Oi! You gonna shilly-shally here, you tuft-hunter? Well, don’t be kicksy! Pull up a chair and let’s voker, shall we?
So, my forthcoming novel, Dragons of the Ashfall, takes place in Londinium, an imaginary steampunk city. And when you’re in a steampunk setting, your characters should talk that way. If they speak like 21st century Americans, like yours truly happens to be, it hurts the setting.
Well, I’ve never lived in an imaginary steampunk setting.
Sometimes you can make up your own speech patterns and turns of phrase. I did do that a fair amount. For instance, “Be out in a gear’s turn” means “I’ll be out of here quick!” “You’re blowing steam” is an accusation of lying. These things make sense in a world driven by coal power with gears all over the place.
But not every turn of phrase hinges on gearworks. I needed some help.
I’d use my Google-fu to discover some historical phrases, but even that often wasn’t enough. I needed to do research.
Writing is work, and sometimes that work means I have to get out of my own head and see how things were in reality in a related time period. I’m not made for this kind of research. I’m not Anne Clare, who does amazing deep-dive research for her World War II novels. (Seriously, if you like that kind of writing, check her out!)
Google-fu is great, but I ended up also picking up A New Look at Old Words: Street Slang from the 1600s-1800s organized by Catherine Thrush. It has been a lifesaver. The book is organized by category. Do I need an insult? Here’s thirty pages, organized by what you want to insult. Want to call someone a fool? Crazy? Temperamental? It’s all here. There’s slang for jobs and clothing and entertainment. Everything that’s needed to make a setting come alive. Anytime I need to use something a little more earthy, I can look it up in the book, select a phrase, and use it.
Now, just because I have a resource doesn’t mean I should use it constantly. I’m fairly certain that I use no paragraphs like that first one in this post. Instead, hopefully context makes clear what’s meant in each instance. The slang serves as spice to a story, helping the reader immerse themselves in the setting. Just as a dish of nothing but spices would be horrible, so it is with slang.
So if you’re writing fiction set in an imaginary world, I’d encourage you to consider how language might develop a bit differently. Give your setting some spice. Do a little research to real-world languages that might reflect your world’s.
But remember: To much spice ruins a dish.