Insights into the Craft of Writing
Being There: The Writer Takes a Vacation
First off, the writer should never take a vacation. At least not from writing. Always be writing, even when you’re out there. Over the next few months, writers will join millions of other Americans in sojourning forth on vacation, by road, rail, wing, and sail. Sipping fruity drinks. Snapping pictures. Living it up. Take advantage; trips provide marvelous opportunities for writing because they throw the new and unexpected right in your face.
Good writing lives in details, and there’s no substitute for getting the details right. You want to set a mystery novel in Paris, but you’ve never strolled through the City of Light, and never plan to? Where’s the fun in that? I recommend moving the setting to Epcot France Pavilion, because that’s how your rendition is apt to feel.
You can fake it, of course. You can peruse online photos of the Eiffel Tower and report with confidence that it’s tall and pretty and made of steel and juts into the sky. But pictures don’t do it justice. When you stand beneath the splayed, gargantuan legs that arc upward in a vast sweep as if in motion, you feel the combination of exquisite grace and stupefying power and mass. Still, you might fake your Eiffel Tower because we’ve all seen its image a thousand times. A shorthand version might suffice.
It’s much harder to fake the little things.
When you travel, pay as much attention to the details as to the post-card scenery. On a recent trip to Ireland, my wife and I prowled the thousand-year-old monastic ruins of Glendalough, the tumbled buildings of limestone that huddle together in a high green valley of the Wicklow Mountains. The monks had tended a cemetery over the centuries, and the clustered markers and headstones tilt and stoop like mourners before ancient roofless buildings, their chiseled messages nearly erased by time, their faces mottled in blacks and whites and browns and reds of lichens. The written guides tell their histories well enough, but fail to convey their spirits like seeing them.
Off the Atlantic coast, on Inis Mór of the Aran Islands, we hired a lean, gray-haired cabbie to take us on a spin. Nice guy, liked to tip the bottle a bit, as we could tell after a stop to let us hike up to the ancient fortress of Dun Aengus. As he showed us around the island, he pulled over and pointed to a small shabby ruin and said, “That’s the house me dad grew up in.” We nodded and smiled, and he got to his point. “Ye’ll want a picture o’ that.” So we took a picture. Then he paused, and pointed out his family’s gravesites, off by themselves, adorned with fresh flowers, for another picture. It was touching, and we got the local feel in the best way.
At another point, our cabbie stopped chatting us up in his thick countryside brogue to speak to a pal in Gaelic Irish. Completely different language, and a beautiful one too. He turned back to us and continued in English without missing a beat. All the Aran Islanders speak Irish as the native tongue.
We mostly drove ourselves around Ireland, not wanting to forego the white-knuckled, left-lane driving experience. After surviving the first nerve-tearing, death-gripping, sweaty half-hour after leaving Dublin Airport, I kind of settled in and got used to it, at least until venturing out onto the impossibly narrow and winding Irish country roads, so tight that roadside hedges often whip the car’s mirrors, and so tight that at times you edge off the path to let an approaching vehicle squeeze past.
The point of all this is not to bore you with slides of my summer vacation, but to illustrate how details bring a place to life. Find those details. Take notes. Understand them. Don’t fake them. I had already planned a short story set in Ireland, and had a notion of the outline before I visited. Upon our return I wrote the story, relying on my experiences there, and plan to write more.
A few years back I wrote Place of Fear, set in Guatemala. I had researched the heck out of the environment, history, government, social structure, and attitudes of Guatemalans. I think I got that more or less right. I finished the book and felt that it was pretty good, but something wasn’t right. I hadn’t been there. I hadn’t felt the earth beneath my bare feet. I faked it. So I tabled that novel and tackled a new one, set in Florida, a place I know inside and out. Then I visited Belize and Guatemala to get up close and personal. Drove across both countries. Ate the local food. Trekked through jungles. Climbed pyramids. Waded through rivers. Canoed into a dripping limestone cave that housed the bones of the Mayan dead. Sweated a nerve-wracking border crossing. I came away with a clearer picture and a boatload of details, and rewrote the earlier novel. And I was much happier with the results.
That experience taught me the value of knowing the places and people I write about. Don’t fake it, I tell myself. Others will know, and even if they don’t, I will.
Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.
― Mark Twain
Right Word, Wrong Year: Fun with Etymology
Sometimes while reading a short story or novel with an historical setting, you come across a word or phrase that causes a bit of a stumble. The reason might be obvious or not. It might be that the word or phrase is lumbering about way outside its era.
Maybe it’s a novel of the American Revolution, wherein General Washington receives more bad news in frozen Valley Forge, and orders his lieutenant to Philadelphia with an urgent plea for help. So far, so good. “Okay, General,” Lieutenant Higgins replies, “but the horses cannot be made ready until dawn.”
There’s the problem. “Okay” came about as slang, an abbreviation of “oll korrect,” a phonetic variation on “all correct.” It didn’t appear until around 1839, and probably wasn’t in widespread use until a considerable time after that. It’s out of place in 1778 by a good sixty years.
Etymology is the study of word origins, and it fascinates. In English, the roots of words come from all over. The ancient tongues of Britain laid the foundation, but Roman occupation stamped Latin heavily onto those, as it did across much of Europe. The Norse later barged in and left their offspring and their vocabulary, and later still the Normans—those frisky hybrids of French and Norse—invaded in 1066 and imposed another great wave of linguistic change.
Suppose you’re writing an historical novel set in an England of antique vintage. Maybe in Jane Austen’s day. You write a line of dialogue: “I say! That was a whopping big mistake.” “Whopping big” strikes you as untrue to the era so you replace it with, “That was quite the preposterous boondoggle.”
“Boondoggle” sounds like a word right out of Shakespeare, and certainly one that Mister Darcy would have tossed about. The problem is, it didn’t appear until around the early 1930s, and in America, where gadflies coined it as a term of derision for certain public works projects. “Preposterous,” on the other hand, passes the test. Dates to the 16th-century and still graces the language today. And “whopping” worked fine anyway, as its use appeared in writing as long ago as the 1620s.
Still, you write for a modern audience and there are limits to which you can take authentic, era-correct language. The farther back you go, the less English sounds like our English. Beowulf, among the oldest surviving epic poems in the English language, is almost unrecognizable to us:
Béowulf wӕs bréme, blaéd wide sprang—
Scyldes eafera, Scedelandum in.
This translates into modern English as:
Beowulf was famed, his renown spread wide
Scyld’s heir, in Northern lands.
Clearly you can’t be an absolutist with authenticity that far back and produce a readable book.
Don’t worry too much about authenticity in a first draft. You can always go back and check afterwards. So pound out that first draft and pay little attention to the era-appropriateness of the words. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!
Ease up, big fella. Let’s talk about that last line. It’s attributed to Admiral David Farragut during the Battle of Mobile Bay in 1864. Not to be a killjoy, but Farragut’s actual command apparently was, “Damn the torpedoes. Four Bells, Captain Drayton, go ahead. Jouett, full speed.” But yeah, the popular version packs a lot more punch. In either case, in Farragut’s day “torpedo” meant a tethered mine invented by Robert Fulton in 1801, not the self-propelled explosive machine we call a torpedo now. That wasn’t invented until 1866 and not much in use for some years after, so don’t torpedo your novel of 1857 by describing a self-propelled torpedo which didn’t exist even though the word did.
In fact, we can go further back with “torpedo.” The ancient Romans coined it to describe numbness, and it’s related to torpid and torpor. The name was applied to the electric ray fish around 1520. This nasty little beast packs an electric wallop much like that of an electric eel, known since ancient Greece to cause instant numbness. So the evolution of the word from numbness to electro-shock fish to underwater explosive weapon makes sense.
Languages evolve. And words may persist but their meanings change. “Loophole” now vastly differs from its meaning in the 13th-century, when it denoted a narrow slit or hole in the castle wall through which you shot your enemies with bow and arrow. “Sidetrack” now carries a sometimes negative meaning (“sorry, boss, I got sidetracked from the oh-so-important tasks you cooked up”), whereas in the 19th-century it literally referred to a side track, an extra rail siding next to the main railroad, upon which trains and cars could be shunted aside for other trains.
In etymology, the first usage of words often amounts to a best guess. A word may have been around centuries before it ever made its first appearance in writing. Beowulf appeared somewhere between the 8th– and 10th-centuries, but its words existed long before.
Read authors contemporary to the time about which you’re writing. Setting your novel in 1840? Read Dickens. If 1890, read Twain and Doyle. If 1935, try Hammett and Sayers and Steinbeck. Absorb the structures and cadences. You’ll get a handle not only on the vocabulary but on habits of speech as well. Emulate them. Steal them.
It’s okay. Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead.
Crave more wordy guidance? A good resource is Online Etymology Dictionary.