I like to curl up on a rainy day with a good book or short story. It’s nice to escape to other worlds or see this one through the eyes of interesting characters who find themselves in frightening or intriguing situations. Visiting other parts of the real world can be a great pastime as well. I’ve never been to England, but I kind of know the language—and the slang, vernacular, colloquialisms and the like. Some of them can be very entertaining—in a story set in England or if used by characters from locations where the variations are known to be common. For example mate as buddy or friend is common to England, Scotland and even Australia. So used in context with these places and/or people, “He was my best mate at school” makes sense and it adds to the realism of the story.
However, if you try to make an American character say something in the English vernacular, your readers will not thank you and, if they are American readers, they probably won’t forgive you either. Since I’m Canadian, Americanisms are an adopted part of our English culture (our Quebec counterparts are more focused on their French culture and do it so well none of this would phase them in the least unless you try to do it in French and mess it up), so we understand both buddy and mate. The exception being when you’re taking us along a wonderfully poetic and romantic narrative about an American character who suddenly says something like, “I really have to get myself sorted.” All of a sudden, I’m on my feet screaming and stomping and shouting, “Where the Hell did THAT come from?” And when I calm down and acknowledge that the author is probably British, I’m so distracted from the story, I have to back track and re-read (including the offending passage) to pick up the story again.
And therein lies the point of this post. Research and knowing your subject are key to writing realistically. When you know that the sentence should read “I really have to get myself straightened out” for it to be something an American would really say, you are writing accurate material that will keep the story flowing and the reader glued to the page, not throwing a hissy fit and a war dance in the middle of the living room.
Language and its variations are an important part of an author’s research and should be included as such. I’m also of the thought that we should write in the tone of the time and place of the scene which we are writing. London in the 18th century would sound very different from Los Angeles of the 20th or 21st century. Writing to match the time and place can help keep the reader in sync, especially if you’re going back and forth between them, as I am in my current project.
There are extremes to both sides of the research argument. Well researched and research well used are great tools when applied properly. However, over-research or research overused could be just as disruptive. By way of example, I have found a website that has all known English slang terms for male genitalia since the 1500s. Need I say more?
I look forward to you comments, particularly from other writers, but reader views are welcome also.
Oh, and by the way. The behaviour described above—the hissy fit—has been greatly exaggerated for the sake of emphasis.