Friday, January 18, 2013


Leonard's U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens

A few posts ago Pippa showed us her inspiration for the settings of her works, including her novel, Keir.  When we think about setting, the first thing that pops to mind, of course, is place, and a description of what that place looks and feels like.

But what about how that place sounds?  How do the people who congregate in your setting talk?  What kinds of things do they say, and how do they say it?  Most of us think of this as part of character, and it is that, too, but a lot of what goes into making your setting authentic, is making your characters speak in a way that is authentically tied to your place.

When this works for an author, it is wonderful, and often becomes a trademark.  Think of Elmore Leonard, 87-year-old author of works as diverse as 3:10 to Yuma, Get Shorty and, his latest bestseller, Raylan, tied to the FX television show JUSTIFIED, which is, in turn, based on an older Leonard short story.  Leonard has lived most of his life in the Detroit, Michigan area, but his characters speak the vivid patois of whatever part of the country they come from.  (So much so that his dialogue is sometimes hard to follow.)  They leap off the page, which is why so many of Leonard’s stories have translated so well to the movie and television screens.  We really believe his cowboys are cowboys, his gangsters are gangsters, his hillbillies are hillbillies, because they talk like they’re supposed to.

Note that I’m not saying his cowboys, gangsters or hillbillies talk like we think they’re supposed to.  They’re not stereotypes; they actually fit the clothes they’re wearing.  Leonard is only a consultant on JUSTIFIED, but the writers on the show take their role as his legacy seriously and the characters show it.  U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens may come from Harlan, Kentucky, but he’s no dumb hick, and like many Southerners, he has a way with his few words.  The other night, he told his pretty girlfriend he wouldn’t throw her out of bed for eatin’ crackers.  That’s an authentic Appalachian way of saying she’s awful good lookin’.  I’ll wager a majority of JUSTIFIED’s non-Southern viewers were mystified.  I howled with delighted recognition.

Of course, when dialogue is misused or the language doesn’t match the setting, it can be just as glaring as putting high heels on a hiker or postulating a snowstorm in May in Georgia.   I recently read a romantic suspense novel by a bestselling author who will remain nameless.  The book was set in Richmond, near my home of Fredericksburg, Virginia.  And, although it was otherwise a great story with some terrific characters, the language missteps gave away the outsider status of the author, who is a native English-speaker, but not a speaker of American English or a Southerner.

For example, the author contracted “he had not” to “he’d not”.  Americans generally say, “he hadn’t”.   Someone was offered “a coffee”, not “some coffee”, as we do here in Virginia.  A guy described a dead woman as “petite”. Extremely doubtful.  “Tiny”, “just a little, bitty thing”, “real small”—anything but “petite”, which doesn’t exist in any Virginia man’s vocabulary, unless he speaks French, like my husband, or works in the fashion industry.

Now in the old days, an editor would have fixed these things. Editors don’t have time to do that in this day and age.  You have to comb your manuscript for that kind of glaring disconnect between place and language.  This writer didn’t do it, so I was left to shake my head, taken completely out of the story when I should have been caught up in the mystery of who is killing women in Richmond.

Granted, it isn’t easy to recognize when you’re making this kind of a language error.  To the author, “he’d not” is normal and correct.  It sounds right, whereas “he hadn’t” sounds weird.  But you have to learn to listen to what’s around you.  If Richmond is your setting, then you have to learn to listen to how people talk in Richmond, not in your head, which may be set for your hometown, your university, your family.  Really not easy if you can’t get to Richmond.

You can talk to natives, though.  Some of the best fun I had was in college where I had endless discussions with new friends from New York over the various pronunciations of “Mary,” “marry” and “merry”.  (In the South, they’re all pronounced the same.  Apparently you New Yorkers pronounce them all differently.  Amazing!)  I have an ear for accents, dialect and those quirky expressions that different cultural groups hold close to their collective bosoms, and it has served me well in my work.  I listen closely everywhere I go and stockpile the voices in my head.

The need for authenticity is the reason why we’re so often told to “write what you know”.  Imagination can take you only so far when it comes to things like reproducing  language and dialogue, or describing the streets of London or the mountains of Colorado.  Even if you think you can escape all this by setting your story on another planet or on a starship in the depths of space, the need for an authentic setting with real details still exists.  Characters still need to come from somewhere.  And even if you’re making that somewhere up out of whole cloth, you’ll need to be consistent and thorough, so your readers will believe it’s a place they can actually visit in the flesh.

Cheers, Donna


  1. i'm not from the south and i'd say he'd. ummmm. does that make me a southern westerner or a western southener? joking, of course. nice article.

  2. Good article. When I was writing Keir, my editor suggested I make Keir's speech more formal and remove contractions. I wasn't setting it in true medieval Earth, but making that small change made a big difference and I could hear him far better in my head. :)

  3. Great article, Donna.

    Researching local speech patterns, inflections and phrases is a great way to give characters authentic dialogue. People from Albuquerque (Burquenos) have some distinct phrasing (which I've picked up in over 20 years of living here). There were a series of YouTube videos by a local comedian about our unique phrasing. It went viral.

    @Pippa It's funny I never noticed that Keir spoke without contractions. I dropped all contractions in my Draxian speech, too, because they learned proper English as a second language.

  4. OMG, Laurie, that video was HIlarious! Especially part II. I think I may have heard a few of those things from you! :) The best examples, though, were "how did that land up (end up) there?" and "Are you gonna get down from (get out of)the car or what?" cuz most Burquenos would never even know they'd said anything weird!

  5. Excellent post! I just linked it on my Facebook page. As a Michigander we have the same peculiarities. Like going "up north" for the summer. New Yorkers say standing "on line" like the internet, we say standing "in line". Oh and most of the nation labels drinks such as Pepsi, Coke and Sprite as Sodas, we call them "Pops". And there was the whole what is a storm/screen door incident I had with an editor of one of my stories.

  6. Clare, I was originally a Michigander who lived "up north," and sometimes went to the U.P. to visit some yoopers. The first time I said I wanted a pop when I moved to New Mexico, they though I was asking for a smack in the mouth. Here, they say I want a coke. Doesn't matter if it's a 7Up, Root Beer or Dr. Pepper, it's still a "coke."

    Eeeeeee. Not even. (Donna will know what that means.)

  7. The things that people call Coca Cola or Pepsi in different parts of the country are endlessly fascinating. NM is like much of the South in calling all flavors and brands a "Coke". The old folks will also call it a "cold drink", emphasis on the first syllable, so that it sounds like COLDdrink. West Virginia (where I have family) is like Michigan in calling it "pop". Most everywhere else, it's "soda". I'd never heard "soda" until I went to college in Wisconsin!


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