir in which the (experienced, much-published) author noted in an afterword that two of the relatives in his story had been invented out of whole cloth. One of them had been my favorite character, and she didn’t even exist? I was shocked. I felt betrayed.

In my opinion, recreating imperfectly recalled dialogue, even inventing it to show how a particular situation developed, is OK if and only if you level with readers about what you’re up to. Once you start inventing characters, however, you’re writing fiction. Call it a fictionalized memoir if you wish, but please don’t pass it off as a memoir.

Fiction writers use dialogue to reveal character and the relationships among characters, and to move the plot along. Fictional dialogue isn’t sourced with footnotes or endnotes, but good writers are often listening for what their characters say, trying to get it right.

So it’s not surprising that, in English at least, quotations and dialogue are punctuated in pretty much the same way. In American English (AmE), double quote marks are used for both, and quotes within quotes are set off with single quotation marks. British English (BrE) does the reverse — single, then double — although British newspapers often follow the U.S. style. Other languages may treat quotations and dialogue differently. French, for instance, uses guillemets (« and ») for the former and em dashes (—) to introduce the latter.

In AmE, commas and periods go inside the close quote: So do question marks and exclamation points if they’re part of the quote. If they’re not, as sometimes happens if you’ve got a quote within a quote, they may go outside the single close quote and inside the double close quote. Like this: “Do you believe,” said Georgia, “that she really said ‘I’ll be here by six’?”

BrE puts commas and periods (known in BrE as full stops) outside the quote marks unless they’re part of the quotation. As an AmE editor who occasionally edits in BrE, I can manage this pretty well, but I look stuff up a lot more in BrE than I do in AmE (and in AmE I look up stuff a lot) and no way am I going to try to explain it here.

Quotation marks are like HTML: An open quote has to be paired with a close quote. This goes for both double and single quotes. The big exception is that when you have a quote, such as a speech, that goes on continuously for more than one paragraph, each paragraph has to begin with an open quote but the only close quote you need is at the very end. I emphasize that continuously because these lengthy quotations can’t be interrupted by “he said” or “she wrote” or anything else. Once they’re interrupted, they’re no longer continuous.

Got that?

Just do me a favor, please, and don’t be inventing characters from your past and calling what you’re writing a memoir. Thank you.

M Is for Memoir

You don’t need a dictionary to tell you that “memoir” is closely related to “memory,” and you don’t need a best-seller list to tell you that memoirs — some of them, at least — are wildly popular. Put that together with the well-worn advice to “write what you know” — what do you know better than your own life, and who knows it better than you? — and hey, why not write a memoir?

Why not indeed?

If you’ve given it a try, you’ve probably discovered that it’s harder than it looks. The challenges inherent in other kinds of writing don’t disappear when you’ve taken your own life as your subject. Structure. Focus. Transitions. Laying down one sentence after another till you get to where you’re going — wherever that is.

You’ll almost certainly discover that some significant incidents in your life didn’t happen when you thought they did, or even where you thought they did. If you consult others who were around at the time — not a bad idea, if they’re still around and if you can do it in reasonable safety both to you and to them — you might find that they didn’t happen the way you remember them either. Others may remember them differently. This doesn’t mean that you’ve got it wrong, only that your version is one of several that may duplicate, complement, or even contradict each other.

Think of what goes down in a courtroom. Witnesses see the same event from different perspectives. They hear the same words spoken but come away with different interpretations, depending on what they know of the speaker and how they remember what was said.

Writing a memoir, you’re not only the eyewitness, you’re the attorney for both prosecution and defense, as well as the judge and jury. It’s not an adversarial process exactly, but be prepared to ask yourself questions that make you uncomfortable.

I didn’t set out to write a memoir, but that seems to be what I’m doing. Memoirs are often written by people who’ve done great things, or taken part in momentous events, or had extraordinary things happen to them. None of these things apply to me.

One of my very first T-shirts, from the campaign to ratify the Massachusetts Equal Rights Amendment, 1976

Well, OK, I have taken part in momentous and otherwise interesting events but usually on the peripheries. And in 1976, the year I turned 25, I started collecting T-shirts from those events. Except that I wasn’t collecting them the way collectors collect things. I was mainly adding to my wardrobe. T-shirts were colorful and cheap. They said something about me that I was pleased to have said.

At some point, maybe when I counted my T-shirts and realized I had over a hundred of them, I said “No more T-shirts.” I said it several times more over the years. When I counted my T-shirts this past winter, I had 190 so you know how that went.

For my 50th birthday party in June 2001 I hung 25 or 30 of my shirts up in the living room. People liked them. They asked questions. I told stories about where I’d got them. That was probably where I first thought that I could do more with my T-shirts than wear them.

But it was almost 20 years before, earlier this year, I launched The T-Shirt Chronicles, a memoir disguised as a blog or maybe a blog disguised as a memoir. I’m 10 posts in and I still haven’t got out of the 1970s. Come check it out and follow if you’re so inclined.

A couple dozen T-shirts hanging on two clotheslines
A selection from the collection

It’s a Bouncing Baby Blog!

I just launched my long-fantasized-and-procrastinated-about blog about my ridiculously large T-shirt collection!! Which keeps growing despite my repeated attempts to put a cap on it.

You can find it at https://the-t-shirt-chronicles.com/. Please let me know what you think, because it’s very much a work in progress.

And yes, I realize that I haven’t posted to Write Through It in more than two years. The longer it goes, the more embarrassed I get, and the more embarrassed I get, the more reluctant I am to post. Anyway, it’s been an eventful couple of years, and the last year has probably been the strangest of my life. Yours too, I bet?

I’m one of the lucky ones who’s been able to work pretty normally despite the pandemic. Since I’d been working full-time from home for two decades already, in some ways not much changed. In other ways — well, if you’d told me on 1 January 2020 that by mid-March I’d be living on Zoom, I wouldn’t have had a clue what you were talking about. So I’m back, I will be posting here again, but meanwhile, do check out the new blog.

Make Your Memoir’s “Characters”—Yes, Those Real Ones—More Real to the Reader

Characterization was a stumbling block in two fiction manuscripts I critiqued recently. One was a novelized memoir — a novel closely based on the life of the author’s best friend from childhood. The other, also a novel, took more liberties with “real life,” but the two main characters were stand-ins for the author and her longtime partner. Both authors had a ways to go before their characters came to life for the reader. This blog post offers great tips for making this happen, whether or not your characters are, or are based on, real people.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

Shuly Cawood author picBy Shuly X. Cawood

Once upon a time, I read a fantastic graphic memoir by Roz Chast about a daughter and her parents. From the moment one opens Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? the characters of the author’s mother and father jump off the page.  Even on page one, the author is showing us how her parents argued, giving us a sample of her parents’ dialogue and showcasing some of their quirks. These techniques are exactly the kind that hook a reader into a story because if a reader cares about a character, the reader wants to know what’ll happen to the character—and thus will read on.

It doesn’t matter whether the characters are real people: They all require development, just as fictional characters do. But not all memoirists think about this or know how to do this well. I certainly didn’t as I started to write my…

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Three Reasons I Could Stop Writing Memoir But Won’t

Here’s an eloquent example of “write what you need to write” (part of a truth I stole from Alice Walker). Your writing will tell you what you need to know, but you have to be willing to listen, and brave enough to follow.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

zz ronitBy Ronit Feinglass Plank

I had been writing fiction and wanted to try nonfiction, so I began with personal essays. I didn’t think memoir was for me; in fact I was deliberately avoiding it. I didn’t see a reason to revisit the facts of my confusing childhood and thought memoir wouldn’t be as challenging as creating a world from scratch and putting characters in it. To tell my own story, the story I knew by heart, seemed almost too easy.

I could not have been more wrong. I was about to discover that looking at something you think you know pretty well with fresh eyes and trying to understand it in a new way is definitely not easy. I did try writing several personal essays but the history of how I grew up kept barging in, taking up more and more space. It seemed part of me really wanted to…

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The Lovely Bones: Structure In Memoir

This blog post is about writing a memoir, but as a writer whose fiction doesn’t follow a “tried-and-true” plot structure, I find its advice very helpful. Maybe you will too.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

A Halloween-themed blog post from Janice Gary:

GHOSTSYou could say I’m a ghostwriter. All memoirists are. We commune with the spirits of the past, inhabit old haunts, sift through the bones of the people we once were (and once knew) in an attempt to reanimate what was and illuminate what is.

Our ghosts are real. Or at least as real as we remember them. One thing we cannot do is make stuff up. And we don’t need to. We have more than enough material to conjure life on the page. But that’s part of the problem. What do you do with it all – all that experience, all that emotion?  What spooks those of us who write from life the most is this dilemma: how to wrangle this vast, unwieldy life of ours into a well-shaped story.

Fiction writers have the old tried and true (and yes, trite) basic plot triangle…

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