Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Don't Just Stand There Beating Your Gums! Butt Me, Then Let's Get Zozzled!

I've been Googling 1920s slang for my novel about bootleggers, laughing at a lot of it ("You want to ankle over to the gin joint?" "And how!"), but using very little. It’s made me think, though, about how people talk and what really changes when language changes, and about a writer’s responsibility to the past.

In a review of The Chaperone, Laura Moriarty’s new novel set in New York in 1922, the reviewer notes that the author’s sentences are “pert and plucky, shaped by a contemporary sensibility that can leave an anachronistic aftertaste.” She cites two examples: “I only tell you this because I care” and “Get it all out.” 

But how would these sentences have sounded ninety years ago? "I only tell you this because I care awfully"? "You ought to get it all out, doll"?

I’m not sure that Moriarty’s sentences -- or the impulses behind them -- are the exclusive property of our era. “Get it all out so that we can have closure going forward”?  Yes, anachronistic in a novel set in the twenties. (And vomitorious, in any decade). But “get it all out” sounds like it could have been thought and said in 1922.  

Artificiality is a bigger problem for me than anachronism, which is why I’m wary of those lists of slang. They’re the Kool-Aid (that’s Kool-Ade, from 1927 until 1934, thank you Google) of dialogue. Add some spit and you have instant parody: Scram! The coppers are here! Bugsy’s on the lam, see, and I got all the dough.

Needing to hear the language as it was actually spoken, in full sentences, by people to other people, and being unable to travel back in time (still waiting for my flux-capacitor, Amazon), I've started reading 1920s fiction, beginning with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” published in 1920 in the Saturday Evening Post, looking for language in action (i.e. fluency), and finding this instead:

Marjorie, giving her cousin some advice: Well, you've got to learn to be nice to men who are sad birds. You look as if you'd been insulted whenever you're thrown with any except the most popular boys. Why, Bernice, I'm cut in on every few feet--and who does most of it? Why, those very sad birds. 

Bernice: You're a peach to help me.

Is that really how people talked? Maybe. It’s hard to tell with Fitzgerald because his characters are always trying so hard to be arch and clever and wonderful (so that Fitzgerald can show you how brittle they are).

But none of my characters is going to say “sad birds” or “you’re a peach,” no matter how real it makes them sound to a 1920s reader. They have to sound real to me.

Should a writer avoid distracting anachronisms while replicating speech patterns as authentically as possible? Should she notice that people used to start sentences with "say" and "why" and favoured the word "ought"?

Why yes, she should. But she ought also to remember who she is writing for.  Her responsibility is to her readers in the present. And therefore, the dialogue should be shaped by a contemporary sensibility. 

F.Scott Fitzgerald's story: 

Review of The Chaperone 

Thursday, June 7, 2012

So. Much. Work

I wrote Every Time We Say Goodbye over a long period of time. I started the novel, looked for a day job, went to teacher's college, abandoned the novel, found my dream job, worked on the novel, went to Bhutan, came home, taught class, marked exams, developed some courses, worked on the novel. It took so long that the work did not feel

Let me just add: it didn't feel like sitting on the couch watching Mad Men and eating maple bacon toffee, either.

It felt like small periods of writing work spaced out endlessly between profoundly satisfying teaching work and profound, paralyzing self-doubt.

And by endlessly, I mean eight years. Maybe ten. Day One is hard to remember.

It's only now, writing every day, that I realize how much work it actually is. The thinking work, the waiting work, the laying down story lines and tearing them up work. The line by line writing work. The burst of words work, the slow creaking accumulation of words work. The dealing with doubt work. (Just because you wrote A novel doesn't mean you can write THIS novel.)

Even when I'm not writing, I'm writing. I almost fell off my bike at the gym because I thought of something I needed to write down RIGHT AWAY. (This is why I don't ride outside.)

When I'm not really writing, I'm watching Mad Men (and Nurse Jackie and Girls) and eating maple bacon toffee. There has to be some kind of a balance, right?

Wednesday, June 6, 2012


Note to self: don’t write historical fiction again. Ever. Don’t write anything set before you started kindergarten.

First, there’s all the background research that forms the foundation and beams of the book: Prohibition, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, bootleggers and rum-runners. It’s all very interesting, but the more I read, the more I think I should read. What if I haven’t read enough?

Then there is the quick daily Googling for period details.

In the last few days I have Googled:
  •           1920s + hair styles for women, + hats, + cars, + light fixtures, + flashlights, + locks, + padlocks
  •           1920s + Italian immigrants + Canada, + folklore, + rituals, + benedicaria
  •           WW1 + Canada + rationing, + veterans, + veterans’ pensions
  •           1920s +  Algoma Steel  +  shift work
  •          1920s + Sault Ste. Marie + streetcar
  •           1920s + Temperance posters
  •           Dropsy

Between the compulsion to read more history and the need to know what a 1920s padlock looked like (which produces a desire to follow links deep into the fascinating but irrelevant history of locks), it is hard to lay words down on the page.

Dropsy, by the way, is edema. Cause (according to Temperance materials): alcohol. Cure (according to early 20th century medical dictionaries) : alcohol.

“To alcohol: the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.” – Homer J. Simpson