Tuesday, February 25, 2014

My book in progress occurs largely in north central Pennsylvania, where I grew up. However, I've lived my entire adult life in Philadelphia, so I've forgotten some things, especially the dialect.

For a number of reasons, I never really embraced the local dialect in my rural hometown. My urbane older siblings mocked the "hick speak" whenever they visited. My parents are from Montana and Minnesota and their western and midwestern turns of phrase stuck with me far more than localisms. A few I remember: "warsh" for "wash," "redd up" for "tidy," "crick" for "creek." But the other elements of the dialect I can't quite reconstruct from memory. Thus, over the past few summers I took trips north to research dialect (cleverly disguised as family vacation time at a wonderfully old-timey amusement park, Knobel's, situated in the heart of "Pennsyltucky").

If you use a regional dialect in your work, here are some things to listen for when researching:

Regional pronunciations
Photo by Nika Vee, wikimedia commons
While I'm no fan of badly tortured spellings to represent dialect, a few well-placed phonetic misspellings can be effective. Here in Philly, the locals walk "down the shtreet," for example. (Okay, to my ears, it sounds more like "downa shtreet" but that's hard to read.)

Colorful idioms
My dad's westernisms like "in a coon's age" and "if it was a bear, it would've bit ya" speak volumes about the abundant wildlife in his region. Ask someone from New Hampshire and from Idaho to complete this sentence: "this winter has been as cold as ____," you'll get very different answers, usually based on local culture.

Word choice
When I moved to Michigan for grad school, I quickly learned that I'd crossed the great "pop" divide and could no longer expect to get anything but carbonated water if I asked for "soda." There's regional variation for all kinds of terms: supermarket or grocery store? Laundry or wash? Water fountain or drinking fountain or bubbler?

And what foreign words have worked their way into common use? Here on the East coast, Yiddish words including "chutzpa" and "schlepp" are common among urbanites. In Louisiana, French terms slip in frequently.

Word order
How grammatically one strings together sentences is determined partly by education and socio-economic status, and partly by region. You know the "rule" against ending sentences with prepositions? The Mid-Atlantic dialect turns it on its head, adding unnecessary prepositions: "Where are you at?" and "Where is she going to?" In parts of England, questions are often doubled: "Having a good holiday, are you?" or "Shall I Hoover the floor, yes?"

Cadence
Being able to hear and replicate the rhythm of a dialect is perhaps the most difficult skill you need to write convincing characters from a region other than your own. If you're musically inclined or have been trained in writing poetry, you have a bit of an advantage. It still takes a lot of listening to master. Aside from total immersion, it helps to have recordings to revisit and study.

Do any of your characters speak in a dialect that's different from yours? How did you research it? What regional speech variations have you noticed when you travel?
Tuesday, February 25, 2014 Laurel Garver
My book in progress occurs largely in north central Pennsylvania, where I grew up. However, I've lived my entire adult life in Philadelphia, so I've forgotten some things, especially the dialect.

For a number of reasons, I never really embraced the local dialect in my rural hometown. My urbane older siblings mocked the "hick speak" whenever they visited. My parents are from Montana and Minnesota and their western and midwestern turns of phrase stuck with me far more than localisms. A few I remember: "warsh" for "wash," "redd up" for "tidy," "crick" for "creek." But the other elements of the dialect I can't quite reconstruct from memory. Thus, over the past few summers I took trips north to research dialect (cleverly disguised as family vacation time at a wonderfully old-timey amusement park, Knobel's, situated in the heart of "Pennsyltucky").

If you use a regional dialect in your work, here are some things to listen for when researching:

Regional pronunciations
Photo by Nika Vee, wikimedia commons
While I'm no fan of badly tortured spellings to represent dialect, a few well-placed phonetic misspellings can be effective. Here in Philly, the locals walk "down the shtreet," for example. (Okay, to my ears, it sounds more like "downa shtreet" but that's hard to read.)

Colorful idioms
My dad's westernisms like "in a coon's age" and "if it was a bear, it would've bit ya" speak volumes about the abundant wildlife in his region. Ask someone from New Hampshire and from Idaho to complete this sentence: "this winter has been as cold as ____," you'll get very different answers, usually based on local culture.

Word choice
When I moved to Michigan for grad school, I quickly learned that I'd crossed the great "pop" divide and could no longer expect to get anything but carbonated water if I asked for "soda." There's regional variation for all kinds of terms: supermarket or grocery store? Laundry or wash? Water fountain or drinking fountain or bubbler?

And what foreign words have worked their way into common use? Here on the East coast, Yiddish words including "chutzpa" and "schlepp" are common among urbanites. In Louisiana, French terms slip in frequently.

Word order
How grammatically one strings together sentences is determined partly by education and socio-economic status, and partly by region. You know the "rule" against ending sentences with prepositions? The Mid-Atlantic dialect turns it on its head, adding unnecessary prepositions: "Where are you at?" and "Where is she going to?" In parts of England, questions are often doubled: "Having a good holiday, are you?" or "Shall I Hoover the floor, yes?"

Cadence
Being able to hear and replicate the rhythm of a dialect is perhaps the most difficult skill you need to write convincing characters from a region other than your own. If you're musically inclined or have been trained in writing poetry, you have a bit of an advantage. It still takes a lot of listening to master. Aside from total immersion, it helps to have recordings to revisit and study.

Do any of your characters speak in a dialect that's different from yours? How did you research it? What regional speech variations have you noticed when you travel?

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

You hear it all the time in publishing: "we want fresh takes on what's familiar." What does that mean exactly? Readers want to be delightedly surprised, not left scratching their heads. In traditional publishing at least, there seems to be a pretty good formula for accomplishing this--take a standard plot and add a twist.

Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces gave us the monomyth--the hero's journey structure found in pretty much every adventure story from The Odyssey to Star Wars to Harry Potter. And yet as structurally similar as those stories might be, the milieus in which they are set differ radically.

Now there are plenty of other classic structures beside the hero's journey (take a gander at Story Structure Architect sometime to learn about eleven structures and 50+ classic scenarios). That idea aside, consider what I just said about creating variations. It's about setting that story in a new milieu.

Milieu goes beyond setting. It also includes the larger context of social relationships within a setting--what this particular time and place values and considers taboo, how hierarchy works and bonds are strengthened or weakened. I speak more in depth about some elements of milieu in my analysis of a novel excerpt HERE.

Just how refreshing can a change of milieu be? Check out this ragtime adaptation of a recent hit song:



(You might also enjoy their Bluegrass version of "Blurred Lines"--it doesn't make skin crawl like the original does. The group is Postmodern Jukebox. You're welcome.)

This kind of historical adaptation can be a game changer for just about any existing plot. Think about it. Star Wars is a futuristic adaptation of events in ancient Rome. What if you took a Shakespeare play like As You Like It and set it in 1920s Paris? Or ancient China? You'd have a completely different story.

If you ever take this approach, I'd suggest that you start by selecting a milieu you know well or are passionate about so that it won't be boring or agony-inducing to recreate it. From there, pick a classic story that could open up in amazing new ways in this milieu--Huckleberry Finn in space, Gone with the Wind in the Yugoslavian Civil War. You could go anywhere with this.

What are some of your favorite story retellings/resettings/adaptations? 
Tuesday, February 18, 2014 Laurel Garver
You hear it all the time in publishing: "we want fresh takes on what's familiar." What does that mean exactly? Readers want to be delightedly surprised, not left scratching their heads. In traditional publishing at least, there seems to be a pretty good formula for accomplishing this--take a standard plot and add a twist.

Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces gave us the monomyth--the hero's journey structure found in pretty much every adventure story from The Odyssey to Star Wars to Harry Potter. And yet as structurally similar as those stories might be, the milieus in which they are set differ radically.

Now there are plenty of other classic structures beside the hero's journey (take a gander at Story Structure Architect sometime to learn about eleven structures and 50+ classic scenarios). That idea aside, consider what I just said about creating variations. It's about setting that story in a new milieu.

Milieu goes beyond setting. It also includes the larger context of social relationships within a setting--what this particular time and place values and considers taboo, how hierarchy works and bonds are strengthened or weakened. I speak more in depth about some elements of milieu in my analysis of a novel excerpt HERE.

Just how refreshing can a change of milieu be? Check out this ragtime adaptation of a recent hit song:



(You might also enjoy their Bluegrass version of "Blurred Lines"--it doesn't make skin crawl like the original does. The group is Postmodern Jukebox. You're welcome.)

This kind of historical adaptation can be a game changer for just about any existing plot. Think about it. Star Wars is a futuristic adaptation of events in ancient Rome. What if you took a Shakespeare play like As You Like It and set it in 1920s Paris? Or ancient China? You'd have a completely different story.

If you ever take this approach, I'd suggest that you start by selecting a milieu you know well or are passionate about so that it won't be boring or agony-inducing to recreate it. From there, pick a classic story that could open up in amazing new ways in this milieu--Huckleberry Finn in space, Gone with the Wind in the Yugoslavian Civil War. You could go anywhere with this.

What are some of your favorite story retellings/resettings/adaptations? 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Have you ever been struck at an odd time with a solution to a plot or character problem that's been niggling at you for weeks? I was actually awakened in the early morning by one of these kinds of "aha!" moments.

image: Camdiluv, wikimedia commons
I'd turned in some chapters to my crit group last week, hoping they could tell me what wasn't working in chapter 15. I was tired of staring at it, thinking something is not working, yet not being able to pinpoint it. This morning I woke with a jolt, realizing I'd been afraid to let some characters come into contact because the meeting could be potentially explosive. But writing away from the confrontation made the built up tension deflate. With that realization came several more about what was falling flat in the chapter and what followed. These wonderful insights were soon followed with the sinking feeling, why didn't I wait just one more week before sending those chapters out?

Had I held onto the problem chapters, would the solutions have come to me? Probably not. I needed my mind to unclench--something that came only after releasing the problem pages to others.

Reflecting on this phenomenon, I now realize that the more we try to force insight or solutions, the more they tend to elude us. Intuition does not behave as well under pressure as it does in states of relaxation.

This puts me in a bit of a quandary, however. Because I know this could become an excuse to let something simmer rather than keep working when plot knots or character glitches crop up.

Are there ways of letting go of a problem section to let the the subconscious mull it and yet maintain a writing routine? 

What do you do? Research? Sketch out possible permutations of other scenes? Pick up a side project for a while? I'd love to hear what has worked for you.
Tuesday, February 11, 2014 Laurel Garver
Have you ever been struck at an odd time with a solution to a plot or character problem that's been niggling at you for weeks? I was actually awakened in the early morning by one of these kinds of "aha!" moments.

image: Camdiluv, wikimedia commons
I'd turned in some chapters to my crit group last week, hoping they could tell me what wasn't working in chapter 15. I was tired of staring at it, thinking something is not working, yet not being able to pinpoint it. This morning I woke with a jolt, realizing I'd been afraid to let some characters come into contact because the meeting could be potentially explosive. But writing away from the confrontation made the built up tension deflate. With that realization came several more about what was falling flat in the chapter and what followed. These wonderful insights were soon followed with the sinking feeling, why didn't I wait just one more week before sending those chapters out?

Had I held onto the problem chapters, would the solutions have come to me? Probably not. I needed my mind to unclench--something that came only after releasing the problem pages to others.

Reflecting on this phenomenon, I now realize that the more we try to force insight or solutions, the more they tend to elude us. Intuition does not behave as well under pressure as it does in states of relaxation.

This puts me in a bit of a quandary, however. Because I know this could become an excuse to let something simmer rather than keep working when plot knots or character glitches crop up.

Are there ways of letting go of a problem section to let the the subconscious mull it and yet maintain a writing routine? 

What do you do? Research? Sketch out possible permutations of other scenes? Pick up a side project for a while? I'd love to hear what has worked for you.

Friday, February 07, 2014

It's phonics Friday, and because I'm currently down with an ice-slipping injury, I'm keeping it short today. Instead of doing my usual homophone clarity session, I thought I'd give a shout out for a book series I recently discovered, Homonyms and Confusing Words by Lisa Binion.

I know, I know, Binion is using the wrong word to describe this book. A homonym is a same name, like "beat," meaning whip and also territory. She really should have used homophone, meaning same sound, like "beat" and "beet." Well, don't hold it against her too much, because this is a very thorough collection. So much so that book one in the series covers only letters A-C.

What makes it uniquely helpful is the "and confusing words" approach. She bundles together not only words that sound alike, but also near cousins that are sometimes mistakenly swapped, like amity and enmity (which are actually antonyms; the first means friendship, the second, conflict or hatred).

The entries spell out meanings and give examples. She tends to give only one of each, so if you might need to cross reference with an online dictionary like Merriam-Webster at times. It's generally when one uses the less common meanings that real confusion sets in.

What are some terms you tend to confuse? 

Friday, February 07, 2014 Laurel Garver
It's phonics Friday, and because I'm currently down with an ice-slipping injury, I'm keeping it short today. Instead of doing my usual homophone clarity session, I thought I'd give a shout out for a book series I recently discovered, Homonyms and Confusing Words by Lisa Binion.

I know, I know, Binion is using the wrong word to describe this book. A homonym is a same name, like "beat," meaning whip and also territory. She really should have used homophone, meaning same sound, like "beat" and "beet." Well, don't hold it against her too much, because this is a very thorough collection. So much so that book one in the series covers only letters A-C.

What makes it uniquely helpful is the "and confusing words" approach. She bundles together not only words that sound alike, but also near cousins that are sometimes mistakenly swapped, like amity and enmity (which are actually antonyms; the first means friendship, the second, conflict or hatred).

The entries spell out meanings and give examples. She tends to give only one of each, so if you might need to cross reference with an online dictionary like Merriam-Webster at times. It's generally when one uses the less common meanings that real confusion sets in.

What are some terms you tend to confuse? 

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Many of us have suffered great difficulties and hardships, and as a result we've developed an internal organ for processing pain I call The Inner Fist. The Inner Fist clamps around that set of hurts and keeps it "safe"--unprodded, airless, always raw.
image: wikimedia commons

When anything comes at us that feels like the clenched pain--rejection, violation, terror and the like--the Inner Fist hits back. When it hits inside, it punches holes in our confidence, pummels our joy, hammers home the thought that, as usual, the universe and its creator are against us. Sometimes the Inner Fist hits outward, making us lash out at others or become pleasure-chasing addicts.

The Inner Fist strengthens itself by drawing around it expectations that we believe will make the hurt inside magically dissipate. As writers, some of our fist-builders are thoughts like these:

"I will get published and...
...I will have honor instead of shame"
...I will have worth instead of worthlessness"
...I will have abundance instead of deprivation"
...I will be popular instead of ignored or bullied"

Can any publishing experience bear the weight of expectations like these? Not likely. So the Inner Fist goes on punching us inside.

Unclenching the Inner Fist is the heart work of a lifetime. Until you grant access to the pain--to God, yourself, others--the Inner Fist will remain a destructive force in your life. It requires great courage, grace, faith and hope. It is the only path to peace and to creating great art that changes lives. That changes the world.

What unclenches the Inner Fist are ordinary graces--things like delight, wonder and play; learning, mentoring and teaching; communicating with open honesty; freely giving you time, skill, creative output and praise with no expectations simply because it's fun and makes you feel alive. Above all, the gracious work of love--God's, your family's, your friends', and yours for them--builds skin over the raw places.

At times these winds of grace may feel like a tornado. They may feel like self-immolation. Like tossing your possessions out the window. Like standing yourself before a firing squad. Who am I without my defenses after all? You'll never know unless you let light inside.

You might just find that the place of your deepest pain is a well of great beauty--your truth--which when drawn out, has the power to unclench other Inner Fists. I think of Anne Lamott's raw honesty in Traveling Mercies and Operating Instructions. Of Donald Miller's meandering hunger in Searching for God Knows What.

Have you felt the Inner Fist in your life? What ordinary graces have unclenched a finger or two for you? What books have encouraged you in your own heart work of healing and maturing?
Tuesday, February 04, 2014 Laurel Garver
Many of us have suffered great difficulties and hardships, and as a result we've developed an internal organ for processing pain I call The Inner Fist. The Inner Fist clamps around that set of hurts and keeps it "safe"--unprodded, airless, always raw.
image: wikimedia commons

When anything comes at us that feels like the clenched pain--rejection, violation, terror and the like--the Inner Fist hits back. When it hits inside, it punches holes in our confidence, pummels our joy, hammers home the thought that, as usual, the universe and its creator are against us. Sometimes the Inner Fist hits outward, making us lash out at others or become pleasure-chasing addicts.

The Inner Fist strengthens itself by drawing around it expectations that we believe will make the hurt inside magically dissipate. As writers, some of our fist-builders are thoughts like these:

"I will get published and...
...I will have honor instead of shame"
...I will have worth instead of worthlessness"
...I will have abundance instead of deprivation"
...I will be popular instead of ignored or bullied"

Can any publishing experience bear the weight of expectations like these? Not likely. So the Inner Fist goes on punching us inside.

Unclenching the Inner Fist is the heart work of a lifetime. Until you grant access to the pain--to God, yourself, others--the Inner Fist will remain a destructive force in your life. It requires great courage, grace, faith and hope. It is the only path to peace and to creating great art that changes lives. That changes the world.

What unclenches the Inner Fist are ordinary graces--things like delight, wonder and play; learning, mentoring and teaching; communicating with open honesty; freely giving you time, skill, creative output and praise with no expectations simply because it's fun and makes you feel alive. Above all, the gracious work of love--God's, your family's, your friends', and yours for them--builds skin over the raw places.

At times these winds of grace may feel like a tornado. They may feel like self-immolation. Like tossing your possessions out the window. Like standing yourself before a firing squad. Who am I without my defenses after all? You'll never know unless you let light inside.

You might just find that the place of your deepest pain is a well of great beauty--your truth--which when drawn out, has the power to unclench other Inner Fists. I think of Anne Lamott's raw honesty in Traveling Mercies and Operating Instructions. Of Donald Miller's meandering hunger in Searching for God Knows What.

Have you felt the Inner Fist in your life? What ordinary graces have unclenched a finger or two for you? What books have encouraged you in your own heart work of healing and maturing?