I agree with Alice from Alice in Wonderland: I don’t like a story that has no conversation. But in what sort of language will your characters speak? Will it be correct to the time and place of your story? Well we can completely forget those set in ancient Egypt for a start, and countries where people speak a language other than our own.
The question really is, how about those who spoke our language (in my case only English, I’m afraid) but in a different period of time? Vocabulary, references, even grammar change over a few years, never mind centuries. And dialect changes from one area to another, over a very short distance in older countries. And what do you do if your characters travel?
The choice is between being accurate and being understandable. My belief is that if the reader doesn’t understand, if not exactly then at least approximately, then you will lose them. Writing is, above all, an art of communication. Some meanings can be guessed at. In other places meaning doesn’t matter, it only adds colour, and if not understood will not spoil the story. This might be the case with dialect words, and they can add a great deal of individuality to a setting or a character. The same can be true of accent. I suggest just a few altered sounds as enough to indicate difference. You don’t want a reader stopping every few lines to try to work out what the word is. Never break the spell, if you can help it.
Actually that just about sums it up. If you confuse the reader or make them leave the story to look up a word, then it isn’t going to work. You are trying to involve them, make them think and make them care. You are not trying to confuse them and impress them with your scholarship. If you want to do that, write a text book.
You need variation in vocabulary from one character to another. Sometimes it takes a few re-writes to secure that – at least it does for me. Some people use few words, some many. People have favourite expressions, and so on. (For heaven’s sake, don’t pepper it with ‘Gadzooks!’ or such phrases. Did anybody ever say that? With a straight face?)
The difficulty is to avoid neologisms, i.e. modern phrases we now use naturally, reference to events that have not yet happened, and the language that will come from them, inventions and discoveries not yet made, dishes not yet invented, music not yet written, countries not discovered (or re-named) fabrics and materials not invented – you get the drift.
I remember having someone’s heels click on linoleum – then wondering if it was even invented at the time, or, if it was, that it would be too new and expensive to be in the income level of the house I was referring to. I looked it up and it was fine – but it might not have been.
My agent draws a little skull and crossbones sign on my manuscript where I have used a modern turn of phrase. It happens now and then. They are in my thoughts. There is also the issue of modern grammar. (There is no such word in English English (as opposed to American English and other forms of English) as ‘gotten’. (Well-bred Victorians would say ‘I have’ rather than ‘I’ve got’.)
They are small things, a word here and there, but then an extra teaspoon of salt in your food is a small thing – but it ruins the flavour. It is the sort of error you take care of when you re-write. Polishing, tidying up can be fun. Make it the best it can be.
Anne Perry’s author website: www.anneperry.co.uk
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