On left, reading Spear, photo by Kelley Eskridge, and on the right, reading So Lucky, photo by Eric Johnson

Image description: Two photos of the same short-haired white woman sitting in front of hideously expense-looking microphones in two different sound studios. On the left, she wears a grey cashmere sweater, headphones around her neck, and is looking directly at the camera. On the right she sits before an iPad placed on a music stand which is covered with sound-deadening old carpet. To one side is a wheelchair and a small table. She’s wearing headphones and a tee-shirt printed with a tangle of charging cords that look like an electric jellyfish, and is looking to one side at someone off-camera.

In a comment Simon asks:

Something I found very special about Spear was listening to you voice the audiobook. I seem to remember you saying in an interview or maybe here on your website that you pushed hard to be the audiobook narrator. To my ears at least, you were wonderful to listen to, and your thoughts on reading to your audience would be great to hear

And over on Facebook Cat asks:

How was that audiobook narration experience? Would you do it again?

The short answers are: fabulous, loved it, and absolutely. But I’m guessing you’dlike more detail.

I’ve narrated two of my books now, So Lucky and Spear. Both times were great experiences, but in very different ways. So Lucky was my first time (read Recording the So Lucky audiobook for more on that) whereas with Spear I felt confident.

What follows is a lot of detail (taken from other blog posts)—but if detail isn’t what you want, skip directly to the section labelled ‘ ‘All the Feels’.


With So Lucky, set in contemporary Atlanta, I didn’t have to worry about pronunciations or (with one exception) accents. Spear, on the other hand, is set in 6th-century Wales, with Primitive and/or Old Welsh (standing in for Brythonic), Primitive and/or Old Irish, and Asturian dialogue, names, and general vocabulary, not to mention the Old French, Middle High German, and Old English words in the Author’s Note.

I decided early on that there was no point trying to figure out how real really early Welsh would have sounded, so I substituted modern Welsh. Ditto for Primitive/Old Irish to modern Irish. The Astures of northern Spain supposedly used a p-Celtic language very similar to Brythonic, so for that accent I just used a very light and precise version of modern Welsh (much as a northern Spaniard fluent in modern English might sound today). Then I made a list of words and phrases I’d have to get right; it came to 73.

So then I sent the list to the Macmillan producer and said, Help! Three weeks later I had over seventy individual sound files of flawless pronunciation from native speakers. I listened to them over and over, until I was confident I could pronounce them correctly. Then (because I’m not familiar enough with the IPA—International Phonetic Alphabet—symbol system) I had to figure out my own system of writing them down phonetically.1 Here’s what that looked like:

Then I started marking up the text itself. Here’s an example of the markup of an early page.

However, just because I know precisely how to pronounce a thing doesn’t mean that I should. To take a modern example, the French pronunciation of Paris sounds perfectly fine when a Frenchwoman in France is using it, but if an American pronounces it that way during a conversation in a sports bar it sounds ridiculous. And of course working folk never pronounce things the same way nobility do—every class has its own accent. How then would a 6th-century Greek quartermaster/military logician speaking Welsh pronounce something? Or a Briton with a northern accent? On top of that, I had to think about how to differentiate people of the same class, and then fold gender into the mix. It all took a while to sort out but by the time I arrived at the studio I was ready!

Except, of course, no plan survives contact with the director…


When you narrate an audiobook it’s not just you and a microphone. It’s you in a locked, soundproof room before a microphone, with an engineer in the mixing booth behind glass, and a director from New York on Zoom audio—with all three audio feeds mixed into your headphones. The engineer for this project was Joel Maddox. His job was to make sure I sounded good—to use the right microphone in the right position and hooked into the right interface at the right setting; to point out and note on his iPad for the editor if he hears any extraneous noise—weird feedback, a belly growl, clicky mouth noise, a faint thud of my hand pounding on my thigh during an emotive moment (oops)—and to note, too, whenever I stopped.

My director was Caitlin Davies. I think I was pretty lucky to get her. She’s not only an award-winning voice actor and narrator herself but also a theatre director and a very experienced audio director—her work has been nominated for and won a variety of awards. I learnt a lot. The book you will eventually hear will be orders of magnitude better than anything I could have done on my own.

The first thing we did was decide on method. There are two basic ways to record narration. One is free roll, where the narrator just reads, stops when they make a mistake, back up to the nearest clean punctuation break—a full stop, a comma—and starts again, all without stopping the recording. The other is punch and roll, which is to actually wind back the recording to the bad word/phrase (doesn’t have to be punctuated) and punch in to record at the right moment. I plumped for free roll: it’s quicker, easier, and much less tiring.

On that first Wednesday, I began pretty confidently and we rolled along seamlessly—until Caitlin said, Good, now you’re in it. Let’s go back to the beginningGive me a storyteller’s voice. I thought I had been. I tried again. Faster, she said. And then *click* there it was: That smooth, warm, lean-in-and-listen note I realised had been missing. And now I was excited! This was going to sound awesome!

We cracked right along. Then we started getting to multiple character voices. I’d spent some time figuring out accents and tones and weights to differentiate people—only it turned out Caitlin thought some of it didn’t work, particularly the women. So I had to go back and work out different voices. It was a bit unsettling; I wasn’t sure these women sounded the way I imagined them. But Caitlin was the director with the vision, so I followed her lead.

The rest of the session went well. The only problem was the heat in the studio, or lack of it. By the time we finished—at 1:00 pm, ahead of schedule—I was frozen in place. My hands were purple and my leg muscles utterly spastic. I asked Joel to please, pretty please crank the heat early the next day so it would be warm when we began. I went home full of energy.

Thursday was hard. The studio was warmer, but every time I read a couple of sentences my voice would crack and scratch and I’d cough. It turned out the heat had kicked up dust and other particles. I’m wicked allergic to dust, also to tree pollen, and February is the start of pollen season. Day Two was sheer bloody stubbornness on my part, and patience and sympathetic-but-hard-task-masterliness on Caitlin’s. Again and again she said, No, go back to the beginning of the paragraph, and I would. Or, Now go back to the beginning of the scene, with more energy. And I did. The last page took fifteen minute because I could hardly manage a phrase without coughing. It was brutal. By 1:00 pm I was toast; I couldn’t read another sentence.

Because of a conflicting gig on Friday—I was delivering Opening Remarks for the Annual Historical Fictions Research Network Conference in Salzburg—we had scheduled a 3-day break from recording and planned to return on Monday and finish Tuesday.

Monday I went in wondering how it would go: brilliant, like Wednesday or brutal, like Thursday? It turned out to be brilliant: fast, smooth, easy, and exciting. It felt as though we’d hardly started when *boom* we were done. It was only 12:30. As I blinked and shut down my iPad, Caitlin warned me there might have to be a pick-up session once the editors had worked on it and found those swallowed words or odd noises the three of us in the studio had missed. But, woo hoo, I was done! I was tired but happy.

All the feels

I finished recording Spear at lunch time on a glittery bright day, and despite Covid Kelley and I decided to risk going to the pub for a pint—my first pint of Guinness for four months. It tasted wonderful and I felt wonderful. So I had another.

It’s hard to describe how reading this book felt. It would be easy to say it felt Amazing or Marvellous or Wonderful, and it would be true, but it’s not the whole story or perhaps not the real story. Reading Spear felt right. It felt sure. It felt as though it was meant to be. Am I the world’s best narrator? No. Am I the world’s best narrator for this book? Yes.

From the moment I wrote the first sentence of the story that grew into Spear I knew this book was different. Each sentence purled out, free and joyous, absolutely and unselfconsciously one with itself. It felt almost ecstatic, as close to a perfect writing experience as I might ever get. I knew how it would feel to read it aloud, how it would sound. It felt incantatory, and there’s something about the particular rhythm matched to the kind of words I was using to try to evoke the living wildness of nature that… Ah, and now this may well sound extreme—overboard and possibly even grandiose—but if you really want to know how it felt to read Spear aloud to an imaginary audience then you’ll just have to accept it: it felt like worship. I don’t mean adoration and obedience but that feeling you get at a huge arena gig (or, yes, in a full church) when the whole crowd is swaying and singing and giving it up, giving over solitariness and apartness and riding the sound of the human voice up, up into a communion of love and joy offered, received, shared and multiplied. That’s what it feels like—a communion. And that’s what finding just the right words to tell a story feels like, too, that possibility that someone you’ve never met—in a place you never been, and perhaps during a time you will never live to see—will one day read what you wrote and so know what you knew and feel what you felt. And that, when it comes down to it, I why I do this thing.

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1. My system wouldn’t work for others. For example I know in this context that when I write -alk, it means to use the guttural sound a bit like the one that comes at the end of loch, or the beginning of Hanukah—because /x/ wouldn’t mean much to me in the moment—though perhaps no one else would.