Wait–Where Are We?


Here is something funny I’ve come across in many books in either historical settings or with characters from other countries.  Characters slip into “Americanisms” or common slang which doesn’t fit the time period or a foreigner’s speech.

Some examples:

Characters living a hundred year ago say things like: “You’re on edge … I’m tracking with you … how awful … wait—delete that … it’s been hectic … he’s a psycho … I got your back …” These phrases would’ve never been spoken a century ago. Right?

Imagine watching a play of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. A beautiful young girl in a gorgeous gown slips out on her balcony, hair intricately braided, face in anguish, leaning over the railing, tears in her eyes, as she calls out to her lover… “Romeo, Hey, Romeo! Where in the blazes are you?”

Make sure your character’s speech matches the time period. 😉

Also, I’ve read characters in a foreign country (who speak very broken English) say things like: “I’ve gotta run now … I’ll catch you later … I’m all ears … did you catch that? … Don’t screw up! … We’re packing heat.” A foreigner who only knows rudimentary English would never have slang phrases rolling off their tongues.

(However, it works if they butcher a slang phrase. A: “Do not ruin the screw!” B: “What?” A: “Don’t put the screw upside down?” B: “Ohhhh, you mean don’t screw up?” A: “Ya, I watch movies. I remember now—do not screw up!” B: laughing, “OK. I won’t screw up.”)

It seems obvious, but modern phrases can slip in very easily. I’ve read them in several published books. They instantly ruin the believability of the character—and the writer doesn’t look good, either. Watch out for this one!

Savvy Writer Tip:

Make absolutely sure your characters are always speaking authentically. If you are using a historical setting, look up the origin of phrases to see when they were first used (I’ve done that countless times when editing). Know the language patterns of that era. If you are writing characters from another culture, make sure they never use Americanisms or modern slang. However, if you can use a slang phrase from their country of origin, that’s delightful. (“Oy, vey! A friend you have to buy; enemies you get for nothing.”) Keep your characters deliciously authentic! 🙂

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