Colloquialisms as a Way to Set Up Setting

There are a million ways to establish a setting. The easiest and most straightforward is to describe the setting in narration — just lay out how things look. But there’s more to a setting than physical surroundings and sometimes plain old description just doesn’t cut it.

Every place has its own rhythm, its own people. Its own dialect. And colloquialisms — the turns of phrase unique to a place — are a great way to establish a sense of place. In a lot of ways, authors (good authors) do this automatically. Stephen King’s “ayuhs” and northeastern slang never lets the reader forget that his stories happen, with the rare exception, in rural Maine.   

Tana French lives and writes in Dublin, focusing on Dublin cops, so some really cool Dublin terminology pops up. 
Now, most of the cops try to appear professional – the result is that quite a few of the policemen speak like American and British professionals because English grammar is English grammar, right? However, there are several turns of phrase that pop up – especially any time Frank Mackey shows up. Mackey in particular provides colorful language because he grew up and deals with “the streets” — so you get a really good sense of place and character through the language he uses. 
Some phrases that stuck out or otherwise interested me:
1. “Fair play to you.” – Means ‘well-done.’ But it seems to me that there’s an element of “way to kick my ass, smarty pants…” Or “Well done, you got me this time.” There seems to be a warning embedded in it, which I think is fascinating. I could be making up the undercurrents I sense in the phrase, or it could just be the nature of the mystery-reading beast that the characters always seem to be trying to one-up each other. 
2. “Butter wouldn’t melt.” – Means prim and proper, having a cold demeanor. I’d heard this first in a British play, Rattlesnakes by Graham Farrow. And I noticed it again in Faithful Place
3. “Ghost homes” – This one pops up in Broken Harbor and refers to the thousands of homes throughout Ireland that were built in anticipation of selling, but then the global housing collapse happened. So now there are a ton of empty houses making up empty neighborhoods. (Really, I’m quite surprised this term hasn’t been applied to more houses in the U.S.) The concept of entire neighborhoods of these ghost homes dominates the imagery of Broken Harbor.
4. “Bloody” – Okay, I’ve always known this is a curse word, but to my very American ears, it always catches my attention, so I thought I’d check out some origins. Of course, I did it via Urban Dictionary, which is the best place to go if you want to be offended or learn to be offensive. So, “bloody” comes from old English references of “By God’s blood.” Basically, it doesn’t mean “fucking” because “fucking” means “fucking.” A better translation would be “Goddamn.”
I’m sure that, as an American writer, I have plenty of turns of phrase and terms that I use without thinking about them. And reading Tana French has made me more aware that, whatever words we use, you can pretty much create a strong sense of setting both via your characters’ dialogue and in the local language elements you use in your narration. 
What author has used ‘local flavor’ successfully to establish a setting? Do you have any examples of not-so-good colloquialism use?

Sarah Ruhl’s Stage Directions

Dead Man’s Cell Phone Production Poster (Designed by: Linda Nichols)

Sarah Ruhl is the second most performed playwright in the United States — second only to the Bard his own self. This is the last weekend that it will be performed in Colorado Springs at the Springs Ensemble Theatre.

In other words: this is the last weekend I’ll be playing Jean.

I cannot tell you how much I love doing this play. If I could, I would perform it every day. A lot of that love is due to Sarah Ruhl’s writing style, which, as a writer, I sooooo appreciate.

One of the coolest things Ruhl does as a playwright is her stage directions. They’re almost like poetry themselves. And, while specific, they still let the director, designers, and performers go to town creatively.

This is where there’s a big ol’ difference between writing for the stage versus writing for movies versus writing novels.

Movies tend to break things out simply: Character A and Character B fight. (And there you have about twenty minutes of any Transformer  movie.)

Novels (short stories, etc.), of course, will spell all of that out: Character A hurls a chair at Character B. The chair cracks in half over Character B’s head, carving a gash across B’s forehead. And on and on — perhaps with Character A is drinking a gin and tonic.

This is how Sarah Ruhl chooses to present a fight scene in Dead Man’s Cell Phone:

A struggle for the gun. 
Perhaps an extended fight sequence
with some crawling and hair pulling. 

That magical word ‘perhaps’ leaves everything open but she’s also managed to convey exactly what this particular scene needs. Sure, you can do an extended fight scene and both Character A and Character B can be drop dead serious about what’s going on — that’s definitely one way to go. But the other is to follow that ‘perhaps’ and you get something far more in tune with what the rest of the text suggests: this is a kinda ridiculous situation — but there’s a gun so you better take it kinda seriously. Somewhere in between is the sweet spot…and the writing in the stage directions hits that note just perfectly.

Something else that happens in Ruhl’s writing — and is noticeable in the above passage — is that she breaks lines the same way poet’s do.

A struggle for the gun. This is very straightforward. And it’s its own paragraph/line/sentence. Note there’s a period.

Perhaps an extended fight sequence This fragment is left hanging. But it’s a singular thought too. This is like a line of poetry — a piece that is it’s own thing but is still connected to the next line…which is kind of a turn.

An ‘extended fight sequence’ call to mind something very serious. Then Ruhl changes the tone with the next line:

with some crawling and hair pulling. She finishes the thought with something unexpected — which is how the fight sequence should work.

We know from the rest of the play that at least one of these characters should just not be involved in a fight sequence. Because it’s ridiculous. Absurd. And the stage directions are written in a way that reflects this. It could be written like this:

A struggle for the gun. Perhaps an extended fight sequence with some crawling and pulling.

Reading it that way feels different. (At least to me.) To me, this way feels more throwaway.

I once heard an interview with Ruhl and she said that one of the most frustrating things about watching performances was that the director/actors/designers were so busy trying to put their own stamp on a piece that they didn’t worry about ‘birthing’ the story. She already wrote everything down. The story is there…and she left enough flexibility to give the director/actors/designers to come up with something really creative. So why not just tell the story?

Our director said that if we have any questions, to look to the script first. Everything is there. And it is. We’ve taken Ruhl’s notes and tried to make magic. I think we’ve done pretty good too. Here’s a review from Broadway World Denver. If you’re in Colorado Springs this weekend — you can snag tickets (hopefully) at 719-357-3080.

The Original Pronunciation of Shakespeare

I’m trying to read Shakespeare’s works in the (generally) agreed upon order in which they were written. That means there’s a lot of histories up front. Right now, I’ve finished the Henry VI trilogy and am moving on to Richard III.

And, really, the only thing clear to me is Shakespeare’s historical presentations are quite questionable. There weren’t any archaeologists or disciplined historians back in the day. Most of the base material he used to produce these works are biased at the very least.

So, I find it ironic that English majors, historians, and armchair quarterbacks use such rigorous focus when studying the Bard.

For example, there have been several productions of Shakespeare’s plays in the past few years who have gone to a lot of trouble to recreate the original pronunciation of Shakespeare’s time period. Below, you’ll find a video featuring David Crystal, Honorary Professor of Linguistics at the University of Wales, presenting the methodology behind figuring out Shakespeare’s language.

But the real question is why do we even care about Shakespeare’s original pronunciation?

A couple different reasons off the top of my head:

1. Meaning. As Crystal points out in the video, the original pronunciation alters the meaning of the words themselves — you can see changes in jokes/puns. This is a real-life exploration of the evolution of language. And evolution of meaning affects:

2. History. It’s also pointed out in the video that Shakespeare’s language/dialect was the language/dialect of the first colonists of the United States. While the presenters of the video are focused exclusively on Shakespeare, it’s just a natural leap to assume the language (and possible meaning alterations) transfers to historical documents.

And that doesn’t even come close to the several ways of understanding the plays themselves, which these gentlemen do a much better job of explaining:

Ready, Set, Leap

This week’s Saturday pages is all about figurative language and taking leaps. I’m also going to offer you different levels to try your hand at – depending on whether you a lighter writing exercise or if you’re game for some heavier lifting. The most important thing about today’s exercise is that you shut up your inner critic and just write. Embrace the process. Hesitations are bad for big leaps.

One writer who ties in with Neil Gaiman is Terry Pratchett. Pratchett’s on the mentor docket, so stay tuned, we’ll be talking more about him later this year. I mention Pratchett in this post because I’m reminded of a comparison he made in one of his books which I have remembered, literally, for years. Because, when you write that Lord Vetinari, the city’s ruling official, is like “a carnivorous flamingo,” that’s memorable.

So, go get your jumping shoes on and let’s do this.

Level 1
Pick something to describe. It can be a person, an object, a feeling, or anything else you might be tempted to tack an adverb to. Feel free to use something in a piece you’re working on, or take a look around the room you’re in right now and do a little “eenie, meanie, minie, mo”.

Take out a blank page. Number it 1-20. Stretch your writing (or typing) fingers and, as fast as you can, write 20 metaphors and/or similes about your subject. Aim for the far-fetched, the odd, the unusual. Don’t over think it. Don’t pause. Keep your fingers moving.

Once you’ve written 20, take a look at your list. Find the comparisons that you’ve seen before and cross them off. Likewise, take off any that are too literal, too easy. Next, cross off the ones that fall flat. What are you left with? The most awesome comparisons you’ve ever written about that apple.

Level 2
Now that you’ve got your list narrowed down to your best material, pick the comparison that seems the most far-fetched. Flip to a new page and write your comparison at the top. Your job is to take your oddball comparison and turn it into an extended metaphor. Now that you have something like, “Life is like a box of pickled sardines,” at the top of your page, you’re going to write a paragraph that really fleshes your comparison out.

Think of every possible point of intersection between the two things you’re comparing and write those down. If you were Terry Pratchett, you’d be describing how a carnivorous flamingo walks, how it sounds, how it looks at you with pink, beady eyes that see right into your soul. Like Level 1, the key here is write fast and write a lot. That thought that just flashed through your mind that made you think, “No, that’s too silly to write down”? Write it down.

Once you’ve filled as much of the page as you can, take a breath and look over what you’ve done. Right now, you probably have one of your most original descriptions. How cool is that?

Level 3
Now I challenge you to take your figurative language leap and build a short story, or maybe a poem, around it.

Happy writing!

Taking Leaps

Read a bit of Neil Gaiman and you’ll quickly realize that he has flexible ideas of reality. Yeah, I know his stock in trade is fantasy. I’m not talking about that. No, what I’m talking about is Gaiman’s willingness to take leaps, and his confidence that you’ll leap with him.

A couple of years ago, I got to go with some friends to see Neil do a book reading in Boulder. The featured book was The Graveyard Book. Now, there is an author who knows how to read his stuff. If you think you can hear his voice on the page, it’s totally a treat to actually hear him speak the words. The part of that reading that I especially love is when he was describing his inspiration. He described taking his son to the local graveyard to play, because a graveyard is practically the same as a park, and looking at his son among the headstones and thinking, “He looks so natural there.” Where other people might think of that as an odd thought to have, Gaiman embraced it and wrote a whole book about that image of a boy in a graveyard. Coraline gets the creepy factor from the button eyes, and Stardust is all about a shooting star that’s actually a woman. Because, obviously, that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

Pay attention to the language of the writing, and you’ll see a man who loves metaphors and similes. Everything is something else. During the book reading, it really stuck out to me how much he uses the word “like” in descriptions. And, for most of us, that “like” is all it takes to let us take the leap with him.

One of the things I’m trying to take away from Gaiman as a mentor is that confidence and that imagination to look for the comparisons that aren’t obvious. When we think of metaphors, there are the easy grabs, the “likes” that leap to your mind right away:

His face turned red as a tomato

The news fell on her like a ton of bricks

But, everyone’s seen those before. They might convey an idea, but they lack oomph. Take a bigger leap, travel farther from what’s easy, and you take a greater risk that maybe your reader won’t leap with you. Then again, maybe you get a bigger pay off:

His face turned red as the poorly-knitted sweater his aunt had cursed him with last Christmas

The news fell on her like a drunk polar bear

Okay, so maybe you went with me on those. Maybe you didn’t 😉 The point is, the second set is more memorable than the first. Say what you will about the great authors, one thing they’re not is forgettable.

Quick! Time to practice your leaping! Leave a comment with your own, leaping, versions of the figurative language examples above.

Adding Gravitas: Kerouac’s Word Choices

“Gravitas” is one of my husband’s million dollar words when he’s offering a critique. It’s a tricky word to digest when it’s thrown at you like: “This needs more gravitas.” He’s much more eloquent but, I mean, what can you do with that?

Generally I take it to mean that the stakes aren’t sufficiently high for my characters – but I’ve come to realize that this is not necessarily the case. Sometimes gravitas (gravity/weight/an anchor) isn’t in the story itself but in the way the story is told.

On the Road is a story with zero anchor, if you look at it. The characters flit from place to place in fast cars. There’s literally and figuratively no home-base. The characters ping around from place to place, leaving wives and children and parents. You can’t latch onto these characters. As Sal Paradise tells the reader when he gets to Old Bull Lee’s house: “Poor Bull came home in his Texas Chevy and found his house invaded by maniacs.” They are madmen. Druggies, cheaters, partiers, crazies. Trying to connect to these characters is very much like trying to nail down one of those bouncy balls you get out of the quarter machine. Ping ping ping! There goes the lamp.

So, with place and people unavailable for adding sufficient weight to a story, a writer has one refuge: language.

That’s how Kerouac centers his miscreants. He adds depth (a great deal of bullshit depth, truth be told) to their madness: “A tremendous thing happened when Dean met Carlo Marx. Two keen minds that they are, they took to each other at the drop of a hat…From that moment on, I saw very little of Dean and I was a little sorry too. Their energies met head-on. I was a lout compared, I couldn’t keep up with them. The whole mad swirl of everything that was to come began then; it would mix up all my friends and all I had left of my family in a big dust cloud over the American Night.”

This description of his two friends, who basically got together and talked ‘philosophy’ while drunk or high get some mythic heft from the way Kerouac describes them: ‘tremendous’ ‘keen’ ‘energetic’ ‘mad swirls’, he’s a ‘lout’ compared to them. Reading this, you feel like there are consequences to getting left behind – and a weird sense of admiration for those with greater faculties or abilities.

Plus, you’ve got that American Night. Capitalized. There’s not beating the sense of pride and participation in that kind of presentation. And there’s no sense of escape from the dust cloud that’ll cover them all. Reminiscent of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, shadows that still cover the whole country.

And all in a couple sentences describing two friends meeting. (Though, as an interesting side-note – Carlo Marx, a.k.a. Allen Ginsberg – had very little to do with the road trips.)

So, next time someone says that there’s not enough weight, or your characters seem flat, or there’s no meaning – instead of assuming it’s a plot point or a characterization (it still might be) see if it isn’t the way the words are working. Playing with the wording might just fix the issue.

Product-of-Your-Time Rhetoric – Is Awareness the Answer?

Agatha Christie is my third mentor for this year, and she’s also the third British writer who published actively in the ’20s and ’30s. Woolf, Wodehouse, and Christie could, very conceivably, have hung out and had some beers together. They were all about the same age and wrote throughout both World Wars. What’s so interesting about reading these three authors back-to-back is their approaches to literature are so startlingly different. Stream-of-conscious Woolf. Humorous Wodehouse. Mysterious Christie.

However, I noticed a disturbing trend as I read through these three writers. I hesitate to bring it up, only because it involves the potential to insult these writers whom I’ve worked so hard to talk about. But I think if we are to learn anything from a mentor, we have to examine the subjects that come up, flaws and all. So I’m going to risk it and hope that you’ll share your thoughts and comments below.

Underlying the different techniques and the approaches to language in these writers, there was one thing that they all hit on at one point or another: disparaging commentary toward minority groups. Specifically Blacks and Jews.

The book that brought my attention to this directly was the original title of Christie’s And Then There Were None. At first that book was called Ten Little Niggers. Then Ten Little Indians. The final version I read had no reference to either of the previous titles – the song used in the book refers to ten soldiers.

My brain spun at the idea that a book could be published at all with the two original titles. Then I thought about Wodehouse and Woolf, remembering that there had been one or two times where a derogatory term would pop up. I flipped back through and here are some examples of what I found:

Woolf:
• from The Voyage Out: “ ‘I want people to like me and they don’t. It’s partly my appearance, I expect,’ he continued, ‘though it’s an absolute lie to say I’ve Jewish blood in me….’”
• from Jacob’s Room: “she liked that man Jacob better than dirty Jews.”

Wodehouse:
• from “The Little Nugget”: “It is always the bad nigger who gets religion most strongly at the camp meeting, and in my case ‘getting religion’ had taken the form of suppression of self.”
• from Mike and Psmith: “Unfortunately, he used the sooty hand and the result was like some gruesome burlesque of a nigger minstrel.”

And there are more examples from each one of these writers. I’m not saying that to bash their stories or their accomplishments. In fact, as I turned it over in my head, considering the drastic differences in style, method, selling-ness, and experiences of the authors, I found it strange that all three could consistently mention Blacks and Jews in such a fashion: just throwing down the words without expectation of reprisal.

Then it occurred to me: in the time period these three writers were producing work, it was – while not necessarily encouraged – accepted that “nigger” or “dirty Jew” could be thrown into a story as a legitimate metaphor. Readers wouldn’t have thought twice (unless such terms were thrown into the title…and even Ten Little Niggers got past enough editors to get published). The rhetoric of the culture allowed such things to be said.

While, today, we bitch and moan about having to be Politically Correct, there are some darn good reasons to watch what we write or say. First off, piled-up rhetoric is very convincing.

Imagine, if you will, that thousands of people are reading just these three authors (as they were and are). Therefore, thousands of people are exposed to the language “nigger” and “dirty Jew” thrown around in casual conversation/popular literature. That casual language sets a layer. Now, imagine a talented rhetorician comes around, notices what is or is not acceptable to talk about, and starts emphasizing certain things, i.e. “You have no money, but that dirty Jew shop owner does.” Another layer. And imagine a rhetorician with a film camera commenting on The Eternal Jew. Another layer.

No! Before anyone jumps to conclusions, I do not in any way blame Woolf, Wodehouse, or Christie for Hitler – or for slavery/segregation/American politics until the 1960s for that matter. I’m merely illustrating that what we say (whether in writing, in speech, in blogs) has a layering effect. It’s like millions of pieces of paper or bytes leaning and piling on top of one another.

And, unfortunately, we may not realize that what we said added to the layers of negativity.

Not to get any more political, but only to illustrate today’s potentially rhetorical danger zone: Today, as we know, Osama bin Laden is dead. The Middle East is in upheaval. And there are going to be literary reactions to all of it, on all sides. Books have already been written in reaction to 9/11 (The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Hamid, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Safran Foer, and The Terrorist by Updike to name three wide variations on this theme).

While great writers try so, so, so hard to remain balanced, to just tell the story, to examine what could be the truth from all sides…the truth is, writers are only human. They have biases and prejudices – often fed by their Time. They’re (we’re) bound to fuck up. And only future generations can tell how much so.

But I think, by being aware of what we’re saying, we’ll be able to say it better, without offending too many, and without compromising our own integrity or the integrity of our work.

Okay, I’ve gone on waaaay too long. You’re turn. What’re your thoughts on political correctness? Derogatory terms? The three mentors’ language? Or, you know, if you know a good joke that’ll lighten the heavy discussion…. =)