Getting Those ‘Wrong’ Words Right #writing #crimefiction #historicalfiction @MishaHerwin @nic_writer @BarryLillie1 @CorrineLeith@JillsBookCafe @penkhullpress @jenqoe @bunchcourtney00 @razumova

Creating that sense of a particular place in history is always a balance. I am not talking here about that cardinal sin of all fiction writers; the info dump! The settings and historical facts are relatively easy to find and provided you smother the impulse to use every scrap of research you have unearthed, will give a good sense of the where and when.

The trickier part is finding that sense in the dialogue.

It’s never a good idea to use a great deal of dialects or accent because unless the reader is familiar with it and can hear it as they read then it can exclude them to a point where they lose interest.

The use of slang terms can be just as hard. For one thing slang changes so quickly. In a current setting words overheard in use this week can often be outdated by the time your story ever gets to the bookshelf a year or so later.

Having said that, it may be because slang goes out of date very quickly when writing dialogue in historic fiction that sense of verbal carbon dating becomes the whole point.  You want people to feel that these are inhabitants of a certain time and place.  The trick as always is in using them sparingly so that you don’t exclude the reader with unknown terms and finding the right words in the first place but sprinkling dialogue with enough of them to feel realistic.

Some words do linger for a surprisingly long period of time. Words like ‘twit’ (idiot) or phrases such as ‘knowing your onions’ (having a working knowledge) or ‘bees knees’ (outstandingly good) come from the first half of the 20th century but can still be heard in today – though probably less often now that we are in the 21st century.

In the UK at least there is also the  matter of class to consider.  For one character to call another ‘old thing’ or even ‘old bean’ hints as their being relatively well off. Referring to someone being a ‘steamer’ (as in steaming great twit) or calling out ‘alright, mush?(or mate)’ would not be out of place in a 1930s Eastend pub.

There are plenty of slang dictionaries of course, both printed and virtual, which in theory will help a writer pinpoint that exact word for a specific moment being spoken by the right person – and they are very useful up to a point. I have at least six on my desk as I speak and the answer to my problem may well be buried in one of them.

My problem is that they list the vernacular and translate them into proper/correct grammar – whereas what I really want is to know what I want to say in ‘correct’ terms but using vernacular specific to the 1940s.

For example: today I am working on my sixth Bunch Courtney Investigation and want my posh young British Army officer to jokingly say that the police (specifically Scotland Yard detectives)  are expected at the house.

What would he call them? Peeler is a Victorian term. Fuzz or pigs feel too modern. Plods? Rozzers? Bobbies? None of those seemed quite right coming from this characters mouth.  

I can drag out the various slang lists and scroll through from A to Z but from experience I know that takes an age.  A thematic dictionary might help but are often aimed at modern vernacular. 

In the end I shall doubtless have him say ‘the Yard’ because the word that I am stretching for either does not exist or has been lost in the mists, as many of the slang words of today will be – ephemeral snapshots that in a short space of time will  simply evaporate.

Finding that word in not important in the scheme of things. I know that my readers will never miss it and I know in my heart that searching for it is just another kind of prevarication that writers the world over are so good at inventing.

But… Verisimilitude! Be a pal and pass me that ‘Book of WW2 Slang’, would you?


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