25 June 2007

Watch your language!

Speak proper English. How many times have we been told that by parents, teachers, etc? But slang creeps its way into everyone's life. There's slang that's localized and some that is confined to different periods or age groups. As writers, slang helps us give our readers a sense of time and place. But how much slang is too much?

While editing my 1920s era manuscript, It Takes Moxie, I discovered there's a fine line between slang giving a story flavor and pulling a reader out of the flow of the story. I was asked to replace many of my 'fella's with the word 'guy'. I try to keep my dialogue as true to the era as possible, taking out 'fella' made me wince -– it would be like replacing 'gentleman' with 'guy' in a regency. But, I also understood my editor's point of how too many fellas are distracting (while reading, not in real life ;) ). Guy is such a common word today that it becomes somewhat invisible to a reader, fella doesn't. So, I cut my use of that word drastically.

But, that doesn't mean we have to get rid of all our slang. I also referred to someone as being 'a modern'. The word modern was used like a noun in the Jazz Age, meaning someone who was free-thinking and up to date on the trends. I fell in love with the term when someone referred to Joan Crawford as being a modern in the old silent movie, Our Dancing Daughters. I think using somewhat obscure terms throughout our books gives readers a little peek into the past. When you add music and clothing from the era, you can transport your readers to a time otherwise denied them. What a wonderful gift –- use it wisely.

3 comments:

carrie_lofty said...

I discovered that with my WIP set in medieval England. I happened on a glossary of medieval phrases that JRR Tolkien assembled back in the 50s and got totally wrapped up in the lanaguage. Because I'd never written a medieval before, I overly used the phrases from this glossary when I started the WIP (eventually, I became more comfortable with the plot and setting and decided I'd layer it in later). But those early pages are thick with it. Even tho I finaled in a contest recently, the editor judge for the final round was not impressed. She said it came across as stilted and clumsy. Eeep! Too much.

Thx for your 1920s take on this, Delia!

Christine Koehler said...

I think using somewhat obscure terms throughout our books gives readers a little peek into the past.

I totally agree! It does add flavor and shows definite research on the writer's part. And I love it when I have to actually read the context to get the meaning or look it up for more in-depth answers.

God, I'm such a geek!

But then I also think that using period words can take a reader out of the story.

I once didn't finish a romance set in the 1500s with Vlad (yes that one) because the writer had one of the villans use the word 'crap' - as in "Oh, crap!" Before I wrote a scathing review on Amazon I looked the word up and according to dictionary.com, it really was in use in the 1500s. It doesn't work with me, though. Just because a word was around doesn't mean it was in the same use, and in a situation like that, I don't think it should've been in use in her story. Took me out of the story and I never finished it.

Morag McKendrick Pippin said...

"I think using somewhat obscure terms throughout our books gives readers a little peek into the past."
Me too!

You're cookin' w' gas Delia!