Warning: Salty language ahead!
Okay, all you fiction writers out there -- listen up: We don't speak in black and white. We color our language with slang. It might be regional slang, slang of our own creation, or some catchy saying we just heard on television. Makes us feel a part of society to speak the speak, no matter how much it might make our kids cringe. So, how better to color our fictional characters than to give them their own, individual way of speaking?
It goes without saying that the first thing we need to do is be time-appropriate. It doesn't do to have our Victorian hero say, "Dude, I totally tanked that test but hey, it's my bad for crapping out on class. My old man is, like, going to totally go ballistic," any more than we have our 1990's kid say, "Oh bollocks, cousin dear! Drat my cavalier ways in study! I am afraid I have failed and Pater shall be ever so cross." All of us recognize those errors. Hopefully we also see how slang can make our characters very stereotypical.... which is just as dangerous a pitfall as using the wrong slang for the period.
Let's look at our 1990's kid. What if he is the son of coal-miners? What if he's a football jock? What if he's seldom been off his family's Texas cattle ranch? He sure as heck won't talk like a Valley kid. So now we have to give him a language appropriate to the setting (and the age of your reader -- expletives toned down here, but imagine your own replacements at will.) "Dang, my daddy's gonna crap his pants," the Texas boy might confess to his friend. "He'll ride me hard and put me away wet, he'll be so spittin' mad." Or the jock might say, "Dude, my ol' man finds out I wiped out on that test, he'll punch my lights out." Perhaps the coal-miner's son would say, "Momma's gonna take me to the shed for bein' so all-fired ignorant and Daddy's gonna say, 'hay-ll, son, you don't need to spell to haul coal." All three not only pull you into their individual way of speaking, but they make a compelling statement as to their situation. All examples are of a kid who has failed and of the family retribution awaiting him. Sure beats writing, "Alex failed the test and knew it wasn't going to be easy telling his folks."
So, finding the right word or expression for the right era is the first step. Then you have to fit the location into that era. Finally, you have to find a language for the type of character you have created. If your heroine is Southern and it's the 1920s, it won't do to echo Scarlett O'Hara. You need to find reliable sources of the culture and the times to understand the language of that time. Magazines are a wonderful source of information but are fast disappearing. You can also rely on dictionaries from that time period, which many times offer a separate listing of new words. For slang and expressions defined in a regional manner, you should get thee to a reference library and ask for The Dictionary of American Regional English or the Oxford English Dictionary (which often ignores American regional slang.) Lastly, there are a ton of slang books on the market and you need to find one that provides the dates the term came into the written lexicon.
I love the fun, regional "how we say it" books and Internet sites, but many times can't verify the terms and I have no way of knowing if a very clever author coined the slang and expressions or if it truly is a way of saying things in Podunk, USA. So be sure to check with a viable source. Along these lines, much of the "language" of the western, which we assume to be time-appropriate to the late 19th century, was conceived in the writers' rooms of movie and television studios in the middle of the last century. So you could use it if your western takes place in 1955, but not 1855.
In my latest novel, Hellie Jondoe, I had to learn the vocabulary of street gangs of New York, 1918. For something as specialized as this, I turned to fiction of the latter 19th century, culling books for speech patterns, accents and criminal slang. The toughest part of the task was to stay on task -- I was reading to research and not to get too involved in the story. Then I researched the words I found to make sure the novelist had not made them up. Once I could verify a word or expression with a nonfiction source (such as, in my case, The Eagle Police Manual, The Gangs of New York and OED) I knew I could use it with impunity.
What works best for me is to create a vocabulary list for my characters in order to keep their own way of speaking consistent throughout my project. How does my heroine swear? What is her unique way of speaking? Does her interior thought match her language or does she swear to herself and speak perfectly to others? Does she use slang to fit in or because that's the way she was raised? Is she a criminal who speaks cant to communicate slyly with her cohorts? The way we speak is a part of who we are. Do we drop 'g's to appear "country," do we avoid 's's because we have a terrible lisp, do we sling the latest slang to appear "in the know?"
Once I have my era, my setting, and my characters formed, I then create a database of their own interesting ways of speaking. If my hero would never swear, but would like to, I have to come up with a list of curses that get the point across but will not offend. I keep this consistent by referring to the list of words and expressions I have "assigned" him. This business-like, database approach keeps me writing faster and keeps my characters consistent. This is a technique I picked up when writing a series in which the same, very odd, characters reappear. No one really wants to go back and reread their last book just to cull it for idiosyncrasies and speech patterns. Set up a database and manipulate it all you can. My own such database has resulted in over 35,000 entries in my own slang dictionary, Slangmaster.
Now, you have given your character wonderful speech patterns and a marvelous vocabulary of slang and expressions. Fantastic! Wonderfully colorful character, right? This is where I backtrack on everything I have already suggested -- you may be right as rain about the slang your character slings, you can be spot on about the era and the situation your story is set in -- but, if it pulls a reader out of the story even for an instant to question it, it HAS to go. I learned this the hard way. If an editor questions whether or not someone actually said "finger on the pulse of" in 1960, if you can show that editor the movie (High Society) where that expression was expressed, if you can get a panel of Supreme Court Judges to uphold that finding, you still need to let it go. Why? Because if the editor stopped editing to question it, your readers will stop reading to question it. And our job is to keep readers reading. So don't argue. Change it to "knows what's what" or "knows which end is up" or have your totally unique character say something totally unique -- something you have made up.
Here's a perfect example -- In my first published novel, The Four Arrows Fe-As-Ko, I have a mentally challenged character continually saying, "a pair a nently." This drives my hero crazy -- what is a nently and why does he need a pair of them? Then he figures out this less-than-luminous lad is really trying to say "apparently." From that point on, and in the subsequent two novels in the series, a pair a nently is my hero's way of stating the obvious. "Well, a pair a nently, the sun rises in the east." And that became the catch phrase my readers associated with the Fe-As-Ko series of humorous westerns. Now, I didn't intend that nor did I argue with the swing of things. When someone emails me with "a pair a nently" in the subject line, I know which of my novels they have been rummaging around in. And with these three novels soon out in audio, I am hoping for scads more lovers of "a pair a nentlies!"
Our language is continually evolving, especially in this day of instant communication. Whereas a hundred years ago it might take a slang expression ten years to enter the written lexicon, now it can happen literally overnight. A character in a television show can utter something slangish on Monday and by Wednesday, the entire Internet culture might be uttering the same thing. And it can disappear just as quickly, making our jobs as writers -- chroniclers of the culture, if you will -- even more difficult, even more important. We need to be keeping not just our eyes open, but our ears open as well.
As Carl Sandburg said, "Slang is a language that rolls up its sleeves, spits on its hands and goes to work." It was true then and it is true today. So slang on and in good health... but keep it true and keep it honest.
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