Who Talks Like That? Using Idioms in Dialogue

WHAT’S PLAYING: Dido “My Life”

Yesterday, a representative from the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) stopped me for a chat. She asked me how I liked being in the Chemistry department.

My answer? “Getting on like a necrophiliac in a morgue.”

Unfortunately, one of the plant managers happened to be passing at that moment.

He stopped and stared at me. “Wait. What?”

“Um, never mind,” I mumbled. “I like my job very much. Thank you for asking.”

The two of them chuckled and continued on their way.

I will be the first to admit that my language can be a little…colorful. It all comes from being raised in the South, where idioms dating back to the seventeenth century are still used in every day conversations.

I hadn’t set out to learn them. English is a hard enough language without having half a dozen expressions for a single concept. (Seriously, it’s ridiculous. And homonyms. Don’t even get me started on homonyms.) It wasn’t easy, but I finally managed to get a handle on the English language, only to move up North and find that I had to learn it all over again.

First, there was the rapid fire speech pattern. Compared to the slow Southern drawl I was used to, it was like being peppered with bullets. On top of that, they kept using words I had never heard before: ayuh, jimmies, and leaf peepers.

Worse still were the stares I got when I answered. Since I learned English in school instead of absorbing it from my family, I don’t have a heavy Southern accent. Or any accent, really. But I do use Southern expressions like “well, shut my mouth” and “bless your heart”, along with a couple of less recognizable idioms such as “how the cow ate the cabbage” and “ugly enough to knock a buzzard off a gut truck”.

Finally, one of my friends threw up his hands in exasperation and said, “I give up. Who talks like that?”

Short answer? I do. And about a dozen other people. (I’m sure there are many more. I just don’t know them. See “loner”.) Not all the time, usually when I’m upset or nervous. Like when a NRC rep stops me in the hall to ask about my job.

Truth is, even without the drawl or accent, my speech patterns mark me as a Southerner. Every word that comes out of my mouth says something about who I am, how I’m feeling and how I perceive myself and the world around me. I’m sure reading this blog has told you a lot about me, more than I’d probably be comfortable with if I really took the time to think about it. It’s a roadmap through my thoughts. (And if you’re still on this journey with me, bless your heart.)

The same should hold true in writing, whether fiction or nonfiction. The dialogue should feel real, but not too real. Get to the good stuff. Idle chit-chat is just filler unless it has a purpose, or subtext, or serves as a contrast to another, more interesting event. Something.

Let’s say I write a scene featuring two men sitting in a parked car. Man A looks up at the sky and says it looks like rain. B agrees and says that it’s been unseasonably warm for November. A nods and wonders if there’s something to all this talk of global warming. Boring.

Now, let’s take those same two men and have them hold the same conversation. Only this time, they’re waiting outside the apartment of a man they’ve been sent to kill. All this talk of rain and global warming occurs while checking weapons, pulling on gloves and glancing at the backseat to make sure they have enough plastic in which to wrap the body.

Now, we got something. A bit rough, perhaps, but you get the point. It’s not about what they’re saying, but what we’re hearing. Just like in real life.

So, give your characters dialogue that means something and keep your readers happy.

Like necrophiliacs in a morgue.

Why You Should Get Lost in Discworld or How Terry Pratchett Changed My Life

WHAT’S PLAYING: AdeleLovesong

I received a strange package in the mail last Monday, but because of work and the general chaos that is my life, I didn’t get a chance to open it until the night before Thanksgiving. Imagine my surprise when I opened the envelope to reveal a signed copy of Terry Pratchett’s latest Discworld novel “Snuff”.

Cue happy dance!

Happy Dance

After jumping around and screaming for about twenty minutes, I settled in and started reading. Bedtime came and went, chores went undone, and phones and e-mails unanswered.  (Sorry, Dad.) I finished it around 3AM, and fell asleep still wanting more.

Now, I could tell you how great the Discworld books are. Funny, relevant, and brilliantly written, they are an awesome combination of fantasy, humor and satire.

Instead, I think I’ll tell you how these books changed my life.

When I was nine years old – per a custody agreement drawn up before I was even born – I left my home on the reservation and moved in with my father. I still visited my mother fairly often, but it wasn’t the same as living with her. I was something of a loner before I left the rez. After, I became down right reclusive. I rarely spoke and spent most of that summer in my room, only coming down for meals or at my father’s insistence.

Problem was that I didn’t speak English very well. I could barely string three words together.  So, that fall, my father enrolled me in a Catholic school that specialized in teaching ESL (English as a Second Language). I excelled at math and science, but my grasp of the English language remained sketchy at best. Truth is, I didn’t want to learn. I already spoke one language fluently. How many did I need?

Then one day, a nun handed me an old, dog-eared copy of “The Color of Magic”. It took me over a month to finish it, but after that, I was a goner. I decided that if I had to learn English to read books like that, then I would learn. Six months later, I had reached “proficient” level. Two months after that, I was fluent. My love of reading didn’t end with Discworld – over the years, I discovered Twain, Gaiman, Shirley, Norton, McCraffrey, Lackey, and so many others – but it began there. And the result is that I now get to make my living doing the two things I love most: chemistry and writing.

Don’t get me wrong, not everything is roses. There are mornings I wake to the gray and featureless void of depression. When the very act of breathing is a struggle and I feel about as worthless as tits on a telephone pole. It’s on these days that I force myself to look for pleasure in small things: a funny movie, an uplifting piece of music, a hot shower, even a spoon of ice cream. (To paraphrase Raymond Carver: eating is a small, good thing in a time like that.)

And, of course, a good book.

The Discworld novels saw me through my first transition from reservation life to the mainstream. Ten years later, they helped me cope when I lost my twin brother, and my fiancée five years after that.

I’m not saying that reading is some sort of magical cure for depression. It’s not. But, you have to admit that a world in which books like “Snuff” or “The Color of Magic” exist can’t be all bad.

What about you? What cheers you up when life gets  hard? Friends? Family? Music, art, or books? Where do you find your little wonders, your small pleasures?

Stories not only shape our perceptions, but can also shape our lives if we let them. They remind us that there is no such thing as a hopeless cause, that we can all be better if we choose. If they’re really good, stories can leave us feeling uplifted and a bit wiser.

And that is no small thing.

Adventures on Black Friday

WHAT’S PLAYING: B.o.B. featuring Haley WilliamsAirplanes

This has not been a red-letter day. It all started this morning when, against my better judgment, the need for sustenance drove me out of my home on one of the most chaotic days of the year: Black Friday. (Dun, dun, dunnn!)

Normally, I do my shopping at 3AM, but thanks to the holiday, my local grocery store didn’t open until seven. Here’s a view of the parking lot when I got there:

It took me almost ten minutes to find a parking space. Longer to find my car after I left the store.

When I finally extricated myself from the crowded parking lot and returned home triumphantly bearing my groceries for the week, here is what I found:

One of the lights in the elevator was out and, if you’ve ever ridden in a creaky, dimly lit elevator, then you know that it’s pretty much the creepiest experience ever. (Next to getting lost in a cornfield, only to run into a chainsaw wielding zombie clown. But seriously, how often does that happen?) This left me with a difficult choice: either lug my increasingly heavy groceries up three flights of stairs or use an elevator pulled from just about every horror movie ever made.

I took the stairs.

Then, because the laundry center on my floor was out-of-order, I spent the next three hours trudging up and down the stairs to use the second floor one.

Overall, it was a shitty day.

Then it got better the moment I sat down to my computer to write. The stress of the day vanished, to be replaced by another, more pleasant, kind. The stress that comes with creating new worlds and populating them with interesting characters. Knowing that, no matter how fast you type, you’ll never get all the ideas out of your head and on to the screen. Something will slip through the cracks, or get lost in translation or – if you’re anything like me – deep down you’ll realize that life is too short. You won’t live long enough to write every story, sing every song, or paint every picture you have inside you.

Is it the same for you? Do you wake up at night, heart racing, fingertips itching to get at a keyboard? Do you spend your days lost in a world of your own imagining, arguing with yourself or holding conversations with your characters? (Or is that just me?)

It can be exhilarating and exhausting, that feeling of racing, hurtling, through the cosmos, driven by the engine of your own imagination. It’s one of the best feelings in the world. It’s what makes all the work, the fear and frustration, the rejections, worthwhile.

Just not creepy elevators.

P.S. Most of you have probably heard of it already, but I just discovered a fantastic blog called Hyperbole and a Half.

You can check it out here:  http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com/

Somehow, this woman manages to make even depression funny.

Picking up a Book and Blowing up the Porch

WHAT’S PLAYING: Evanescence “Call Me When You’re Sober

I have two great loves in my life: chemistry and the written word, though the path by which I came to them was a rocky one.

When I was ten, my uncle gave me an old chemistry set, and with my first successful experiment, I was hooked. I spent my days lost in a world of “what-ifs.”

As you might imagine, my passion for chemistry came with a laundry list of issues. Like the time my brother distracted me while I was cooking up a smoke bomb. It took hours to air out the kitchen.

Then there was the incident with a batch of super-charged homemade gunpowder. (I was trying to make my own fireworks and wound up almost losing the porch and my eyebrows at the same time.)

And then there was the time I decided to make a homemade stink bomb. Nothing too difficult. Just cut the heads off some matches and stick them in a bottle along with some ammonia. Give it a swirl and then leave it for 3-4 days. A perfect tool with which to prank my older siblings.

That is, of course unless a certain person who shall remain nameless decided to alter the recipe for maximum stench, and then forgot about it, leaving the bottle in a kitchen cupboard for two weeks during one of the hottest summers on record. And if that nameless (and blameless) child’s stepmother happened upon said bottle, gave it a little shake, and then opened it…. You get the picture. I was grounded for a month and the kitchen was uninhabitable for almost as long.

It was then, that my family embarked on what became known as “Operation: Distract Jacqui”. They knew that reading was the only thing that could compete with chemistry in my mind, and so every time they saw me walking around the house with a glazed look in my eyes that signified my wandering off into “what if” territory, they would immediately suggest I read something. Anything. As long as it didn’t involve chemistry.

It was incredible. Suddenly, I didn’t have to beg for trips to the library any more. If I wanted a book, it was mine. My father would call ahead and reserve a stack of books so I wouldn’t have a chance to browse through the science section of the library. Holidays were particularly stressful.

“But you don’t understand,” he would say, his voice rising in desperation. “If we don’t get my daughter some books for the weekend, she’s going to try to blow up the porch! Again!”

I’m lucky. I get to do what I love and get paid for it. I still wander around in a world of “what ifs,” only this time I’m wondering what would happen if I put an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation. What will they do? How will they react? Will they emerge a stronger, better person? Or will they abase themselves or lose their humanity? What if?

What about you? What led you here? What dreams have you decided to pursue? Writing? Music? Art? How have your childhood fantasies come true?

Guilty Pleasures: “Revenge” on ABC

WHAT’S PLAYING: Queen “Princes of the Universe

Time is one of our most precious commodities. Next to friends and family, time is probably the most valuable thing we have. Think about it. You can always earn more money, but once your time has run out, you’re done. Whether or not you believe in an afterlife, your time on this earth is over.

That’s why I feel it’s important to use your time wisely. Spend your days doing things that bring you happiness, make you a better person, or move you toward the life you desire… or better yet, all three.

So, you can see why I usually have a list of “shoulds” constantly revolving through my head. If I’m not at work, I should be writing. If I’m not writing, I should be studying. If I’m not studying, I should be cleaning, shopping, exercising…. You get the picture.

But, now and then, I like to kick back and play a game, read a book, or watch a movie or TV show. The catch is that the show, movie, book, etc. has to be worth the time. Otherwise, I feel as though I’m wasting that most precious of commodities.

Recently, I came across one such television show and it has occupied a permanent spot on my DVR ever since. The name of the show is “Revenge.” It airs on ABC, Wednesday nights at 10PM Eastern.

A reimagining of “The Count of Monte Cristo” for the new millennium, “Revenge” is the tale of Emily Thorne (formerly Amanda Clarke) whose father was falsely accused and convicted of treason for participation in a 9/11-esque act of terror. On her 18th birthday, Emily is released from a juvenile detention center to find that not only is she a billionaire, but that her father was innocent all along. Armed with massive amounts of money and ice-cold hatred, she sets out to avenge herself on the people responsible for her father’s downfall.

Lies, Deceit and Betrayal, oh my! Now that’s what I call a guilty pleasure.

Set in the ultra-glamorous world of The Hamptons, “Revenge” offers enough twists and turns to keep even the most jaded viewer coming back for more. Emily VanCamp is by turns sexy/sweet and coldly manipulative as Emily Thorne/Amanda Clarke, and Madeline Stowe in her role as the undisputed Queen of The Hamptons, Victoria Grayson, is the epitome of grace and elegance even while Emily dismantles her perfect little kingdom piece by piece.

The two women head up an impressive cast, which includes Henry Czerny as Conrad Grayson,Victoria’s husband, and Gabriel Mann as Emily’s rich and equally manipulative ally Nolan Ross.

So, to sum up: a talented cast, fantastic premise and awesome writing. Watch it!

What about you? What are some of your guilty pleasures?

How Being a Bad Liar Made Me a Better Writer

WHAT’S PLAYING: Paramore “The Only Exception

I am a bad liar. Very bad. Horribly, comically, painfully bad. I sweat. I stammer. And my eyes dart around like neurotic chipmunks on meth. Forget about the rules of morality my parents tried to instill in me. I’m honest because I have no other choice.

But that kind of honesty comes with a hefty price tag. I don’t just suck at verbal untruths; I can’t even lie by omission. I can’t control my face. While the rest of my family has mastered the whole “stone-faced Indian” thing, I couldn’t hide my feelings to safe my life. Not only is my face an open book, it has pictures, diagrams, even Braille. And the worst part is that I can’t tell when I’m doing it. It’s as if someone else is controlling my expressions and I have absolutely no input.

I think it comes from spending so much time alone.

About ten years ago, my very pregnant sister-in-law was asked to act as matron of honor for her best friend’s wedding. And she, in turn, asked me to go with her to the fitting.

Even as a self-absorbed teenager, I was no fool. I knew what was coming. So, I spent some time practicing my expressions in the mirror. I posed, postured, and perfected my “stone” face.

When the day came and the inevitable question – “Do I look fat in this?” – came with it, I was ready.

“No-o.”

My sister-in-law took one look at my face, burst into tears, and then locked herself inside the fitting room. All of her friends took turns trying to coax her out. When they weren’t glaring daggers at me, that is.

All the time I kept saying, “But I practiced!”

Finally, after two hours, we had to call my brother to come and coax his wife out of the dressing room.

I wish I could go back to that day and answer the question my sister-in-law should have asked. The one, in fact, she had been asking all along, but I was too young and too stupid to know it. Truth is, she was lovely. Between the glow of pregnancy and the simple joy that radiated from her in waves, she was luminous. Yes. If I could go back in time, I would ignore the question she had asked and answer the one she’d meant to. (Of course, it’s a moot point now. Ten years and ten kids later, she’s still a size zero. Seriously, her ass looks better than my face.)

I learned a lesson that day that has served me well ever since, and had made me a much better writer.

That was the day I learned to look deeper. To answer only the questions that should be answered and ignore the rest. Readers (especially pregnant ones) don’t really need to know all the details, just the ones that matter. The ones that show more than just what’s on the surface.

What about you? How much detail is enough for you? Not just in writing, but in everything. Are you one of those people who ignore the surface to find what lies beneath? Or would you rather deal with each layer one at a time? How do you fashion your worlds, your lives? When you walk through your neighborhoods, what are the details that jump out at you? Follow you home and haunt your dreams? Is the laughter of the children in the park? Or the scent of your neighbor’s garden? Or is the sight of freshly manicured lawns? What are the details that move you?