Some years back I was reading a detective thriller that had me quite intrigued. The hero was a big, tough, former Army Ranger with a spine of steel. The bad guy was really, really deliciously evil. It was toward the end of the book and the chase was on. I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough and then the bad thing happened—the author made a terrible word choice. The bad guy was trying to lose the detective in a heavily wooded ravine and our big, tough Army Ranger “scampered up the hill in pursuit.” What the heck? “Scampered”??? Since when do big, tough Army Rangers “scamper.” I was horrified.
I finished the book and it was a good one but I have to confess that the use of that word hit me in the face and shattered the mood of that scene. What was the author thinking?
Maybe because I am a writer who loves words and who can obsess for days over finding the correct word when I am working, it was more jarring to me than to most readers but I learned a lesson. Be careful with your words. This is particularly true when writing dialog. It is not easy to capture dialog that rings true to the ear but it goes a long way toward making your writing authentic.
Because I’ve lived in the Boston area for the last thirty years I am particularly picky about characters who are supposed to be from this area. I love Dennis Lehane because he’s a master at it. Some of the dialog in his Mystic River sounds like conversations I hear on a daily basis. It’s easy to think, in this electronic age, that regional differences in speech aren’t as distinctive as they once were but this is not always true.
In my series of Marienstadt stories, set in a rural Pennsylvania Dutch town, I am always trying to weave in words that convey the people of that area. One such word is “pritneer.” I am reasonably sure that word is used in other parts of the country, but I can’t quite imagine a conversation in my hometown without pritneer in it. It is rather like “prolly” here in New England. Folks in other parts of the country prolly use that word, too, but it’s pritneer impossible to go a day or two without hearing it here.
In Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast he tells a story that I have always loved. One day he and Ezra Pound were walking in Paris when they encountered James Joyce, who was walking along with a very worried look on his face. They greeted him and asked how the writing was going. Joyce frowned and said, “I wrote seven words today.” Since Joyce was a notoriously slow writer they assured him that seven words was quite good for him. “The problem is,” Joyce responded, “I don’t know if they’re the right words.”
I know there is a school of thought that says writers should never resort to using a Thesaurus—that any word you have to search for in a Thesaurus will sound forced or unnatural, but I don’t agree. Sometimes I know what I’m trying to say but the right word eludes me. Recently I was working on a story and was unsatisfied with all the words that I kept trying out for a particular character. She was “dictatorial.” No, that’s not right. She was “imperious.” No, totally wrong. How about “overbearing?” Close, but too heavy-handed. I finally went to the Thesaurus and there I found my word—”bossy.” She was “bossy.” Perfect.