"No matter how terrified you may be, own your fear and take that leap anyway because whether you land on your feet or on your butt, the journey is well worth it."
-- Laurie Laliberte
"If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough."
-- Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage."
-- Anais Nin

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Local Flavor or Culture Shock?

Oh my gosh! I'm writing about editing for a second week in a row. I can't explain it. I suppose I just felt the need. Anyhow...

I talk to my clients quite a bit about "vernacular." Basically, what that means is the way locals speak in their day-to-day lives. It's the less formal, regional speech.

As writers and/or editors, we need to be careful of how much local flavor we inject into our stories or we risk alienating readers. Let's face it; if a reader doesn't "get" what a writer is saying, all may be lost.

If you read last week's post, you already know that a writer with whom I work once (okay, maybe more than once) received a review that demanded I be fired for the numerous spelling errors in his book. You also know that the same book was written in the Queen's English, not American English, because the writer is British. Situations like this, I can not, and will not, change. I believe if an author is a Brit, then he should write like a Brit. Besides, the writer in question is fairly successful and becoming more popular. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, right?

However, there are times when too much is simply too much. Especially (but not exclusively) with American writers. You see, this nation is so large that regional dialect can be as difficult to understand as when one moves between nations in Europe. Our ears must become accustomed to dialect, and even varying expressions, before we can fully understand our neighbors.

For an over-the-top example of local dialect, try reading Lady Chatterley's Lover by D. H. Lawrence. Lawrence, in my opinion as both a reader and an editor, seriously overused the less educated accent in Oliver Mellors speech. I found the dialogue quite difficult to read. So much so that twenty years later, I still hold it out as a bad example. (I'll save Lawrence's misogynistic views for another time.)

We need to be aware that not everyone will understand our own vernacular and that we should inject it into our stories with some restraint. If your story takes place where you've lived your entire life, you will fully understand all of it, right? But think about the visitor to your home.

I'll give you some examples:

  • In New England we call a particular dish "Chinese Pie," but most of the rest of the world calls it "Shepherd's Pie."
  • "Goulash" or "Macaroni and Beef," in most of the country, is "American Chop Suey" where I come from.
  • Order a "Sub/Submarine Sandwich," or a "Hoagie," or a "Grinder," and you'll get the same thing in various parts of the country.
  • Do you know the difference between a "Shake" and a "Frappe"? There is none, except location.
  • And let's go across the pond for a cup of "Rosie Lee," then return to the States for a cup of tea.

Although food choices are the easiest to spot, they do not hold an exclusive, for instance:

  • In Oklahoma City, "Putting your boots on in the street" means you're rushing out of the house or on your way to your destination. In Boston, it means you're homeless.
  • In Pittsburgh, something that "needs fixed" is broken and needs to be fixed.
  • Most of the American South is "fixing to" do something, but the rest of the country is just getting ready to do it.

My point is that local flavor is a beautiful thing, but too much of a good thing will give your readers a belly ache.

Happy Writing!


  1. I'm enjoying your Blog immensely.

    1. Thank you, Susan. And thank you for taking the time to let me know.