How many of the following have you heard, read, or said in the past year?
“We couldn’t go to Florida this year because covid.”
“I have a Zoom meeting at 3.”
“My kids are doing remote today.”
“Senior shopping hours start at 6 a.m.”
“My church has in-person worship, but you have to register.”
“I got my vaccine appointment!”
“Can’t believe the hospitals are low on PPE again.”
“Our state’s positivity rate is down to 2.5%.”
“We do curbside pickup!”
“I’d love to go to the U.K., but they’re in lockdown.”
“I missed Thanksgiving because I had to quarantine.”
“Did you get Pfizer, Moderna, or J&J?”
Two years ago, none of these lines would have made sense. Now, we’re fluent in the language of the pandemic. Statements like these brand us as the people who have spent the past year battling the deadliest virus any of us could ever have imagined.
This is why those who write historical fiction often devote enormous amounts of time to researching not only facts, but the language of the era. Books and articles written during the time in question reveal not only information, but the manner in which it was conveyed. Pride and Prejudice shows not only how men and women interacted in Jane Austen’s time, but how they spoke, as well as the words and images she, as the narrator, used to describe their behavior.
Geography frequently defines a character’s speech. A resident of Queens, New York, may inquire whether you plan to accompany them by asking, “You coming with?”, while a person from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, may ask, “Are yinz coming?” (For the uninitiated: “yinz” is a contraction of “you ones.” According to dictionary.com, “Yinz is a Pittsburgh equivalent to y’all.” It is entirely possible that this entry was written by someone from the southeastern United States. No native New Englander would have made that comparison.) A Boston resident may inquire where the bubbler is, and a Connecticut resident will have no idea that they are referring to a water fountain, while a California resident may wonder why both are referring in such strange ways to a drinking fountain.
Different professions also have their own languages, and woe to those who misuse that language, for they instantly reveal themselves as outsiders. Every time I read or hear a character saying that a case will “settle out of court,” I know at once that this person is not a lawyer. Lawyers don’t say “settle out of court”; we say simply that the case settled, because we know that settlements, by definition, are out-of-court resolutions. Researching the way your characters speak requires an extra investment of time and effort, but failing to do so may jolt a reader out of the story.
If you don’t share your characters’ race, ethnicity, or gender identity, be especially careful to research the appropriate and accurate language. I’m not saying you can’t write about diverse characters—far from it—but I encourage you to do so knowingly and respectfully. Based on my research over the years, here’s my opinion as a straight white cisgender Christian woman: when you’re not a member of the group, the rules for what you can say without causing offense are different for you. For example, many years ago, a gay friend startled me when he referred to himself by a particular pejorative term for male homosexuals. I must have looked as surprised as I felt, because he said, “It’s okay when I say it.”
Similarly, it’s one thing for a Black writer to depict two Black characters in a conversation where one uses the n-word; it’s quite another for someone like me to do it. Call me a coward, but if I were writing such a conversation, I’d try my best to avoid the word entirely. In the event that I deemed it unavoidable, I’d enlist several sensitivity readers to review the piece, and I’d listen carefully to their comments before deciding whether to try once more to edit the word out. If I decided that the story absolutely required this moment and I subsequently published the story, I would need to be prepared for a firestorm of controversy about my use of this word with all its hateful and hurtful connotations.
Some might defend my hypothetical story by pointing out that in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain used the n-word more than 200 times. The obvious response is that Twain was writing at a much different time, and he was satirizing the morals of his time, not supporting them. Even so, in nearly every year since publication, the book has been banned somewhere, albeit for reasons not necessarily restricted to offensive racial terminology. In recent years, fierce debates have raged about whether the book should be banned altogether, reissued with its offensive language edited, or taught in schools as an example of what used to be acceptable. (Note: I haven’t included these links since they often make their points by quoting the portions of the book using the n-word, and I am not comfortable highlighting those materials.)
At the other end of the spectrum, I once heard Jan Karon, author of the beloved Mitford series, talk about the difficulties she’d had with a particular character. The lead character in the series is an Episcopal priest, and Ms. Karon’s own faith shines throughout the books. I recall that she spoke of the challenge in writing the character of Buck Leeper, whom she described as the most profane man she’d ever “met.” She’d long ago determined that she would not include “cuss words” in any of her books, and she felt that she couldn’t include Buck’s language in a book that she intended for the glory of God. Eventually, she figured out a way to write around it by focusing not on Buck’s precise language as he ranted, but on the priest’s reaction—the pain he saw and felt in this man, his compassion for Buck, his desire to help. The scene is powerful, and it lacks nothing for omitting Buck’s actual words.
This is the writer’s balancing act: present your characters’ words accurately for their time and place, but recognize that a direct quote may not be the most effective approach. Some words have so much power—for better or worse—that they can hijack the entire story. The writer’s artistry comes in their ability to show a fully developed character with authentic language and speech patterns, tempered with the understanding that a particular choice may illuminate the story or blow it up.