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Secrets of an Audio Book Narrator

Hi, Sharon here. One of my favorite things in all the world is hearing people’s stories. Maybe it’s why I consider myself a storyteller first and a writer second. The idea behind the Spoon River Anthology, the author going grave to grave and telling (making up) the stories of the townsfolk and their interrelationships sounds like my idea of a great week—though, apparently, Spoon River was a depressing place to live!

In any case, when I did briefly work as a bartender, the best part of the job, hands down, was hearing people’s stories. (Sound familiar?) From the beginning of time, we humans have loved hearing stories. Reading them is wonderful, and now watching them is a great pleasure. But hearing them can be a special treat. So I was thrilled when it was time to turn my latest books, The Bartender’s Guide to Murder, into audio books–and thrilled again when actor/director Abbie Pfaff was chosen to perform them. Listening to each of them, Death in Tranquility, Death By Gravity and Death Among the Stars, I am happy to report, they’re great!

Curious to find out what goes into recording an entire novel, I got Abbie to answer some pressing questions.

How did you decide to produce and narrate audio books?

A friend of mine in Chicago is a Talent Agent, she told me during the 2020 beginning of the pandemic that I would probably enjoy narrating since my background is in Directing and Film. She was absolutely spot-on. 

What parts of your theater education came in most handy?
Script analysis was crucial; piecing together every scrap you can find about a character and making them as round and squishy as possible. Directing instincts kick in when setting a scene, such as keeping track of the environment around the characters and how it affects them. And then, also bringing the scene that has just happened into the next by carrying the emotions or lack thereof. 

What goes into the process that normal listeners might not realize?
Staying up until 4 or 5am recording to avoid the neighbors’ lawnmowers being in the background [if you have your own home studio]. Or the amount of thought that goes into which characters will be afforded a lower resonance. I’m not a big masculine creature, but I sure try to sound like one every once in a while. 

What were the most enjoyable parts of the Bartender’s Guides to Murder to record?
The climactic scenes where Avalon is in the thick of it, practically stepping on the murderers. Those scenes carry themselves in Avalon’s emotional state and anxious thoughts.

What parts were most challenging?
Most challenging of all, would be the beautiful art of pronouncing words, specifically alcohol brands. I worked as a bartender in Chicago for multiple theater venues and even with that, I can say with certainty, I was not prepared. Challenging, yet very rewarding to learn. 

Which characters did you enjoy voicing?
The way Investigator Spaulding somehow both takes charge of a room and then also cares so deeply for what Avalon has gleaned, he was absolutely enjoyable to play opposite of Avalon’s curiosity and playful nature. Glenn MacTavish has my heart in the recording booth, he is a teddy bear of love. Sally, she was a blast, a firecracker personality I’ve met many times in the theatre world. Alma Eddings, for her terrible discomfort with visitors. Isobel Lester, the woman could side-eye. To name a few. 

Any that were harder?
Accents were a struggle at times. Glenn MacTavish’s thick Scottish accent, as well as Avantika’s soft Indian accent, were difficult to get right. Eventually, with enough takes, I was able to hear their personalities shine through. 

What is your usual process for working?
Read the book, script analysis, highlighting, and plan the voices. Record for a few days, edit files for a few days, repeat. Proofing multiple times for any mistakes. Communication with the author throughout. 

What is your prep work? What percentage of the process is the actual reading?

It is a huge chuck of the process, at least a week goes into reading/rereading and analysis/notes. I place time “beats” and emotion based “beats” in the script to make the recording smoother later. I highlight character dialogue and character thoughts, this creates a quick signal in the booth to prepare for vocal shifts so that I will not need to stop. I research accents, research specific people’s voices, and pronunciation research. Luckily, I find joy in paperwork and zen in small details, otherwise it might have not been such a great career switch. 

Is there a time of day you prefer to work? An amount of reading you can do at one time?
I am a night owl. My workday begins around 3pm when editing and ends before midnight. With breaks, of course. On recording days, I start at 11pm and end sometime before 2am, preferably. Though, sometimes it is necessary to record up to when the birds wake up. I’ll go as long as I can, depending on how rough my vocals sound. I take a 10 minute vocal break for every 50 minutes recording.

Any thoughts for someone who might be interested in audio book narration?
Tell the story. Whatever you can do to help the words come to life in a way that benefits the narrative, do it. Your author matters, they know the meaning of each sentence they have written. They are a valuable resource that you should respect and communicate with. 

If you are listening to a well performed and produced audio book, what do you know to appreciate?
Their silences and pauses. The way the spit sounds and click sounds are edited out. How they use their breathing as a tool. How they are able to not annoy people even after hours of hearing them speak. 

Since each of the Bartender’s Guides to Murder features the recipe for a cocktail or mocktail after each chapter, it seems we should ask, what’s your drink of choice? 

Amaretto Sour is my natural go-to. However, I made a deal with myself that once I finished narrating the Bartender’s Guide to Murder series I would make some of the drink recipes from the books. “Waffles and Sympathy,” from chapter 10 of the first book, is at the top of my list. 

Click here to start listening now!


The Thrill of the Story

I love storytelling! In fact, The idea of someone spinning a great yarn, gathering everyone’s attention and holding onto it, taking the listener through highs and lows, surprising them, wringing them out, and getting them to the end of the story, exhausted and exhilarated–there’s something truly wonderful about that. And the fact that it’s been happening since language was invented makes it a grand tradition. (In fact, I’m pretty certain storytelling is the World’s Second Oldest Profession, as folks enhanced their experiences with the Oldest Profession.)firetelling

When I was a kid, everyone wanted to ride to school in our car, because a little man named Bertram lived under the seat. In fact, my father, who is one of the great oral storytellers of all time, had all the children so captivated (and often in stitches) with Bertram’s stories, that it was nearly impossible to empty the car when we arrived at Wildwood Elementary.

Radio dramas played into this tradition. I would have loved to live in the early part of the 20th century and have the opportunity to  huddle in the living room with friends and family to listen to “The Shadow” or “War of the Worlds,” where all you have is a voice and the listener’s imagination.


So, for me, audio books have become the modern day equivalent. When they were first gaining popularity, on CDs and cassettes, our friend Mary Ann put one on in the Jeep as she drove into town to run errands. She was so surprised by the erotic turn of events that she ran through a stop sign. I guess that’s the sign of a good narrator.

For years, I worked as a book abridger for Harper Audio, and it was a fantastic education. It was like learning how to perform surgery on books; recognizing all the layers, and knowing how to peel them back, excise what needed excising, and put them together again. (It also, hopefully, made me a leaner writer.)  Not every book merits abridging–in fact, I bought an abridged version of one of my favorite 600-page tomes to discover that they’d taken out all the good parts. But some books are actually strengthened by a good abridgment (and probably should have been better edited from the get-go).  And yes, I have had this argument with Stephen King.

One thing I learned at Harper was how grueling it is to record a book. Seriously, when my kids were little, I was running out of steam my third time through Good Night, Moon. But voice artists would come into the Harper studio and read for two or three days solid. With inflection and voices, and never losing energy. God bless them!
When we found out that CHASING EDEN, the first of the Eden Thrillers was going to be made into an (unabridged) audio book, we were excited. It was like joining the millennium of storytelling through the ages. I will post again, telling about the process of turning a print book into an audio book. (And no, we didn’t use David Tennant. Didn’t even think to ask.) It was indeed a journey: finding the right narrator, working with her to find the right character voices and narration tone, and remembering again a book we wrote 7 years ago. When words are spoken, you hear them in a different way than when they’re seen on the printed page. (And I realized that, for Jaime, the fact that “none of this made any sense,” was a theme through the book.)

dagger of urBut it was great fun. Our main characters, Jaime and Yani, were so much younger then.WE were so much younger then! In CHASING, the first book, Barb had to write all the military dialogue, because I was not fluent in Acronym-speak at all. It was fun, going back to the Indiana-Jones-with-a-theology-degree feel of racing through Iraq, through Ur and Babylon and Baghdad and the Southern Swamplands. Describing the halls of the Iraq Museum and the walls of the various eras of Babylon and the bricks of the Ziggurat at Ur. Seeing the horrific effect of Saddam’s draining of the Southern Swamplands, and how they were slowly re-irrigated. Being able to discuss (and pronounce) the Transflandrian Transgression.  Of remembering when Jaime first met Yani, and the immediate effect they each had on the other. Seeing that gorgeous Dagger of Ur. (In fact, had tears running down my face when I saw the replica in the British Museum. (Much the way I did when I saw Princess Kaiulani’s peacock hat in the museum in Hulihe’e Palace. But that’s a different story.)

There’s been a lot of talk about creationism-versus-evolution lately, with the Cosmos show on television. I rest happy in knowing that we provided an alternate ending. So, thanks for bringing the story to life in a new way, Kristina. I’d sit around your fire any night!

Chasing Eden: Eden Thrillers | [B.K. Sherer, Sharon Linnea]

So, if you’re curious, feel free to click on the Chasing Eden cover above and listen to a free excerpt from the audio.

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