If I dropped “It’s hoaching with kids” into a manuscript without any context, would you be able to guess what it means? How about if I told you that the speaker was looking down a hill at a playground?
As a writer, before I include this bit of culturally unique dialogue I have to decide whether the scene is important enough for me to risk confusing the reader. And that depends on the story and the character.
Since I write romantic thrillers, there aren’t a lot of places where I’m willing to potentially slow down the pacing to show off a cool regional phrase that many of my readers might never have encountered before. I’m more likely to add linguistic color when my current cast of international special ops soldiers are hanging out or preparing for/debriefing from a mission. Having a Brit use “torch” for "flashlight" is probably less risky than having my Scot say “the area is hoaching with rebels.”
Swear words and endearments are particularly easy ways to show a character’s cultural background without adding too much confusion. The reader might not understand the exact meaning of querida, but the context should make it clear whether the character is swearing or being tender.
Where do I find appropriate idiomatic gems for cultures that I’ve no experience with? Research! I’ve received lists of swear words from writers in Sweden and South Africa. I’ve consulted with writers here in the US regarding insults my Cajun and Oklahoman characters can throw at one another. And since I lived in West Africa for a couple of years, I have a good sampling of phrases in their unique English.
I also like to listen to comedians from the home region of my characters. Not only do I get a good sense of slang from comedians, but their routines often pick on cultural stereotypes in a way that only a native would think of. A few comedians I’ve enjoyed listening to during my research are Scottish comedian Danny Bhoy and South African comedian Trever Noah.
My primary resource for unique American English words and phrases is the podcast A Way with Words. Followers phone or write in to ask questions about the origins and meanings of phrases or words. I’ve started a list in Evernote of cool phrases I’ve picked up from this show. For example, a caller from Virginia said that they call goat poop “nanny berries.” While there are plenty of goats wandering around in parts of West Africa, I don’t have a character from Virginia, so I won’t be using this phrase. However, I might have one of my Southern heroes “mash the brake” instead of “stomp on the brake.”
Other places I’ve picked up regionalisms are writer forums, expert forums such as the Crimescenewriters Yahoo! group, and podcasts. I came across the phrase “It’s hoaching with kids” while listening to the Scotland Outdoors podcast from BBC Radio Scotland. I added this podcast to my arsenal as part of my research into Scottish speech rhythms and phrases for help with the Scottish hero of the second book in my WAR series, WAR: Intrusion.
One surprising aspect of my research was how common American expressions have become around the globe. There’s so much international exposure to American movies and music that people from other countries often use Americanisms. So I have to be doubly careful that a character really would use a culturally specific phrase and not an equivalent American one.
When I need that small bit of cultural flavor in order to flesh out a character, I refer to my Evernote lists and pull out something I think my character would say and that’s also contextually appropriate. If my readers drop out of the story to check the dictionary, I haven’t done my job.
As a reader, do you appreciate having characters use culturally unique phrases? Do you have any favorites from your region that should be included in my cool phrases file?
[FYI, “hoaching with” is a Scottish phrase that means it’s crowded with or swarming with. Hoaching can also be used by itself to mean a place is very busy. Such as, “the toy store was hoaching the day before Christmas.”]
Vanessa Kier writes action-packed romantic thrillers with an edge. She’s set her latest series, WAR, in West Africa, where she lived for a time. She’s also coaches writers in Scrivener and other tech.
You can find her at: www.vanessakier.com