Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Language Of Your Story

posted by Nancy

Eilis Flynn majored in linguistical anthropology, studying the study of languages before she went to work on Wall Street, which has a language all its own. She spends her days aware that there’s a reality beyond what we can see, and tells stories about it. Published in romantic fantasy, comic books, and nonfiction, she lives in Seattle with her husband. Today she's going to talk to us about language and story.

Welcome, Eilis!


Thanks, Nancy!

Language is basic to our existence. Language forms us and makes us who we are, from a species to a culture all the way down to an individual. The same is true of the language in the books we read and write; it does more than describe and form the people in the stories and their worlds, and create for us an image, intended or not, of the subject, each unique. How can we tell the language of the story is right?


Language also builds story character, not unlike the personalities of the people who populate the tales. Even if you’re reading and writing stories grounded in the here and now, the language is pretty specific. Think of it this way. To describe a place, whether it’s now or later or yesterday, the reader has to be drawn into the world: If it’s a contemporary, you’ll have to describe a world in which iPods and computers are everyday items. If it’s a contemporary set in, say, the South, maybe a mention of a meal with collard greens, and if a character is a native of the South, perhaps a mention of a drawl or at the very least, a “y’all” once or twice. (Hi, Nancy!) If it’s a story taking place in the Regency, the ton probably gets mentioned at least once. Right?

But if the ton never gets mentioned, something else of the period has to be mentioned. Or not mentioned. There’s never going to be a reference to a car. Or Queen Victoria (unless you’re dealing with time travel, but that’s another matter altogether). If you like to read historicals, you know how important it is to establish that long-ago world. If that world isn’t quite right…

We’ve all read stories that don’t seem to be quite in the right time and place, and we don’t know why the book isn’t a keeper. There may be something about the language that doesn’t quite sound right, if you’ll pardon the saying.

If you like fantasy, of course, it’s a given that you’ve got a certain sensitivity to language; whether it is simply the naming of a character, an ability, a culture, or even something as basic as a food, it is all too easy to jar the reader out of your story by misnaming something. If it’s a place and time far, far away, and long, long ago, having Darth Vader sit down and munch on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is going to take you out of the alternate reality that’s been created. (If nothing else, am I the only one who wondered how he ate? And whatever it was, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a PB&J.) Every place has foods unique to it. If the writer skimps on describing food, once again, the story is missing out on a vital detail, and again, the book’s a little disappointing.

Author Lisa Hendrix gave a workshop years ago about creating an environment in your stories, and used as an example New Orleans weather—wet, humid, heavy. She pointed out that the description of weather was in itself a character, always present, with a dynamic influence. Would you describe a desert environment as a sodden, green forest? Of course not. The language of your story has to be specific.

Language creates an environment. It’s Voice, the one that’s unique to the author. It shapes characters, worlds, stories.

What have you read that specifies and delineates a story and makes it a keeper? What have you read that uses food to establish the setting?

Give me an answer in the comments, and I’ll send a download of
Echoes of Passion to a random winner!

For more about Eilis and her work, check out her website. Her latest book is Echoes of Passion, available from Ellora’s Cave. Her next book is Static Shock, coming up from Crescent Moon Press.

28 comments:

Kim in Hawaii said...

Aloha is my language!

Kim in Hawaii said...

What have you read that specifies and delineates a story and makes it a keeper?

I recently reviewed Pamela Clare's BREAKING POINT. I generally shy away from romantic suspense, especially those involving military heroes, because they touch upon issues that are just a bit too close for comfort. I was convinced I would not like it ... but I was moved by it and have firmly placed it on the keeper shelf. Pamela successfully married romantic suspense with a humorous sensuality. She placed the reader in the middle of the action (as my heart was racing) but interjected the hero's humor to offset the looming danger (as any military hero would do in a rescue situation).

What have you read that uses food to establish the setting?

I can't think of a book but the movie version of EAT, PRAY, LOVE clearly established the setting in Italy that food was more than a quick meal, it was a way of life (I was starving by the time Elizabeth was eating pizza in Naples).

Gillian Layne said...

I'm a speech-language pathologist, so I love this post! Yes, the subtle nuance of something as simple as a word change can make all the difference. That's why teens with language disorders get in so much trouble!

Bertina Krahn's The Marriage Test revolves around food; the heroine is a genius in the kitchen, and the hero has a paralyzing aversion to smells. Combine the story with Krahn's lush descriptive skills, and it's so memorable, I'm still talking it up to people ten years after reading it.

Ellis, tell us about Echos of Passion. It's a lovely cover! :)

Nancy said...

Hi, Kim--Congrats on the bird!

The Pamela Clare book sounds good. I understand some things hitting close to home. Military heroes don't for me, though POW stories do because of my dad's experiences.

I haven't seen Eat, Pray, Love. The food movie that comes to mind most readily for me is Tom Jones. There's that scene in the middle of the movie where Tom (Albert Finney?) and a woman (Susanna York?) are eating ravenously and then go to bed.

And for some reason, that reminded me of the food fight in Animal House. Weird.

Nancy said...

Gillian, I'm not sure I knew you were a speech-language pathologist. What a cool job!

The Marriage Test sounds intriguing, the classic "worst possible person" dilemma with a twist.

The heroine of Kate's last book, Sweet Surrender, Baby Surprise was a baker. Cupcakes, I think.

jo robertson said...

Hi, Eilis, what an interesting post. Welcome to the Lair!

LOL at Kim's "Aloha is my language." Of course it is!

I don't think I've found very many anachronisms in literature, or if they were there, I didn't notice them.

But I remember hearing the story of Cecil B. DeMille's THE TEN COMMANDMENTS and how the extras were wearing tennis shoes as slaves hauling the blocks for Pharoah's pyramid. I guess they had to reshoot that :-D.

Minna said...

What have you read that specifies and delineates a story and makes it a keeper? I can't think of such a book. I can never quite put my finger on it why something is a keeper. But language does have something to do with it, at least in some cases.

Nancy said...

Jo, I would've loved to see the extras in their tennis shoes!

Nancy said...

Hi, Minna--Thanks for stopping by!

Slush said...

Welcome Ellis! I love this post and it resonates with me b/c the DH and I were just talking about dialogue in the Jesse Stone movie Stone Cold. How the character speaks makes the series a keeper. He says the right thing at the right time or in fact he doesn't say anything. The language makes the story/movie.

I desperately want to write like that, with a voice that would envelope readers and compel page turning.

Books that grab me with food: Sherry Thomas' Delicious. The Heroine is a cook and the food she is making sets the period and the environment.

P.S. Kim congrats on the Rooster.

Nancy said...

Slush wrote: I desperately want to write like that, with a voice that would envelope readers and compel page turning.

Me, too.

That Sherry Thomas book is on my TBR pile. Thanks for reminding me!

EilisFlynn said...

Kim, one keeper for me is Kathleen Gilles Seidel's TILL THE STARS FALL. Seidel intercuts a story of old lovers meeting up after many years with magazine articles depicting the rise and fall of a rock n roll group. Not only was the romance top-notch (every detail on the button and crisp, the characters well-defined), but those magazine bits were GREAT.

EilisFlynn said...

And like Nancy, when I think of food setting a scene, I think TOM JONES. (And think of it: anytime you see a banana, it's not necessarily just there for color and background. It could be a last-minute breakfast for a character; it could be a sex substitute; it could be a symbol of a far-off land!

EilisFlynn said...

Gillian, that's the exact reason why precise language can be so important! (And why Spanish learned from a teacher from one Spanish-speaking country may mean something else altogether different used in another Spanish-speaking country!)

My ECHOES OF PASSION uses the food of two nations -- previously at war -- as something that unites them. A common food spiced differently, my characters realize, is still the food of their childhood. (One people green, one people golden. Because I don't think we have nearly enough stories about green people!)

EilisFlynn said...

Anachronisms in fiction can be subtle, Jo; but writers who specialize in history will tell it's a constant struggle between making something accurate to the period but understandable to the reader. (I'm working on a historical thing now with a partner, but the research thing is clear: She does it. I'd be terrified of getting a bad source!)

There weren't sneakers in olden times? Wow! ;)

Nancy said...

Eilis, I have a historical ms. framed around a real event, and it poses a problem. The history is important to the story, so I have to work it in without going on at length about it and yet still clue the reader in to the different players and their allegiances.

Donna MacMeans said...

LOL Ellis - I'm reading the galleys for my August release and just finished a scene where the characters are sitting down for an eleven course meal. It's not so much the food that makes the scene specific to the Victorian time period, but the utensils and the ceremony - the order of courses, the wines to match, the leading in to dinner, etc. Personally, I can't imagine sitting long enough at a table to eat eleven courses!

I'm always checking to see if my words were used at the time of my story's setting. In Mrs. Brimley, I used the words "gene pool" which actually was used in terms of plants and animals. Lots of cross breeding was going on - but not so much when discussing humans. Rereading that scene I think I might have made a faux pas with that line. But so it goes.

Fun post! Hey Kim - great rooster nab!

EilisFlynn said...

Minna, GONE WITH THE WIND is a book that most people I know have read, and it's one that I've found you either really like or just do NOT care for. It hit all the points I enjoy with my reading: strong characters, vivid setting, language. I even enjoyed the 3d-person narrative commenting on the war even as Scarlett fought her own war back home. But I know people who couldn't stand the book; refuse to see the movie; hated the characters. One in particular hated Scarlett because she sounded so Southern. Huh? She was supposed to symbolize the South! A doomed beauty and all!

EilisFlynn said...

Slush, the dialogue pushed the buttons for you in Jesse Stone! He didn't slip out of character, we didn't see the Space Needle, for instance, in the background. You were brought into the story and there weren't any missteps. That's what we all aim for!

Anna Sugden said...

Hey Eilis! Great to see you here as our guest as well a regular visitor!

JD Robb's setting of NY in the future is one that always speaks to me - it's enough NY to be recognisable and familiar, but the deft way she adds in elements that are in the future gives the setting a whole new persona.

EilisFlynn said...

Nancy, my writing partner and I are having that same challenge. It's a tricky thing, and reminds me why I like fantasy!

EilisFlynn said...

Donna, now that's food of the period! At least the ceremony of the food, and as you've reminded me, there is ceremony indeed! I can't imagine an eleven-course meal either -- I get a 30-minute break for lunch at my day job!

And I think your character was obviously a forward-thinking kind of person with the use of that term. Right?

EilisFlynn said...

Anna, congratulations for your Golden Heart nomination! And that's why JD Robb's stories work: she's built a world using familiar elements, but through a prism (or, in my case, without my contacts) -- it's close enough to our own, but with details that are almost within reach. (Me, I still expect to have my own jetpack by the time I'm eighty, but I'm told I may be a little optimistic.) Thanks for commenting!

jennifertanner said...

Hi Eilis and Nancy!

Food has a language all its own. I find myself using food as an analogy for things all the time. Ruth Reichl's books always make me want to fire up my dutch oven and make something savory. Scenes from "The Joy Luck Club" brought back food memories...the sizzle of hot oil, garlic and ginger, and the soft, slightly sweet smell of freshly steamed rice. Katherine Sockett's book, "The Help" was another sensory evoking read. After I read it, I wanted to bake cakes, not eat them, but just smell them. :-)
Great post!
WTG Nancy on the GH. :o)

Cheers,
Pink P.

EilisFlynn said...

Pink, we wouldn't have culture without food preparation! Food IS culture AND language!

Nancy said...

Donna, I wonder how much of an 11-course meal people actually consumed. Dinner must've taken forever!

Nancy said...

Anna, I like the way New York of 2050/2060 is familiar and yet not in the J. D. Robb books, too.

Nancy said...

Jennifer, thanks for the GH nod!

I read one of Ruth Reichl's memoirs, the one about being a restaurant critic, and found it fascinating.