When Peppermint Barked, my 6th Spice Shop mystery, came out a few weeks ago, the owner of the local kitchen shop asked me to come by, chat with customers, and sign books. She’s sold a lot of my books – in a town without a bookstore, authors have to look for other partners and outlets – and I was delighted to hang out in the shop for an hour or so on a summer Saturday
The shop sells a line of infused olive oils and vinegars, and when I wasn’t chatting with potential readers, I listened in as two of the saleswomen gave samples and talked up the flavors, how the products could be used, what combos went well with each other and with what dishes. I’m a foodie, so I ate it up. But what I really loved was the language – and that’s why I want to share this moment with you. The terminology or lingo our characters use, the passion they speak with, even the sounds of their voices as they slip into something they know well and love – that’s another tool for bringing them alive on the page.
Think about that the next time you’re out and about. Eavesdrop, make notes, listen to what people say and how they talk about what interests them, whether its plants or tools or pets, or oil and vinegar.
“Poetry is a matter of life, not just a matter of language.”
– Lucille Clifton, American poet, 1936-2010, quoted in Listen to Their Voices
“I like the feeling of a told story, where you hear a voice but you can’t identify it, and you think it’s your own voice.”
– Toni Morrison, in Inventing the Truth (quoted in The Writer, Oct 2008)
“A word is a seed. It’s alive, like the seed of a plant or tree. Inside is its entire history. If you could cut it open like the seed of a plant, you’d see wonderful things. Or, better yet, if you could examine its DNA or its genetics, you’d find thousands of changes and contributions distinguishing the rocky, creative path from its beginnings to its present recognizable form.”
– Richard Goodman, in The Soul of Creative Writing (2008) (quoted in The Writer, Oct 2008)
“A writer can be born with a deftness in the word department, but it will do him no good unless he is born with a sensitivity to people.”
– Charlotte Edwards, in The Writer, Feb 1954, quoted in The Writer, Feb 2009
In a workshop at Left Coast Crime this past March, crime writer Robert Dugoni said his characters are swearing less and less these days, as he comes to realize that shock value neither develops character nor advances the plot, and that swearing turns away readers who might otherwise enjoy his books. Other novelists are making the same shift. I hope it’s a trend, not for the sake of purity, but for the sake of truth and precision.
“The annihilation of taste has not spared language. There is the curious notion that freedom is somehow synonymous with gutter jargon. At one time, people who worked in the arts would boast to one another about their ability to communicate ideas that attacked social injustice and brutality. Now some of them seem to feel that they have struck a blow for humanity if only they can use enough four-letter words. The trouble with this kind of verbiage is not just that it is offensive but also that it is trite to the point of being threadbare.”
— Norman Cousins, “An Epitaph for the Saturday Review — and Culture, Too,” in The Living Language 137, 138 (Linda A. Morris et al. eds., 1984) (via Bryan Garner, author of Garner’s Modern American Usage, in his daily blog)