GETTING THE LANGUAGE RIGHT by Anne Louise Bannon
I tend to write by ear. I have to hear a line in my head before I can type it onto the screen. This makes writing dialogue a lot easier. Usually.
The problem I sometimes have, however, is that I write historical mysteries. And what I hear in my normal life is often not something one would hear in, say, the 1920s, when my latest novel, The Last Witnesses, is set.
When we talk about getting the language right in historical novels, we often think about things like slang. That people use different slang than they used to is pretty obvious.
Finding slang words for a period is pretty easy, thanks to the Internet, although, like most things gotten off the ‘Net, you do have to be careful. Most of the sites featuring 1920s slang focus on the mobster culture, which is great if you’re trying to recreate a Damon Runyan story. Not so great if you’re going after more of an F. Scott Fitzgerald vibe.
Which is where the issue really lies. I have a whole set of characters who probably would not be using much slang at all. Why? They’re wealthy and educated and educated people didn’t use slang, at least, not as we commonly think of it.
How do I know this? I’ve read a lot of books from past periods, and what is one of the most common admonitions to young people in stories from the late 19th to early 20th centuries? “Don’t use slang, it’s coarse.”
Now, by the 1920s, this was starting to change, largely because the youth culture was starting to get a lot of attention. But among the more conservative and older people, slang was not something you used.
Another thing I have to be aware of is that men did not use foul language in front of women. If a man did, it spoke volumes about his lack of respect for her. Or in the case of my lead couple Freddie Little and Kathy Briscow, Kathy sometimes uses crude language in front of Freddie, something most women would not have done. But the fact that she and Freddie do, sometimes, says a lot about how Freddie is able to see Kathy as his equal – something few guys did back then. That speaks volumes about the nature of their relationship.
And, finally, there’s how we use language today that reflects our perspective, but would be totally out of place in years past.
For example, I was doing the final read-through of the novel when I noticed a line referring to an unknown person in that borderline awkward way we use when we’re trying not to specify a gender. It’s what we now call gender neutral language, and even if it does sound borderline awkward, nowadays, it also sounds perfectly normal.
Not so in the 1920s. In this case, the character would have said “he,” and been perfectly right to do so.
So while getting the slang of a period right is important, the bigger hassle when you’re writing historical stories is writing in the way people thought back whenever. And it’s those kinds of errors that will catch you up in the end.
Anne Louise Bannon has made not one, but two careers out of her passion for storytelling. Both a novelist and a journalist, she has an insatiable curiosity. In addition to her mystery novels, she has written a nonfiction book about poisons, freelanced for such diverse publications as the Los Angeles Times, Ladies’ Home Journal, and Backstage West, and edits wine blog OddBallGrape.com. On the fiction side, she writes a romantic serial, a spy series, and her Kathy and Freddy historical mystery series, set in the 1920s. Her most recent title is The Last Witnesses. She and her husband live in Southern California with an assortment of critters.
Anne Louise Bannon