Pitfalls for Writers – 4) Language; a bit of a follow-up

Back somewhere deep in the mists of time, I published ‘Pitfalls for Writers 1’. In this, I discussed some of the potential problems of language in a novel.

If I am to write a story of medieval Persia, for example, I will write it in English. No one who reads it is going to be fooled into thinking that my characters were really speaking in English. But this on its own is not enough. There must be something in the language I use that reminds the reader that the story setting really is medieval Persia.

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And so I suggested using a flavour of the speech. I might sprinkle the conversation with words such as ‘dirham’ (a unit of currency), or ‘djinns’ (genies). The characters might smoke a ‘qalyan’, which is how they would have referred to what we generally call a hookah. A greeting might be ‘Salām ʿalaykom’.

In the comment stream that followed, I concluded that I might employ a glossary, but certainly not footnotes.

This has now become most relevant to me.

About a month ago, I finished reading Anuradha Roy’s ‘The Folded Earth’. It is a novel that is set in India, written by an Indian writer, yet it uses a glossary, although she is presumably writing in the first instance for an Indian audience. This glossary explains a few words and phrases that many western readers would be unfamiliar with, although I would expect the majority of Indian readers to know them all.

My own novel is being read now by generous beta readers, and some of the discussion is over the use of the appropriate Hindi / Urdu words in the text.

And so, with ‘The Folded Earth’ as an example, I shall definitely use a glossary.

Next, it is important to employ the correct voice.

Speech:

Clearly, if the protagonists of a story are sitting down to a meal, they might complain about the amount of fat on the meat, but they would be most unlikely to refer to it as ‘adipose tissue’. Unless one or both were, for example, surgeons.

Very few people would be likely to refer to two items as being ‘in casual juxtaposition’. They would be far more likely to say something along the lines of ‘oh, they look a bit odd next to each other.’ As tempting as it might be for the author to show off their vocabulary, it is something that should be used most carefully.

Narrator:

If the story actually has a narrator, then this becomes even more important. The country bumpkin relating an everyday tale of rustic shenanigans should not be employing sophisticated and subtle wordplay. He or she should only be employing language that they would naturally use.

Author’s voice:

Even if there is no actual narrator, it remains important to use only language that would be natural to the situation. For example, it sounds plain wrong to describe a group of Vikings ‘computing’ an answer to a problem, even if it is only the author describing it that way.

Generally, of course, and I know that some will disagree with this, it is usually better to avoid all flowery and showy language in novels, and use simple language well.

Finally, a jarring note found in a few modern novels set in older times, is that the characters often think like modern folk. Reading these books as against books written, perhaps, 150 years ago, it is not just the style and language of the writing that are different, but also the prejudices. The hero of a novel set in 1840 is going to have casual prejudices against, perhaps, people of another race, women, etc etc. We tend to be reluctant to set these down in print, nowadays, perhaps as if by doing so we are almost admitting to having these prejudices ourselves.

However, if we want to depict our characters realistically, we need to do so ‘warts and all’. And if the writer is going to depict them otherwise, then he or she needs to have a good reason why they do.

 

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41 thoughts on “Pitfalls for Writers – 4) Language; a bit of a follow-up

  1. Good points, all. I cringe when I read something in which the dialogue is completely out of context with the setting. The ‘warts and all’ approach is authentic even if it is a bit difficult to swallow. But you can’t rewrite history to make everyone’s attitudes agree with modern thinking!

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    1. I agree. But in the same way as we can write in modern English and throw in a few period words and phrases, we should probably tone down the prejudices (in most cases) so that they don’t drown out the story to modern ears!

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      1. English is a complex and diverse language, rich in nuance and subtlety. I’ve nothing against authors doing their bit to spread this richness to their readers, but it becomes a barrier to the story when it takes precedence over comprehension. I suspect some writers are completely unaware that they’re making their narratives dense to the point of incomprehensibility, since they readily understand the terms they use. But others undoubtedly see it as their job to educate rather than tell a story. They forget that the whole point of writing is communication and that simplicity is the key to success.
        Thanks for a stimulating and interesting post.

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  2. ‘A jarring note found in a few modern novels set in older times, is that the characters often think like modern folk.’ I can relate to that, Mick. It amuses me when I read historical novels set in, say, the 16thc, where the gutsy female protagonist has the mindset of a bi-sexual modern college girl, infested with political correctness and a mission to improve the world. In the 16thc, she would have been considered insane. Cultures change, radically. In those days a decent, loving husband – of a puritanical bent – would beat his wife once a month, to save her soul. If he failed to do so, she’d complain to the vicar that he was neglecting his duty. How would a modern feminist cope with that? We cannot simulate, authentically, the mindsets of a bygone era. The least we can do is avoid mapping our own mindsets on people who are, in every sense of the term, aliens to us. And who would consider us insane.

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    1. Indeed. I have often wondered if it is possible to get inside the head of someone who lived in, for example, the 16th century, and decided that no, it is not. It is pretty well impossible to do so in the example of someone from a different culture, even in the 21st century. There would be almost no points of contact. I am amused by news articles that suggest studies are being carried out to work out why this or that historical figure behaved the way that they did, when the simple answer is that we cannot, ever, tell, because we cannot possibly understand all of the pressures and influences that they were subject to.

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      1. Absolutely, Mick. I’ve long been immersed in crime suspense stories of the ‘extended Golden Age’, circa 1880-1940. The cultural assumptions inherent in those stories make no sense today. Servants are ubiquitous, every person observes a precise social etiquette (if they don’t they are, by definition, a member of the under-classes and an oaf), and jingoism, racism, anti-semitism and sexism are engrained in their world-views. Yet ‘decent’ people then were as decent as they are now. It’s simply that the terms of reference have changed.

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      2. True – nothing is more irksome than a historical novel inhabited by modern men and women in fancy dress. That’s not to say that women in the past were incapable of being what we would term feisty, but it manifested itself in different ways.

        But monthly wife-beatings as standard practice on the part of good puritan husbands? I’m not convinced of that.

        And as for working out why anyone behaves the way they do? That’s scarcely possible, even with our next-door neighbours. All we can ever do is speculate.

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  3. Neat post Mick. The last point about attitudes over time caused me problems in my first novel set in 1976. One character needed to be prejudiced against a Sikh family – this was rural Hampshire. Beta readers lost sympathy and pressed for me to moderate her behaviour but I lived that life and well remember coming back from Uni – in Bristol – with different attitudes to my home village. I toned it down a little but some still find to hard to accept that a perfectly well meaning much loved pillar of village life could spout what we now see as both nonsense and unacceptable. The point being the self same woman on whom the character was loosely based changed over time to embrace just such more modern tolerant views!

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    1. Thanks, Geoff. That sounds a good example. Were your beta readers young? I certainly remember those attitudes being pretty well standard in 1976. And whilst I pride myself on being extremely tolerant and open-minded today, I am sure that my sub-conscious will have blotted out some dubious attitudes from those days. It was the result of the society that we were brought up in.

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  4. Somehow, I’d never thought of including a glossary before. I can see how it would be useful as I feel like I had to leave the story behind in places when writing Vikingr to explain the meaning of certain words (e.g. “vikingr”, “thrall”). Thanks for posting this, it’s given me plenty to think about!

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    1. I’m glad you find it helpful. Yes, I don’t think there’s a perfect answer, but a glossary does it for me. Explanations tend to break up the flow of the story, and footnotes tend to draw the eye to them, willingly or otherwise. And an explanation can also sound clumsy and unnecessary, especially if the reader already knows what the mystery item is.

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    1. Sorry for the misinformation. My other partner (won’t name him, remember innocent bin is a group?) had some confusion in it and told me that he wrote that excitedly. Man.. Sorry on his behalf. DELETE THAT COMMENT.

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  5. Yeah, writing historical has surprising perils (I can see why so many are romances in castles, which is politically safe). Especially if you want to make something that is period-appropriate be a plot point. But how on earth can you write Civil War without referencing prejudice? And usage of the n word was common in many social circles.

    I have a two book series I’m going to publish anyway. But I may reap the harvest, even though I believe it’s clear that I disapprove of sticking people into boxes and not letting them out. *shrugs*

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    1. No, you have to reference the prejudice of the times. And I suspect that the majority of readers and reviewers do ‘get’ that. And if they don’t, you just remember that even if you were to remove every remotely contentious reference in your book, there would still be some who would want to cry foul.

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      1. Yep. I’m trying to tell myself that nobody likes every book, and that nothing evocative gets written by committee–but I’m a new writer and I still wince at the comments I’m going to get. Don’t worry–I’ll force myself through. 🙂

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        1. You and me too! My first novel, to be published hopefully within the next 3 or 4 months, is written from the POV of a middle-aged woman in a rural Indian village, and is about the way society treats women there. I expect flak!

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  6. This is all such good advice! I read a book recently and gave it up half way through – it was set in victorian times but the language was just too modern and I couldn’t get into it. Language and getting inside your character’s head are so important.

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