I recently finished listening to the Dark Peak audio books and, like quite a lot of folks, I absolutely adored the way that Nicola Victoria Vincent narrated them. When I wrote to her to do a bit of shameless fangirling, I asked whether she’d take part in a Q&A because I was fascinated by the whole recording process and I wanted to know more. She very kindly said yes and didn’t run a mile when I sent her a ton of questions.
I definitely owe her a brew for this…
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How did you end up as Bold Strokes’ go-to girl for British lesfic? How on earth did they find you?
I was simply looking on a site for audio books to narrate and happened to audition for a book Bold Strokes were producing. After I did the first one they gave me a shot with a few other titles that I ended up doing. So, right place right time, really. I was chuffed when I was given the Dark Peak Series. They told me they had some books set in Northern England and I thought, ooh great! I’m going to get the chance to do lots of accents I love. Then when I got the script and read the dialogue, I got excited because there are so many funny expressions and characters in there, I knew it was going to be so much fun to do.
How do you prepare to record an audio book? i.e. do you do multiple read-throughs of the text? Make notes on the novel itself? Draw some kind of intricate plan with lots of symbols and coloured codes?
Yeah, kind of. I start with a read to get a feel of the world of the story and the characters and their natures. Then I go through the story again chapter by chapter and make decisions about characters’ voices, based on the info gathered in the first read, and list when and where they appear. Then I record each voice in my voice memos on my phone. It’s really handy because it allows me to move about, improvise and get a feel for the character. Plus it’s an easy way to refresh my memory of how a character speaks. If, say, they’ve been in the first chapter and then we don’t hear them until chapter 6, I can do a quick check and get back to that character quickly and accurately without having to look through other recording sessions. So the voice memos app is my continuity tool.
I used to print the scripts out and put post it notes in different colours all over everything, but I was prone to getting it all in a muddle and it would take longer to find passages and use more ‘stuff’ than I needed to, so I do it all in notes on my laptop now. It’s much easier and quicker.
For how long do you have to rehearse and play around with the accents and characters before you finally hit the red button? (I like to think there’s a red button because I’m a child of the late 70s brought up with tape recorders!)
Ha! There is a red button! (YAY!) But it’s an on-screen one in pro tools.
When I start looking at a character, I start with the text and their journey from the beginning of the story to the end and look at what’s driving them through. I take a bit of time with each character. Some I find quicker than others because I might need to do more research, so how long can vary. I’ll improvise around a scene and the dialogue, hot seating the character. Y’know, asking them questions. I use the info in the script to talk about their background or home life, whatever is relevant. I ask things like, who are they? Where are they? Why? What do they want? Then get them to just chat about their life, their past, their opinions, home, work, hopes and dreams, every possible thing that’s in the script, and a bit of imagination too, based on what sort of person they seem to be emerging as.
By the time I start recording the book and I’ve made all the decisions about the way the character speaks and the quality of their voice, I can get back to that person quite quickly then. I think because I’ve improvised and moved about the house as them, it becomes a natural shift and one phrase can help me to ‘feel’ like them again. (Ha! I sound like a nut job, I know.) It’s important to get this ‘feel’ for a character, though, because in some scenes the voice will change depending on who they’re talking to and what they’re doing.
The books in the Dark Peak series have a large and varied cast. How the hell do you keep the characters in order? I can barely remember them all as I’m writing, so how do you remember which voice/accent you’re doing for which and manage to switch between them all so seamlessly? Are you secretly a magician?
Fun fact: I used to do a comedy magic act with a mate of mine called the The Trudy and Judy Show. I played Trudy the magician!
I knew it!
I keep track of the characters by listing them as they appear, and I make a brief synopsis of each chapter so I know where the next leg of the story is leading to and who drives it there. It’s a similar process to rehearsing scenes in a play.
I know you get some preliminary pointers from authors but are you otherwise left to your own devices in terms of dialogue delivery, pacing and tone? How much do you worry about getting stuff wrong and upsetting the author?
I do worry about getting it wrong. If I can ask the author about the characters, that makes the process easier and more accurate. Sometimes, though, I just have to guess. I always ask the production company for any character notes on accent, pace and tone. Sometimes I get them, sometimes I don’t. I try to imagine the world the writer has in mind and how they heard the characters. Sometimes it just clicks – I have an instinct for a character and I get a feel for the world the author has created. That could be for a number of reasons but mainly I think it’s easier when the character and the world they inhabit resonates with you. You just get them. Sometimes it takes more research and you have to make a leap.
My wife is tickled pink that you, like her, pronounce “scone” to rhyme with “gone” and not “bone”. Not a question. Just thought you’d like to know that she’s been smug as hell for weeks now.
Ha! Yes, and bath and path without an ‘R’ sound!
Oh no, she’s a southerner so she’d definitely put the “R” in barrrth!
Do you ever get embarrassed when you have to narrate explicit scenes? Or are you sitting with your feet up, having a cuppa and just getting on with it?
I don’t get embarrassed doing explicit scenes. I suppose my actor training must kick in. At drama school they made us do lots of quite intimate scenes and you get past any embarrassment and concentrate on conveying the emotions to the audience. One director used to fetch her dog, Sunday, to rehearsals. I remember doing a scene where my character was supposed to be in bed with another actor’s character, but we didn’t have the set at that point so we were on the floor, and at the point in the scene where we kissed, the dog came over and started licking us, and the director burst out into raucous laughter and said “Well, Sunday likes it!” So after that experience I feel perfectly comfortable creating the atmosphere of intimate scenes.
On that note – do you actually sit or stand up to record? Is it quite a static process or do you get so involved in a scene that you end up gesticulating along with the lines?
I can sit or stand and it’s good to have the option. With the long form jobs like audio books, when I’m in the booth for hours, I mainly sit. I say sit, I have a posture seat so I’m sort of knelt up. When I’m doing shorter jobs or character dialogue, though, say like when Sanne is chasing suspects, it’s good to stand. Whether I’m sitting or standing, I’m always gesticulating. When I’m talking in general I’m usually gesticulating!
The Dark Peak books have averaged about 8 hours length on audio, but how long would that take you to record? And how do you organise your sessions? “I’ll do this chapter and then have a break?” or “I’ll carry on until I’m croaking?”
I aim to finish 45 to 60 minutes of audio every day when I’ve got a book to do. That can take me between 4-6 hours to record, process and upload. That leaves time to do other general bits and pieces like social media, marketing and any auditions I might need to record. I can take most of the month to do an 8-10 hour book, though, if I have any other VO or acting jobs in. I sort out a work diary and fit my recording sessions around the other bits. I don’t stop for a break in the middle of a chapter in case it changes the energy or intensity of the chapter, but I do take lots of breaks to stretch and just step out of the booth for a bit. I find it counterproductive to carry on if my voice is tired. It won’t sound good if I do. Also I make more mistakes if I’m tired, which means it takes me longer.
Do you fret about feedback or reviews? Have comments on your performances ever changed the way you’ve done something for subsequent books?
I don’t fret too much about reviews because it’s subjective. What one person likes, another might not, but it is nice to get good reviews and know that people have enjoyed it.
One of the first books I narrated, I had left too much space at the beginning and the end of the chapters, so as part of the round of corrections I ended up reprocessing a load of chapters. After that I left very little space. Then I saw someone commented that there wasn’t enough space between chapters and that the next chapter started too quickly after the last one had finished and was spoiling the effect. So I found an in-between limit that has seemed to work for everyone. So feedback is valuable when I can do something about it and it helps to make the experience better. And reviews are also great to use for the whole marketing bit, which I’m trying to get better at.
Which of all your accents is your “use at home” one, and which do you find the most natural to read in? Conversely, which is the most difficult to get right?
My “use at home voice” is probably somewhere between Sanne and Meg’s voices. That’s probably the closest to it. I did worry while I was narrating the series that because I do sound a bit like the two main characters, and they sound alike as they’ve grown up together, that it would be hard to tell who’s speaking. Ultimately when I’m recording, even if the brief says they want a natural northern voice with a regional accent, I smooth it out so it doesn’t sound too muscular. I think that’s something you tend to do if you have an accent. For me it goes back to when we first got a phone at home. We always used to laugh at my Mam’s telephone voice.
The voice I use to narrate the Dark Peak Series in is my most comfortable and natural voice to read in. The most challenging UK accents for me are Welsh first, then Geordie. Most others I’m all right with. I spent the last year of school talking in a Brummie accent. I blame Rik Mayall’s Kevin Turvey!
Will you carry on narrating mine, please? If I ask really nicely and buy you a brew?
Yes please! It was a pleasure to narrate your work. And I never say no to a brew!