When I wrote my first novel, which takes place during the mid-1800s, the first major roadblock I ran into was that my dialogue was just not convincing enough. "Why would a slave speak like an everyday, ordinary human being?" one critiquer asked. And you know what? That particular critique was spot on. I had written flat characters onto the page, simply because I had ignored the speech patterns of each individual character. And I had avoided the lingo of the time period.
Among the three time periods I've tackled (1850s, 1920s, and 1940s) I'd say the one that takes place in the 1850s was the hardest for which to research the slang. Why, you may ask? Because it's not as easy to trace slang when no one today was alive during that time period (let alone really speak it since most of it is viewed as derogatory). Yes, it gets passed down and we find certain references in other literary works, but writing styles during the 1800s were quite unlike the writing styles we find today. Those writers may not have followed the slew of rules that bog down the more modern tippy typers, but a majority of literature one reads in a World Lit class, American Lit class, European Lit class, etc. was written by highly educated individuals (or incredibly detailed individuals). Now, I'm not saying that writers today aren't a wonderfully educated bunch, but the difference lies in the fact that colloquial speech is much more acceptable this day and age. But that also depends on the words one chooses to use.
When contemplating the use of slang in your manuscript there are a few things to keep in mind:
- First, take a look at your genre. Some genres (like sci-fi and fantasy) don't necessarily require the use of slang. In actuality, it might even age your writing. If you're using today's slang, then five, ten, twenty years from now, readers are going to see that what you wrote has become outdated (just take a look at some of those sci-fi movies from the eighties). There are a few exceptions, like with Steampunk, where history is mixed in, therefore the use of slang would actually add to your story.
- Secondly, don't overuse it. Slang is good in small portions. If you decide to go back and infuse your manuscript with this element, make sure you aren't writing large portions of dialogue or prose that get bogged down with slang. This just makes your writing ridiculous. Just like with any other element you decide to use (flashbacks, multiple POVs, the "to be"verb, etc.) keep it to a minimum. You don't want to draw unwelcomed attention to your writing -- you want that writing to sing, uninterrupted.
- Thirdly, don't confuse your reader. Finding a treasure trove of words from say, the 1920s, doesn't mean your audience is going to understand what you choose to use. Make sure your target audience is going to grasp the meaning of your chosen slang. With historical, readers expect a different vocabulary, but again, don't use the most obscure terms you can find. And put it into a context that can lead the reader to its meaning. For instance, when I referred to my protagonist as a partier I used the term "liberally spifflicated." It's an old term referring to one being drunk, and one of my critiquers instantly picked up on it and actually enjoyed the use of it.
- Lastly -- and keep this in mind -- know you're not writing to be "Politically Correct." If this mindset sets in, then know that you're not really writing -- you're putting things on a page that a PC-populous would want from you. As writers, we need to respect the lingo of our chosen time period, no matter how offensive it would be viewed today. There was a reason for its birth -- don't squash that reason with your seat-shifting need to avoid it. If you're not comfortable with writing certain words, then perhaps you should change aspects of your story around in order to avoid them.
|The Indian War Memorial monument|
(2006) courtesy of Wikipedia
If you've ever been to the monument, seen the inscriptions, and then read the plaque in front of it, then you've seen that some of the original inscriptions have been chipped away. It once read "Savage Indians", of which only "Indians" remains. It's been a while since I last visited the monument, but I also believe a couple other offensive terms have been removed (correct me if I'm wrong). Even so, should a monument, with an inscription that once reflected the charged, strife-filled atmosphere of Santa Fe, have its historical meaning removed in order to placate those who don't want a reminder of history staring them in the face? History is just that -- history. If we remove the words that created our world, simply because today we find them offensive, then how will we ever fully understand the past? As a historical writer that's exactly what I need to know in order to craft my story properly and bring a bit of what was once known to the world we live in today. Otherwise, we may just end up repeating that past so many others want to believe doesn't exist.
How about for you? Do you think The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn debate is a form of censorship? Or do you view it as minor corrections to a work children will read in their classrooms? Should we erase offensive slang of the past so as not to bring up the children of today in a world that still bears the scars those terms created? Can you think of other instances where either literary works or public inscriptions have been changed?
Just food for thought that I believe is worth munching on!
♥ Mary Mary
The Blogger Formerly Known As and also over at Jennifer Lane Books. Stop by and show them some love! Perhaps I will pass it on at a later date, but I'm just unable to at the moment.
Stop by and see what I've got going on over at The Random Book Review!