It’s All How You Say It

28 Nov

You may have seen my earlier post on Caridad Ferrer’s book WHEN THE STARS GO BLUE. If not, check it  out.

That post (and the subsequent discussion with Caridad on twitter @barbferrer) is what made this blog happen.

So, Caridad’s books have Spanish mixed in: endearments, curses, sayings, and sometimes snippets of conversation. I loved this. It was like being with the guy bff’s family (except, you know, that would be in Italian). She writes everything in a way that even the expressions I didn’t know (or weren’t close enough to said Italian for me to have picked up) made sense in context. Think of it like those vocab words you don’t look up when you’re reading because you get the gist of the meaning.

Anyway. We were talking on twitter and I got to thinking — never a safe thing.

Here’s Caridad’s responses to MG Buehrlen’s question about writing such great multicultural books that are accessible to all readers:

@mgbuehrlen I think it’s b/c I’m not writing multicultural, per se. I’m writing, in a sense, from my own experiences. #starsgoblue
@mgbuehrlen I think it was @melissa_marr who recently said “Write for the teenager you were,.” #starsgoblue
@mgbuehrlen Without being aware of it as such, that’s just what I’ve done. My experiences were both individual, yet universal. #starsgoblue

This is where the thinking started.

This is exactly how I feel… and yet, for me it didn’t work the same. Let me explain

When I was younger I grew up in a neighborhood that was second-hand Irish. Almost all the kids I went to school with were first, second or third generation. An overwhelming percentage were Irish-American. A whole little section of my neighborhood had moved out of the city from their street there…which had been where everyone from the same lovely area Ireland had moved from (no, not Kerry. No, also not Cork. There are other counties in Ireland, people.) There are — with any culture bound together — certain ways of doing and saying things that are carried over.

So, picture this: The girl with the southern-midwest twang from her mama’s side answering “How’s your day?” with a lovely American-Irish cadence, “It’s grand, thanks. And you?”

Since high school, the moving and studying and public speaking have stripped most of both of those things from me. And yet, there they are in my writing. They live underneath all of us and come out when we don’t notice them.

Once, Wine Guy (aforementioned Italian bff) and I were at a movie and when the lights came up I said, “I wonder who that Irish guy was.” WG informed me there was no Irish guy in the movie (with a look that clearly informed me he thought I was nuts.)

But, the man’s cadence was clear as day to me. It was obviously Irish. I went home and checked. I was right (ignore the neener neener part here.) Later – I rented the movie and I could see that he was using an American accent. The only other friend who noticed it (the cadence) was South African (I swear, I do have friends that are originally born here too…. it’s just that none of them will be discussed in this post apparently.)

 About now, you’re all thinking, “Bria usually has a writerly point in her ramblings. Where the heck is she going with this?”

Just like that actor using his perfect American accent but his natural cadence came out, it can happen in writing.

(Stop here. I just spent 30 minutes explaining the difference between cadence and accent to Wine Guy — Okay, go.)

Here is an example of something I’ve said in manuscript that didn’t translate on the page for my beta readers: We’re going to have weather.

It took me three months to track down where this started for me. I thought it was the Nana (the southern mid-western one) but apparently it was the Gram (the Irish one). Not one reader skipped marking  it. I asked each of them, “Did you know what it meant? They all said, yes, but no one says that, so you can’t use it because it stops the reader.

Well, “No one says that” isn’t correct. I say it. My family says it. My entire neighborhood (all three of them) say it. I asked on twitter and a handful of other people around the USA say it. 

My point. Because I’m writing in English about English speaking characters whose background comes from English speaking characters, there is an expectation of sameness. That, all over America, we speak (generally) the same. That, if you use a word differently, you’re using it incorrectly.

Growing up around Boston we said wicked. Wicked pissah if you’re from mostly the north shore. And it’s much classier cousin Wicked awesome if you’re from the south shore. Way back then, if you heard anyone say wicked you could be 90% sure they were from there OR talked to someone from there a lot. Now, not so much. These things spread. Cable tv makes a sameness happen. There’s less localization of anything. When I was younger there was a huge distinction between music in each of my home states. Three different sets of styles depending on who I was staying with. Thing how infrequently that happens now. You might say, “Well, we’d never listen to country western here.” Okay, you may not. But there’s probably one country station where you are and it’s playing basically what somewhere that has five country stations is playing … tastes may be regional, but the actual music-per-taste, less so now.

Back to writing. So, the overwhelming langauge of our country — English — is now expected to have a sameness. Unless you’re using something that is obviously a regionalism to make a point, that sameness drifts there working hard to not stop the reader.

And so, what got me thinking about this was the fact that I don’t speak Spanish. You want to throw down in Latin? Well, it’s been a few years, but let’s see what I can pull out… But, Caridad’s use of it in her book not only worked on the “regionalism” level (in this case, a clear sense of the heroine’s ethnicity and background) but also gave it the flavor from those two. But, after having chatted about this  with her I realized (actually, I’d never thought this, but it became obvious) that she wasn’t flavoring her book. That the turns of phrases in Spanish were just there. As they should be.

I do wonder what her editors said, if there were push backs. But, mostly I realized that if we want to step out of the sameness, we have to step out into a completely different set of rules. I’m sure that Caridad’s Spanish dialogue follows for her Spanish speaking readers the same rules the English follows for her English speaking readers.

And so, where do you play with language? How far outside can you go? Slang comes from somewhere. Someone is always first to coin a phrase. But is that a writer’s best idea? Unless it’s the character actually doing that…then maybe.

But, what it all comes down to – on both sides, no matter what — is writing a clean book, a great story, and letting nothing stop the reader. To let them immerse themselves so far in, at the end of the book they share your joy and sorrow that the trip is over.

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2 Responses to “It’s All How You Say It”

  1. Kat Cantrell November 29, 2010 at 8:50 am #

    This is a very interesting take. I always thought of this kind of thing as voice, but I reread the post three times and you never used that word. So I *think* we’re differing on that and now I’m curious why you don’t consider it voice? Is it because we’re really talking about colloquialisms, which may or may not date a piece as well as providing regional flavor? In any event, I don’t think I’d mark a particular word or phrase as “hey, this stops the reader” if it’s something I think fits the mood or style of the story. I love it when that kind of thing pops up. I will admit to some difficulty when it’s pervasive, like in “These Is My Words” but it was so well done, I slogged through it. Who wants generic writing? Not me.

  2. briaq November 29, 2010 at 2:37 pm #

    No, I don’t consider it voice at all. Voice to me is more personal – I can get away with things because it’s my voice (just ask my poor belabored beta readers) but there are things — like the “we’re having weather” that UNLESS that is the character’s voice, are too far from the “sameness” of what we expect to have as an English reader.

    And no, I don’t mean regionalisms either 😉

    For example: If I had my urban Boston teen say things like “bless her heart” – well, there’d be an understanding of what’s going on and it probably wouldn’t stop MOST readers because it’s familiar enough to be read over – BUT, it’s probably wrong unless we’ve explained where they heck she’s getting her southern charm. Southern and Boston readers would quirk a brow at that – would it stop them? Probably not. Would it annoy them? Probably? But, it’s part of the regional sameness that’s expected within our language – it’s when you divert to far, get too narrow or too make-up’y of words (which I do all the time) where you walk a line – is it OBVIOUS what you mean? Does it fit in WITH your voice? Is it part of the overall pattern of the work OR a one and done so it feels out of place. These are the sameness questions that are part of a quick read.

    And, to add – I just reread part of the first book I wrote a couple years ago and I wish someone had burned my thesaurus. I know, off topic, but kindasorta not. 🙂

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