How You Say What You Say

Dialogue doesn’t just reveal a character; it reveals their world.

Dragons of the Ashfall takes place in a steampunk world of gears and coal. I wanted the vocabulary the characters used to reflect the setting, so I invented a number of idioms. “I’ll be out in a gear’s turn,” means the person will be out of the bathroom quickly, for instance. In context, you can figure that out, but the words themselves also reveal the world they live in.

Now, I could come up with a number of turns of phrase that fit that setting, but they all hinged on coal and gears when I tried. What that meant was I started getting relatively repetitive, and no one wants that. So what’s a writer to do?

Were you aware that most writers need to do research, even when they’re creating fictional worlds?

It’s true!

Brent Weeks talks about doing so in his Lightbringer books. He checked out other cultures and wove what he learned into the various cultures of the Chromeria. Peter Prellwitz maps out asteroids and planetary orbits to figure out how long ships would take to get from planet to planet. Jack Vance traveled the world and used what he learned about how different people were to inform the alien cultures he created.

And if I want to create a setting that feels lived-in, it means I need to learn more. That includes learning how people talked.

So, I picked up this book:

And look, this book is a pure delight. It’s generally a dictionary of street slang, though there’s certainly a useful introduction. The entries are organized by topic, making finding a phrase useful. Say I want Patty to shout an insult at Ten, one of the other orphans. So I look up insults, and I’m given a plethora of options.

“You Kilkenny cat!” I might have her yell. In context, you, the reader, understand that whatever a Kilkenny cat is, it’s not a good thing. But it’s real! According to the dictionary: “A popular simile for a voracious or desperate animal or person, from the story of the two cats in that country, who are said to have fought and bitten each other until a small portion of the tail of one of them alone remained.” And now I have enriched the story through just a bit of research. I never would have thought of using a phrase like that, but by paging through this book, I’m able to find some neat words!

And by using this research in the novel, the world itself becomes richer. The dirt that mars the cheeks of orphans now feels more real. Their patter isn’t just something written for today, but sounds more genuine.

If you’re writing another world, do a little research into how things work or worked here. It’ll help enrich your worlds, too!

Published by Jon

I'm a pastor in Wisconsin. Constantly writing, whether it be fiction or sermons or anything in between. Husband and father. Over all this, Christian, willing and joyful servant to good master Jesus.

2 thoughts on “How You Say What You Say

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