Words are water. They flow and sometimes they freeze, they evaporate and reappear elsewhere in storms and showers. Sometimes you drown in them and at other times your lips crack at the paucity. A writer has to treat this liquid lego with respect by, for instance, avoiding the metaphorical acrobatics that I’ve just engaged in. Metaphors should communicate, not distract, and overindulging in word play does the latter.
There are endless word-traps that risk having readers tossing your masterpiece in the bin. Birthdays for instance. Words are born. They have a beginning and life, an etymology. But don’t get depressed—well, not if your novel is set before the late eighteenth century because they didn’t get depression in those days, they got melancholia. Then, mental illness had just two states: *raving mad and melancholic.
I’m not suggesting your characters use only language of the time. That too would put readers off. But it helps with setting and character, and believability, to get contemporary colloquialisms and important words, like a medical diagnosis, correct.
Same with idioms, accents, dialects and slang: used in moderation they delineate your characters; overdone they irritate and confuse. For instance, ‘like’ and ‘basically’ as meaningless fillers have become common among certain social groups. Used by a writer occasionally will have readers nodding in recognition. Used as often as they’re used in reality would have them nodding off.
With accents and dialects, the odd extended vowel or mispronounced consonant to suggest a foreign or regional accent is helpful, whereas lots are usually comic or confusing (there are notable exceptions).
Word usage defines education and age. I doubt I would have come up with ‘etymology’ before I studied English literature, now it’s ingrained. Dad often talked of ‘deaded’ and ‘drownded’ and I constantly pulled him up on it. I was wrong, it’s old English. It defined him. It fitted his age and background. If I ever write about Yorkshire miners during WWI1, I’ll use them and whisper a thank you to him.
They words we choose and the words used by others about us define our class, caste, status, call it what you will. Used skilfully by a writer they can make a dramatic point better than any lengthy diatribe. When I wrote that melancholia was the old medical word for depression, it wasn’t wholly true. The word had connotations of troubled genius and, as such, was reserved by the medical profession for the educated upper classes. The rest of us had the *mopes.
*Source: Fugitive Minds by Antonio Melechi
Book review/recommendation: Pure by Andrew Miller
Set in France just before the French revolution, it tells the story of an engineer engaged to clear an overcrowded and polluting graveyard. There’s a real sense of impending change and an uncertain future as the stinking past is disinterred. Characters are Dickensian in their eccentricity but the writing is fresh and sharp, the subplots deftly handled so we don’t linger too much on the rotting dead, and the ending (so often a disappointment) is satisfyingly in keeping. A great book by a Westcountry author I’m looking forward to reading more of.