A. L. Buehrer What I Write and Why

Friday, August 29, 2014


Think about the people you know. When you start a conversation with one of your friends, you have certain expectations. You’re familiar with the kinds of things they say in various situations, and how they say them. You tend to have a good idea of how they converse. You can tell when they’re in a weird mood because they tend to say things that are out of character.

  Characters have voices. You can open a well-written book and read a conversation, and deduce things about the personalities behind the words. There’s an art to establishing character voices, of course. I know I could do better myself, as sometimes I catch myself just having all my characters talk like I do. There are some things that I try to keep in mind while writing dialogue that may help you.

  Keep in mind that different people have different vocabularies. Your education, line of work, areas of interest, social circles, and age are some of the factors that influence what words you use in casual conversation. You personally might be studying anatomy and physiology intensively, but the character you’re writing about doesn’t necessarily know the technical names for his different bones or muscles. If you are writing about an expert in a certain field that you aren’t so familiar with, study a bit and pick up some useful terms. Think about you’re character’s social life, and the time period when they probably established most of their conversational skills. Watch out that you don’t have an old person who uses a lot of millennial slang, unless he’s trying to be that way, or something.

  Which brings us to the subject of period writing. I tend to be critical of historical fiction. I wouldn’t exactly recommend imitating the way people talk in historical fiction paperbacks. I’d recommend reading some original sources from the time period in question. Don’t assume that the more awkward and wordy a sentence is, the more authentically historical it will be. You might be surprised by the informality that sometimes shows up in dialogue from the past. Take note of the words used, and be careful not to fall into using obviously modern expressions.

  The setting where your story unfolds also will have profound effect on dialogue. Phrases and terms are different in different countries, and even different regions of countries, sometimes. We all know a few U.K. terms: the trunk of a car is a boot and the hood is a bonnet, etc. Americans might make mountains out of mole hills, but a Pole can make an ox out of nothing, top that.

  It isn’t important to obsess over regional things like that all the time, casual readers probably won’t notice or care. What any reader will have opinions about is the use of dialect cues and phonetic spellings when it comes to foreign accents. My feeling here: just don’t do it. Go ahead and tell your reader that a character has a certain accent when they talk. Don’t try to write it down. Why? Because it almost never captures the essence of the accent portrayed. For example, I once read a book by one Jean Stratton-Porter called Freckles. (The only romance I’ve ever choked down.) In it there was a Scotch-Irish couple. Apparently, the word “well” with that accent sounds like “Wheel.” Somebody help me here. It that right?

  Even if the author is pretty good at it, (like Mark Twain) it tends to be really hard to read when all the words are grossly misspelled. It can be so distracting for an important character to have an accent that it detracts from the whole book. (At least for me.) Listening to a foreign accent is one thing, trying to decipher it in print is quite another. 

  I just wrote a book (A Hand with Five Fingers) in which the main character was from the United States, but everyone else was foreign. There was an Englishman, a German, and three Hungarians besides. Imagine the fun I could have had with phonetic spellings and how chaotic that might have turned out.

  Lastly, I want to point out how much the character’s intrinsic personality makes a difference in their speech. I wrote a series that spans three books so far called the Rhapsody Threnody Series tentatively, and in my opinion the characters in it are some of the strongest I’ve ever developed.

  The main character, Carmen Hess is cynical, and often depressed, but is carried through by her resolve and sense of humor. The books are written in first-person from her perspective, and therefore the whole narrative as well as her own dialogue are in her voice. She utilizes deadpan sarcasm and a lot of negative asides, and the whole text is embellished with weird analogies and unusual observations.

  Her best friend Candace Leonardi is colorful, upbeat, and always ruining Carmen’s bad moods. She tends to tease other characters good-naturedly, and uses a lot of informal language. She calls people things like “tiger” and “chiquita” and tells them not to give her “that jive”.

  Cecil Vorosvari, Carmen’s young ambitious piano teacher is emotional, obsessive, sensitive, and highly intelligent. He’s also foreign, and throughout the series is speaking his second language. His English is very good however, and he only “losses his English” on occasion, and, true to his personality, he is extremely eloquent. Another note about foreigners: just because they might not know a lot of English, doesn’t mean they don’t use complex words. Depending on the language, complex words may actually be easier to understand for them because they’re often similar to a related word in their own language.
  Now, this has been an incredibly long post. Sorry. I hope it was helpful enough to make up for it. As one final tip I advise that you read your dialogue aloud to yourself without the narrative to see how it sounds. Your ears don’t lie. If it sounds wrong, it is wrong. Tweak it, you’ll get it.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Dictionary and Thesaurus

One of the easiest ways to make your writing stronger and more artistic is to broaden your vocabulary. It’s natural for people to know the definitions of a great many words in their own language and quite a few in others, but the percentage that we actually use in speech or writing is pretty measly. We tend to favor certain words.

  That’s okay, until certain symptoms of limited vocabulary arise. I don’t like using the same word twice in a paragraph, especially a descriptive word, like an adjective or adverb. There’s a little more leeway with nouns. And, of course, if there really is no other word for a particular noun, there’s not much you can do about it. Verbs should only be used twice in a paragraph intentionally for emphasis, in my opinion.

  When you turn to your thesaurus to find a better synonym, there is something you have to be aware of. First, let me illustrate the problem. I was once working on a group English comp. project in college. (I hated it.) There were three of us and we were writing the paper “together”. We were writing a business proposal that supposedly was trying to solve the problem of over-crowded prisons by re-opening Alcatraz. (I hated it.) We kept having to use the term “violent criminals” over and over. The forensics major who was sort of spearheading the whole idea noticed this and suggested we find a synonym for “violent”. She decided she liked the word “vehement.” (I hated it.)

  Red light. A slightly more wordly-wise writer knows that a “vehement criminal” is by no means the same thing as s “violent criminal”, or a “pugnacious criminal”, or a “ferocious criminal.” The point here can be summed up in a definite fact of life. There is no such thing as a synonym.

  This is why you also will need to keep your dictionary handy. There are really two reasons to vary word choice: for color and variation, and to be sure you’re getting the best word for the situation. Clarity is generally considered to be a virtue in writing of any kind. In the interest of the clearest possible description, you want the word that means exactly what you want to say. When we say “violent criminal” we mean a criminal that has committed a violent crime such as murder, or assault. We do not mean a criminal that shows intense feeling. (Another so-called “synonym” for “vehement” was “convicted”, but it might have taken from my point to say we didn’t mean that.)

  You can use a thesaurus to take the ambiguity out of your writing and to make your descriptions more vivid. Think about the word “fight.” Somebody says, “Oh, they got in a fight” and you’re not absolutely sure how you are supposed to take it. Depending on the context, you may be able to make a safe guess. If we’re talking about a couple of girls who used to be friends, you might imagine they argued over some issue that was important to them. If we’re talking about a couple of cats, they might have clawed each other’s faces viciously and make horrible noises. Or it could be the other way around, but we don’t really know.

  The mystery is cleared up a little if you say, “they got in an argument”, or “they got in a wrestling match.” You can also imply things about the nature of a character by the words you use on him or her. “He walked in” is one thing, “he stalked in,” or “he shuffled in,” or “he swaggered in” have different implications, entirely.    

  I still prefer physical books to online sources. Online dictionary and thesaurus tools vary quite a bit in quality and usability. I still use them when hauling giant books with me is impractical but at home, I stick to the paper. One thing I like about using books versus the internet is I often end up finding other words that I wasn’t even looking for alongside my target. Whatever you prefer, getting in the habit of utilizing these sources is guaranteed to improve your writing overall.