Terri-Lynne DeFino (aka bogwitch64) is one of my favorite people. If you already read her blog you'll know that in addition to being kind, friendly and full of fun, she's also extremely smart. I'm delighted to have her come visit today, and have her share some of that wisdom, so without further ado, please welcome my LJ friend and fellow Apex blogger, Terri-Lynne DeFino.
Using the right words (Terry-Lynne DeFino)
A couple of weeks ago, Jon guest posted on my blog and asked if I’d like to do the same. Well, sure! It’s always fun to play at someone else’s house, meet the family, pet the dog, feed the goldfish. Thankfully, I know much of Jon’s LJ family. I already feel at home.
We are all, or mostly, writers here. Words are part of our lives in ways they don’t exist for others. We don’t see them simply as a collection of symbols that make sounds, sounds that, put together, mean something, that when added to other sounds convey information. For writers, every word is a piece of a picture, a feeling, an idea planted in the mind’s eye.
In Jon’s guest post, he wrote about using pop-culture references in to your story to enhance this evolving picture. It garnered all kinds of responses, both in favor and against. It made me think about the little things that make a difference in writing, in creating that picture; or shattering it.
etymology: [et-uh-mol-uh-jee]–noun, plural -gies. 1. the derivation of a word. 2. an account of the history of a particular word or element of a word. 3. the study of historical linguistic change, esp. as manifested in individual words.
Whatever genre you write in, etymology plays a role. Consider a simple word like HELLO. If you are writing in any other culture but 20th century (1883 forward actually) USA, it’s not a word you can use as a greeting. It was coined specifically for use with the telephone. And while it may or may not have been used to get someone’s attention before that, it would never have been used as a greeting. Thus, when I see it used in a historical set before the 1880s, fantasy, or even science fiction set in a non-earth setting, it bothers me.
Another one I see often is O.K., ok, okay—however you write it, whichever legend you believe true, the etymology of the word gives it a specific time period in earth history. Using it in your fantasy world just isn’t going to be authentic. Just like you can’t use the word shanghai to mean abduction in a science fiction setting with no connections to earth. It evokes a specific culture in a specific place and time. Can Queen Guinevere and King Arthur have a troublesome relationship? No, they can’t—because the word did not exist for them, and neither did the notion as we know it. It makes a difference. When in doubt, look it up here.
Oh, come on! You say. That’s pushing things too far! I have to disagree, because while there are many who won’t notice the difference; there are many who will. Considering those who wouldn’t notice such things wouldn’t think twice about it being done right either, which side would you prefer to err upon?
Finding the appropriate slang, colloquialisms, idioms and curses for your EARTH world/time period is easy enough. But how do you do invent them for a fantasy world? Science fiction? How do you make them authentic for your culture, your characters without seeming contrived or, worse, lame? Many in authority will say, “Just avoid them entirely.” Part of me agrees. But a bigger part of me says that a world without idioms is not an authentic word. You use them every day and don’t notice. THAT is how they have to be in your story. Unobtrusive. Resounding. Almost invisible.
So how do you do it? Consider environment, culture, morals, religion. When coming up with an idiom, a curse word, whatever, consider what would be insulting to a character from the environment you’ve created or are borrowing from. What would be frightening, embarrassing, lewd? You can even use the etymology dictionary to see where an idiom like kick the bucket* actually came from, and it could well spring an idea for your own version of that idiom; one that evokes the one you want to use but can’t.
Damn is an exception to the curse rule. It is a fairly generic word, like most of the others in this post, unattached to a particular time or place or event. When you petition your gods, government, or old gran to damn something, it’s pretty universal.
As Jon wrote a couple of weeks ago, using a pop culture reference can be effective, but tricky. It needs to be done right. Same goes for slang, etc. When in doubt, keep it out! Because there are plenty who will notice. And you can be certain that experienced publishers/agents/editors are going to be among those plenty.
*kick the wind was slang used for “being hanged.” You can work that one out. The bucket came in as a derivative of that, as in making the soon-to-be-executed stand on a bucket, and then kicking it away.
Terri-Lynne DeFino (alias, bogwitch64) lives quietly in rural New England with her cats, kids, and husband despite her delusions of being Empress of the Northern Hemisphere. In sane moments she is a writer, mother, cat-wrangler, sparkle queen, and occasional laundress. Her debut novel, Finder, is scheduled for release in October, 2010.