Monday, August 1, 2011

Monday Musings: Enriching Your Writing—Colloquialisms

The Internet has made the world much smaller. This is true especially when it comes to really seeing the differences in the word usage and slang between English speaking countries. To be honest, even within a country there is various regional slang and dialects. We can tell where a person is from by the way they speak. This is truly apparent in a country as large as The United States.

Slang doesn’t bother me so long as it isn’t in professional writing or spoken in a professional setting. Of course I tend to cringe when I hear phrases like, 'he ain't got no business coming down on me'. I tend to correct my son when I hear him use the wrong verb tense or a word in the wrong context.

The use of slang, colloquialismsand clichés can add flavor to your writing, so long as those devices aren’t over used. It can also characterize your setting and add to your characters—without getting into a bunch of backstory. The use of slang and colloquial phrases are usually confined to character speech (or inner thoughts) and not to the whole manuscript.

Not every character will speak in the same manner (and wouldn’t it be boring if they did). The big city girl comes to the country for a job or another purpose. She uses proper English in her speech but hearing the way others speak can add conflict in her perception of the people or another character she comes into contact with. She might perceive them as uneducated and this could cause her to make judgments or underestimate the other character(s). That can work both ways, of course.

There are those who don’t agree with using slang, colloquialisms, or clichés and that’s fine, but even some of the classic literary giants, if you will recall, used them.

A street-smart punk isn’t going to speak in perfect English and if the author, critique partner, or editor tries to force that on the character it will make the character flat and unrealistic. Someone from the Deep South isn’t going to use his or her words or even the same sentence structure as someone from, fill in the blank____ Maine, California, Upper Midwest, Western states, Pennsylvania Dutch country, does. Those differences can be used to give flavor to our characters and settings.

An author who does this well, in my opinion, is Carolyn Brown. She writes about people from Texas and Okalahoma in small town and ranch country. She gives richness to her stories with the use of colloquial phrases and regional slang. Her writing pops with location, setting, and realistic people. I laugh because it captures that area so well. Even if you’re not from or never visited the area it works. She doesn’t waste time defining the phrases or words she uses but the context in which they’re used is self-explanatory.

Judi Fennell is another who uses well-placed slang, colloquial phrases, and clichés. Her stories play on pop culture and so it works. In her Mer series, she doesn't waste time explaining terms like shell fillers. It’s obvious by the way she uses the term what it means. There is quite a bit of humor attached to her plots and characters and her skillful play on words only enhance her writing. Judi makes up slang and colloquial phrases to fit her world and does it well.

Neither of these authors over uses these devices but they both know how and when to use them effectively.

If you write Regencies, you automatically use syntax of the era as well as the slang. It gives the feeling of place and time. Military suspense, thrillers, or romance use slang or jargon because the military has its own terminology as does law enforcement. Someone writing sci-fi or paranormal will create his or her own world jargon and slang.

I think it’s perfectly legitimate to use colloquial speech and clichés in your writing to add texture to your story so long as the terms fit and aren’t use merely as a form of laziness.
·        Do you use, colloquialisms, and clichés in your writing?
·        How do you decide when and how to use them?