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Saturday, September 12, 2009

Keeping Pace with Colloquialisms

A song states “The times they are a changin’” and that is definitely true in all things, but I want to focus on the craft of writing today and colloquialisms. They can make or break your story’s setting, not to mention the pace of the story. With competition today from TV, video games, and sports, writers have a challenge to produce the best stories possible to keep the attention of their readers. This can cover a wide continuum from slower-paced character studies to fast-paced action, but always there should be a thread pulling the reader through the storyline.

The challenge with colloquialisms is to use just enough to set the stage or the character, but not so much that it is difficult to understand and slows the pace as the reader tries to sort it out. Take Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer as an example. Probably many of you read this book in school at one time or another. It is full of colloquialisms that give flavor to the Hannibal Missouri setting and the 1800s, but unless you’re able to immerse yourself in all that, it can be a tough read for today’s youth due to the liberally scattered expressions. Here an example: “Can’t Mars, Tom. Ole Missus, she tole me I got to go an git dis water and not stop foolin’ roun’ wid anybody.”

Other areas this crops up is in Scottish set historicals with all their dinna and verra and “Do ye no?” Oh--I do love those rolled rrrrrr's!

A writer’s job is to figure out just how many colloquialisms to use to capture the flavor of the characters and setting without distracting from the story or slowing the pacing. Considerations include whether it is a central character or a "walk-on" or "extra."

Since I write western romances, I use colloquialisms such as "waken snakes" which means to start an argument or fight. Then there is “pulled foot” which means to leave in a hurry. One of my favorite expressions is “feelin’ finer than frog hair.

Can you think of any favorite expressions that are used in your locale or ones’ you’ve read in a book? I’d love to hear some new ones…

For one lucky commenter, I’ll be giving away an autographed copy of my new release ~ Texas Wedding for their Baby’s Sake from Harlequin Historicals.


Keena Kincaid said...

Great post, Kathryn. I love spicing up dialogue with accents and colloquialisms, but as you point out, a little goes a long way. I just may have to adopt the "feeling finer than frog hair" phrase. I almost spilled coffee on the keyboard I laughed so hard.

Anonymous said...

I can't think of any phrases but I'm sure something will pop into my head AFTER I've entered this contest. Ha!Ha! I very much enjoyed this post. Please enter my name in your draw. Thanks. Would you like to have an ability such as Ever’s, to hear people’s thoughts and see their life story?

Joyce Henderson said...

Hi Kathryn,

Excellent topic! For years I and my critique partners have gone round and round on this subject. One throws in Pannsylvania speak, the other is from New Jersey. Then there's me with my down-home Texas drawl phrasing. I have come to realize, working with these two, that my colloquialisms are oftentmes as narrow as my family's usage. i.e: Buck-hannan for Buchanan, San Antone for San Antonio. Wash sounds like warsh from my aunts' mouths. LOL

Right now I'm going round and round with my editor about the
Comanche language and the symbol that looks like a ? at the end of many words. I may have to ax them because they may stop the reader, even though I include a page of translations. 'Tis a conundrum.

Joyce Henderson said...

Woe is me! It's Pennsylvania, not Pannsylvania. :-/

Linda Warren said...

Hi Kathryn,
Great post. I use colloquialisms a lot in my writing. I was born and raised in Texas and my books are set there. I use some of the saying in my writing I've heard all my life. Of the top of my head;
Pretty as a speckled pup
Boot scootin'
Handy as a pocket on a pair of pants
Rare as hen's teeth
Horse feathers


Kathryn Albright said...

Keena--thanks for stopping by! Glad you got a good hardy laugh out of that phrase. My husband uses it all the time (he's a bit "southern country.") With your historical/paranormal stories, I imagine you use a lot of dialects and unusual language/phrasing.

Kathryn Albright said...

Hi Wanda,

I guess I don't know about Ever's--I'm in the dark. However--to hear people's thoughts? No. Don't think so--although it sure would give me a power over them. I have enough ideas and thoughts pumping through my head without adding other people's. Thanks for commenting.

Kathryn Albright said...

Hi Joyce,
Ha--I thought Pannsylvania was some secret dialect I hadn't heard. You could have gotten away with it...Your books look very interesting with all the Comanche language. I'll have to pick one up. Thanks for taking time out of your day to stop by!

Kathryn Albright said...

Hi Linda! Loved the one about puppies! I'm just tickled that you stopped in here! You are one busy lady this year with all your releases! I downloaded Once a Cowboy (I do love that cover!)to read from the Harlequin site and look forward to reading more of your books! (Need to find the Rita finalist one!) Thanks for commenting!

Virginia said...

Thanks for the fun post. I love colloquialisms. I'm from the South, and we have some doozies! "Jarred my preserves!" means shook me up! "Head hog in the trough" is the boss. A "gulley-washer" is a heavy rain storm. If something "starched my shorts", it really ticked me off! "Snapped Granny's garters" means it got your attention! Too many more to mention. gcwhiskas at aol dot com

Kathryn Albright said...

Virginia--these are Great! I'm laughing out loud! Thanks for sharing!

Tanya Hanson said...

Hi Kathryn, there's nothing I dislike more than "too-modern" language in a historical, but I agree, spelling out dialog phonetically can be hard on a reader. Your example of Twain is spot-on. I think it best to mentionin the speech tag, the sound you want. e.g.. The Scotsman rolled his r's every time he spoke.

In Westerns, I like colorful expressions of the time, but I'm reading one now where the author uses them waaaaaay too much. Enough already. I get it. I don't think you can go wrong with an "I reckon" or simply leaving off the subject "I". "Don't want to," he said with a drawl.

Dunno and wanna do work for me though LOL.

Thanks for the great post.

Kathryn Albright said...

Hi Tanya! I agree--I've read few westerns where the overuse of this type of phrase gets on my nerves. Just a light dusting pu-leeze! I enjoy just enough to be able to "hear" the words in my head and they sound authentic. Thanks for stopping by!

Kathryn Albright said...

Hi all--
I'm going to have to bow out a bit early today. I have plans for this evening. I'll check back on the blog to see if there are anymore comments made before midnight and then draw the names from a hat to see who gets the copy of my newest release!


Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

I'm too tired to think of anything, but a current one. I was doing an online quiz to see how Louisianian I was. My daughter was with me and they wanted to know what it was when you go grocery shopping. Okay, I admit, I didn't know, but my daughter did. It's called "making groceries."

BTW, I have a book I'd suggest to those writing westerns "Western Words: A Dictionary of the Old West" by Ramon F. Adams. I've used it a few times on my blog as a match up game. Very good reference. Oh, I guess I could pull a colloquilism from it....

"Raised on sour milk," said of a crank or disagreeable person. pg. 122)

Gwynlyn MacKenzie said...

A personal favorite is "Colder than a witch's tit." My mom used to say my brothers were "thicker in the head than a bull in the as...butt." Then there's "As Useless as tits on a bull." One I use a lot---usually when speaking of toddlers--is "He has more hands than a clock maker."

I could bore you senseless between those used by my Scots/Irish and my PA Dutch (The hurrier I go, the behinder I get) sides of the family. If you said a word, someone had an adage.

Philly is crawling with colloquialisms. My dad still says zink for sink, yous is just part of the language, and the Boulevard Shuffle isn't a dance but something needed to learn ere you got your driver's license---and he hasn't lived in the city since 1960.

For myself, I write medievals, so time can be conveyed by how the sentences are formed moreso than by colloquialisms.

Hope something here is "new" to you.

Mari said...

Around my neck of the woods, when I was a kid, the working class families like the one I was born into used to say "yous" and "I says".

Such as:

"Which of yous guys are going?"


"I says to the doctor...."

It's something I didn't catch until I traveled and met people from different states and countries.

runningmatey at hotmail dot com

Patricia Barraclough said...

Originally from Upstate New York,, we've settled in NE TN. The speech patter here is much different. The one that is most confusing is "I don't care to ______(go to the store, watch the baby, whatever.)". To my yankee brain that means they don't want to. Nope, it means they want to.
At the post office, the the carriers are delivering partials (instead of parcels).
So....I don't care to deliver the partial to George.
(Meaning, i'll deliver the parcel to George. ) Clear as mud - which is another colloquialism I guess, but I brought that from home.
My husbands cousins from New England put pop in a sack at the market. (Put soda in a bag at the store.)
Thanks for a fun post. Isn't language grand.

Sandra Hyatt said...

Hi Kathryn - Good post. One that confuses me in contemporary US usage (unless I've got it wrong) is "I could care less" to mean "I couldn't care less". Fortuanately, I get picked up by my editor on New Zealand colloquialisms that slip into my writing. Although sometimes there are expressions she hasn't recognised that someone from another state might. Some people say we have a few speech idiosyncracies in common with the South. (I use 'reckon' quite a bit and will sometimes say 'chuck' for throw.

Christie Craig said...


My dad says finer than frog hair, and I've used it in my book. I love southern sayings. Great blog.


Kathryn Albright said...

Wow! Thanks for all the great comments after I "left" yesterday! Lots of fun expressions!

Anna - Thanks for the tip on the book by Adams. I've heard of it before but don't have it in my collection.

Gwynlyn - I liked the "hands" one. For talking about the cold I've also heard "Colder than a grave digger's shovel." Thanks for stopping by and suggesting a few. PA Dutch--it scares me how my mind thinks like that sometimes--kind of comes to me naturally. (I'm English/German.)I have to be careful in my writing to edit it out.

Mari - Thanks for commenting. I've heard those before too--from friends in school who were from the "country." I'm a city girl myself. (Just happen to love the country and my roots are there in my grandparents.)

Kathryn Albright said...

Patricia - Yes! It is grand indeed! And I would have been so confused with the Tennessee expressions! They seem just opposite of what is meant. Thanks for sharing them.

Sandra - Glad you stopped by and added a few colloquialisms from New Zealand! How cool is that?

Christie -- Thanks for commenting! I appreciate you stopping in.

Kathryn Albright said...

Gwynlyn MacKenzie is the winner of the random drawing for a free, autographed copy of Texas Wedding for their Baby's Sake.

Congratulations, Gwynlyn!

Send me your address and I will get it in the mail to you. You can contact me at kathryn@kathrynalbright.com

etirv said...

In Hawaii, we always ask or say "Fo' real!"