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.

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