Monday, December 18, 2017

Holiday thoughts

     On Friday night, 15 December 2017, 45 law enforcers, led by the Jones County, NC, Sheriff’s Office, set up a surprise checkpoint both ways on Highway 70, a main artery that connects coastal NC with points west.  The county is a sleepy, sparsely-populated rural one.  The officers began at 11:15 p.m. and ran the checkpoint for four hours.

     The checkpoint resulted in 16 drug charges, 7 seatbelt violations, 5 alcohol violations, 6 registration violations, 5 driving with license revoked, 3 driving without a license at all, 2 carrying a concealed weapon illegally, one insurance violation, one fictitious tag, and one DUI.  They issued appropriate citations and made three arrests.

     All this in just four hours outside of drive time in a typical rural county.  Extrapolate these figures to a similar four-hour period on all the main arteries in just NC and the results would be mind-numbing.  These are apparently the kinds of drivers with whom we share our highways these days.  And we’ve every reason to believe the figures would be much worse on a holiday eve when bottled cheer flows freely across the land.  According to a 2014 NC report, one out of three fatal crashes in NC involves alcohol.  North Carolina had 411 alcohol-related vehicle deaths in 2014.  According to the National Safety Council, a total of 40,000 people died senselessly on our nation's highways in 2016, almost a third of those alcohol-related. (For some perspective, that means in just 18 months, more Americans die on the roads than died in the whole decade of the Vietnam War.)  In addition to alcoholic lubrication, throw in drug use, cell phone talking and texting while driving, speeding, lane-weaving, passing on the right, and idiots who don’t even have a license or a valid registration or insurance, and driving for you and me becomes one of the most dangerous activities we can do.  It’s even worse around the holidays.

     So please be careful and defensive out there.


Monday, December 11, 2017

If it seems too familiar, it is
          As they walked along the shore, the sky above as blue as a robin’s egg and filled with clouds like cotton balls, waves lapping the sand beside them, she slipped her delicate hand in his.  He turned his darkly-handsome head and beamed down upon her like sunshine.  Her lips were like rose petals, and he longed to ravish her right then and there and the devil take the consequences.  She felt faint with desire, and the wise words of her grandfather echoed in her ears: “Remember, my child, the world belongs to the brave at heart, you get what you pay for, and a rolling stone gathers no moss.”

          What’s wrong with this writing?  It reeks with the all-too-familiar phrase, with the worn-out metaphor, with clichés—expressions that were once clever and delightfully fresh but through heavy overuse have become trite or stereotypical.  You know many such worn-out expressions: the silvery path of moonlight on water, bird in the hand, fit the bill, just the ticket, far cry, labor of love, cute as a button, good as gold, old as time, babe in the woods, better late than never, worst nightmare, we need to move forward, take the bull by the horns, the time has come, we are committed, neat as a pin, undying love, quick as lightning, tongue in cheek, ugly as sin, all talk and no action, oh . . . my . . . god.  And how many thousand times have you heard the word awesome used so far this year to describe everything from a double rainbow to a fried Twinkie?

          Travel brochures, company mission statements, news casts, and political speeches are littered with such tattered stuff.  It’s one of the worst symptoms of lazy thinking and lazy writing.
          Many clichés we see so often in bad writing are not even true.  Do gunshots really “ring out”? I’ve never heard a shot do so, and I’ve spent many hours at target ranges firing both long guns and hand guns.   A gunshot is a harsh, percussive, jolting insult to the hearing, like being clapped on both ears by a ninja.  A gunshot does not ring out like a door chime.

          If you want your writing to be fresh and realistic and engaging, invest the time required to study your surroundings until you can describe them in original ways.  Go to the seashore or go outside on a moonlit night and sit and look and listen.  Discard those clichés that come so easily to mind and replace them with your own words, with descriptions you’ve never heard before.  Study people the same way.  Mentally record their features and mannerisms.  Listen to their speech.  This will soon become habitual.  Your writing will improve considerably, and as a pleasantly surprising secondary benefit, you’ll also see the world as you never have before.
         Years ago, I began to experience the world around me in wonderful new depth and clarity when I began taking photos to accompany my magazine articles, because to take quality photos, I had to become aware of light in all its nuances.  I had to begin sensing optimum composition.  I needed to learn how to recognize and capture the most intense and poignant and interesting candid moments in people’s lives.  Observation is a valuable learned skill that I believe has helped enrich both my nonfiction and fiction.  My readers will be the judges.

          There’s a true story that’s instructive.  A writer was once assigned to interview the great John D. MacDonald (the late popular author of the Travis McGee series and one of my early idols).   But when the writer came away from the interview, he realized MacDonald had learned far more about the writer than the writer had learned about the intended interviewee.  One of MacDonald’s honed assets was to ceaselessly study the world around him until he gained fresh perspectives, which showed in his writing and helped earn him a wide and loyal readership.

          So, here’s a cardinal rule: If a phrase feels familiar, it’s likely a cliché.  Don’t use it.



Monday, November 27, 2017

Responsible reporting

                  If you don't read the newspaper
                  you are uninformed, if you do
                  read the newspaper you are
                  misinformed. —Mark Twain
                  (I’ll update that to include radio and TV news these days as well.)

          My mother was a newspaper reporter, and she told me something I've never forgotten.  She said, “Be careful about trusting the news.  It’s absurdly easy for incompetent or unethical reporters to color it.  Let’s say, for example, the Sheriff is in Boston speaking at a law enforcement conference.  There’s a terrible local crime while he’s away.  If I don’t happen to like the Sheriff or if I disagree with his policies, I could choose to report only that he was unavailable, or that he could not be reached for comment.  It would be true, but it wouldn't be honest, and readers might well take it to mean he’s not doing his job.  Do you understand?”

          Sadly, Mom’s advice has grown even more wise considering today’s pseudo-news reporting.

          Whole networks have obvious one-sided political agendas.  Newscasters are as much ego-brandishing celebrities as reporters, and seem to become overnight experts on any number of topics from nutrition to child-rearing to environmental issues to foreign affairs to astrophysics.  They often essentially pre-judge the guilt or innocence of alleged transgressors and they don’t hesitate to slant the news, even to the extent of inciting violence over this or that incident that instead ought to be handled not in the media but within the established legal system, which is all we have in America for any semblance of true justice.

          Editorializing and commentary in journalism, when clearly labeled as such, are protected under our constitution and rightly so, but straight news reporting should be conducted with professional honesty, integrity, thoroughness, accuracy, and absolute objectivity.  Allowing us, the reading and viewing public, to make up our own minds on the issues.

          But good luck with that in today's world.


Monday, November 20, 2017

Long words

     The longest place name in the world has 85 letters.  It begins with T and ends with u.  It’s a mountain in New Zealand, and the romantic Māori translation is, “The summit where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, the climber of mountains, the land-swallower who travelled about, played his nose flute to his loved one.”  The second longest is in the UK and has 58 letters.  It begins with Ll and ends with och.  If you look it up I’d suggest not trying to pronounce it because it could tie a knot in your tongue.  The Welsh translation means, “Saint Mary's Church in a hollow of white hazel near the swirling whirlpool of the church of Saint Tysilio with a red cave.”  Reminds me of a Kentucky hillbilly’s driving directions in the dark ages before GPS.

     The third longest place name in the world, and the longest in the United States, with 45 letters and 14 syllables, is owned by a beautiful 1,400-acre lake (actually three lakes joined by narrow channels) in quaint Webster, Massachusetts, not far from where I grew up.  My father taught me how to pronounce it, and I’ve never forgotten.

     It’s Char­gogg­a­gogg­man­chaugg­a­gogg­chau­bun­a­gung­a­maugg.  The meaning is controversial, but many agree that the translation from the Algonquin means, “Fishing Place at the Boundaries—Neutral Meeting Grounds.” It’s located near the intersection of the Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island borders, though that was of no concern to the native Nipmuc and Monuhchogok Indians who originally shared it with several other tribes way before white people showed up with too many clothes on and started paving everything.  Nipmuc campfire tales concerning the lake must have taken all night long to tell.

     Folk in the area today refer to it simply, and quite adequately, as Webster Lake (pronounced Webstah in the Eastern Massachusetts dialect). 

     Therein lies an important lesson for all us writers:

     Don’t use a long word when a short one will do.


Monday, November 13, 2017


     They’re important, of course, for attracting reader attention, at least until you become a well-known best-selling author, at which point your name can take up the top third of so of the book cover, with the title relegated to a secondary size and position on the lower part, because it will be your name that sells the book, and not so much the title.

     So, meanwhile, how do you come up with a commanding title?  Think about some of the titles that have struck you over your reading years.  Many good ones ask a question.  A recent one by Gregg Hurwitz that caught my eye was Trust No One.  It poses several questions.  Presumably the title is aimed at a protagonist.  Who and what could he or she be?  Why should the protagonist not trust anybody?  It immediately casts an intriguing shadow.  Fifty Shades of Gray also poses several intriguing questions about character and plot.  Go to any bookstore and browse the shelves.  Look only at the titles.  Which ones catch your eye?  Try to figure out why.

     Analyze some of the famous titles that still endure long after the books were written.  To Kill a Mockingbird, Ship of Fools, East of Eden, Valley of the Dolls, Gone with the Wind, The Old Man and the Sea, The Grapes of Wrath, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold.  Each of these creates its own interesting aura as soon as you see it, and most pose hidden questions.

     I favor strong one-word titles for several reasons.  I think they’re more memorable.  They can be large on the cover to show up well, making the books stand out from their neighbors on bookshelves, and they’re even readable in the smallest online thumbnails.  For a series of novels they create a theme of sorts simply because they are each only one word.  And I like that they also create a clean, strong image that can be enhanced by bold, simple graphics with lots of contrast (I hate it when some cover artist, for example, uses black lettering for a blurb on a dark red background the low contrast rendering it difficult to read; it’s done more often than you’d think, even for name authors).  I think bold one-word titles also look good on advertising and signing table displays.

     I try to make the titles even stronger by using all caps.  The four novels in my series are:  GUNS, DIAMONDBACK, KLLRS, and DEATHSMAN.  All stimulate background questions, as well.

     Of course, Stieg Larsson’s novels or the J.K. Rowling stories have been wildly successful with whole-phrase titles like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

     So titling is at once a highly personal choice and an absolutely critical marketing choice.  The trick is to find one that will stop the typical browsing reader, and that’s worth whatever time it takes to find the perfect one.


Monday, November 6, 2017

Writer hell

"The road to hell is paved with adverbs." —Stephen King


I would add that too many adjectives will also make that aforesaid slope even slicker.


Monday, October 30, 2017

Dialog Don’ts and Do’s

     One of the skills top writers own is the deft handling of dialog.

     The best way to become adept at this is to simply listen—really listen—to the people around you.  After a while you’ll develop an ear for dialog and dialect and inflection, and can begin applying what you’re learning in your fiction.  One thing that’s quickly apparent is that people rarely speak with perfect diction or grammar.  Also, they often don’t speak in complete sentences, but rather in fragments.

     Over the years, I’ve interviewed many people for magazine articles, usually recording them because I never could take notes fast enough.  I’ve always had to edit what they say, rearranging their sentences, correcting grammar, tidying up.  This requires a light touch, because I want to preserve personality and emotion, so I can’t edit too heavily.  Not one interviewee has ever complained, probably because I’ve always made them sound better than they really did.

     For example, in answer to the question, “What was your first car?” someone might say, “Well, you know, I was, uh, just sixteen so I was, like, real happy just to have anything that, you know, just had four wheels and ran at all, so when Dad bought me this twelve-year-old Chevy with, like, a million miles on it, you know, well I was just ecstatic.”  I might edit that to, “When I was sixteen, my Dad bought me a twelve-year-old Chevy with a million miles on it and I was ecstatic.”

     One glaring mark of the inexperienced writer is attempting to inject emotions into dialog attributions.  Big mistake.  Examples: “I miss my Mom,” Suzy said dejectedly.  Or, “Wow, that’s awesome,” Tim expostulated.  Or, “Welcome home,” Dave smiled.  Don’t do this.

Here are three dialog commandments.

One:  Use dialect and accents sparingly.  Often mere suggestions are enough. 

Two:  Generally, keep dialog brief and simple.  For great examples, see Elmore Leonard’s work.  Or study the work of any best-selling writer.

Three:  Almost never use anything but “he said” or “she said,” even when characters are asking questions.  Readers will not tire of you doing so.  They don’t even consciously see the “she saids” and “he saids,” just as they aren’t conscious of most correct punctuation.  All they want is to always be sure of who’s speaking.


Monday, October 16, 2017

What do you mean by that?

          An old friend and I met for breakfast early one morning in a local restaurant.  When we sat down with our mugs, he told me, “My wife said everything will be fine as long as we don’t have coffee until ten o’clock.”
          I said, “But we’re having coffee now.”
          He said, “What are you talking about?”
          “You just said she doesn’t want you having coffee until sometime after ten o’clock.  I thought you maybe shouldn’t have caffeine right after taking some medicine or other.”
          “No.  I said she doesn’t want us hanging around here arguing politics from now until mid-morning.  She’s got chores for me to do.  Anyway, that’s what I meant.”

          Have you ever tried to assemble a rather complicated new purchase with only an instruction pamphlet written in some obscure dialect faintly resembling English by somebody who obviously doesn’t know a Phillips screwdriver from a swizzle stick?  “Next put big end careful forward into side part (if having model A or maybe B but not model C-2) and fasten two three small clip very strongest, please.”  For their own safety, it’s a good thing such writers remain anonymous.

          Or have you ever tried to immerse yourself in a novel only to find it necessary to repeatedly leaf back to get straight what the devil is supposed to be going on?  Was it Tom or Harry who shot the gardener imposter back in 1912 for treading on the petunias?  Is it Maude or Mary who’s pregnant?  And who’s the daddy?  Just how many friends and relatives can Jason possibly have, and which one of them is the rich personal-injury lawyer again?  Did it mention somewhere back there who is having the affair with the mayor, or is that supposed to be a plot secret?  Did I really pay fifteen bucks plus tax for this book?
          I began the back-cover blurb for one of my books thusly: “In 1858, soldiers came with bayonets to . . .”  I was only trying to establish the background for a story that takes place entirely in current times.  But of course I witnessed the inevitable occurring during several book signings.  A passing potential buyer looking for a contemporary thriller would pause, glance at that beginning phrase, and understandably assume the book to be an historical novel.  And I’d find myself hastily trying to explain away what, after all, had been my own glaring mistake.

          The first obligation for any writer is clarity.  It’s not always easy.  We know what we mean to say and can’t imagine a reader taking it any other way.  But a good rule to follow is if a phrase or sentence can remotely be interpreted in more than one way, you can safely wager it will be.  

          Rearrange or reconstruct any suspect sentence or phrase until it’s clear. 

          It’s never the fault of the reader when misinterpretation occurs.  And it can cost the writer dearly.


Monday, October 9, 2017

Tips from the mountaintop

             If we resolve to achieve success in our writing (especially in thrillers and suspense), we can do no better than to heed the hard-earned wisdom of those who have summited the best-seller lists.    
Catherine Coulter has written dozens of NY Times best-selling novels.  She shares excellent tips on how it can be done here:

During a ThrillerFest conference panel, four top guns—David Hewson, Lisa Gardner, John Sanford, and M.J. Rose—revealed these seven writing sins:

Ann Rule certainly rules in the true crime genre.  Intense curiosity, a background on the fringes of law enforcement—and a fortuitous (though dangerous) stint as a volunteer alongside then yet-to-be revealed and arrested serial killer Ted Bundy in a Seattle crisis clinic—took her to the best-seller lists.  Good advice for wannabe true crime writers here:

Notice anything special?  All these web pages are from the same fount of writing information, the venerable Writers Digest organization.  They’re publishers of a respected magazine devoted to the craft, and of valuable annual guides like Writer’s Market, sponsors of excellent online writing classes and of prestigious writing contests.  They’re long-time staunch supporters of struggling writers everywhere.


Monday, October 2, 2017

Obsolete words

I’m old enough now to have outlived a surprising number of words and phrases.  How many of these do you know?

Transportation:  Sunday drive, vent window, running board, rumble seat, continental kit, fender skirts, curb feelers, souped up, chopped and lowered, bored and stroked, rolled and pleated, four on the floor, whitewalls, recaps, fuzzy dice, service coupe, steam roller, steam shovel, drive-in movie, A&W Drive-in, Howard Johnson, meter maid, caboose

Attire:  homburg, bowler, spats, zoot suit, jodhpurs, galoshes, rubbers, penny loafers, suspenders, hat veil, pink stuff (hats, shirts, shoes, ties), monocle, bobby socks, girdle, corset, brassiere, hoop skirt, mink coat

Games:  marbles, Chinese checkers, tiddlywinks, carrom board, croquet, badminton, horseshoes, canasta, pogo stick, hula hoop

Miscellaneous:  double feature, crew cut, duck tail, delinquent, reform school, flower child, ice house, ice box, ice man, mechanical typewriter, electric typewriter, word processor, slide rule, pocket watch, doilies, jukebox, juke joint, soda fountain, a malt, glass milk bottle (with disposable paper cap), let’s rumble, dial tone, party line (my house was two rings), telegram, carbon copy, rewind, Kodak moment, flash bulb, Linotype machine, movie usher (my sister was one, with uniform and flashlight), black-and-white TV, penny candy, inkwell, blotter, shaving brush, blueprint, Bakelite

If you know them all, you’re at least as old as I am and statistically we’re supposed to be dead.  


Monday, September 25, 2017

Writerly wisdom

Excellent advice from various pros:

From William Safire (author of the New York Times Magazine column “On Language”)
Tips in which he cleverly commits the very sins he warns about:

1. Remember to never split an infinitive.
2. The passive voice should never be used.
3. Do not put statements in the negative form.
4. Verbs have to agree with their subjects.
5. Proofread carefully to see if you words out.
6. If you reread your work, you can find on rereading a great deal of repetition can be by rereading and editing.
7. A writer must not shift your point of view.
8. And don’t start a sentence with a conjunction. (Remember, too, a preposition is a terrible word to end a sentence with.)
9. Don’t overuse exclamation marks!! (I never use any!)
10. Place pronouns as close as possible, especially in long sentences, as of 10 or more words, to their antecedents.
11. Writing carefully, dangling participles must be avoided.
12. If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
13. Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors.
14. Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.
15. Everyone should be careful to use a singular pronoun with singular nouns in their writing.
16. Always pick on the correct idiom.
17. The adverb always follows the verb.
18. Last but not least, avoid cliches like the plague; seek viable alternatives.

A few more nuggets:

“Never use a long word where a short one will do.”  —George Orwell

“Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods.  If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong.  Then take the other road.”  —Margaret Atwood

“Write first and always.  Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.”  —Henry Miller

“Never use a verb other than said to carry dialog. “ —Elmore Leonard

And my favorite: “Write.”  —Neil Gaiman


Monday, September 11, 2017

Irma observations

    This storm has been a tough one for the trackers.  She’s had a mind of her own.  The islands, including Cuba and Puerto Rico, and Florida have, of course, taken a massive hit, and we feel for all those so seriously affected.  The difficulties and discomforts will be with them long after the storm has faded from the news.

    Here in eastern North Carolina, historically a prime target for so many hurricanes (the latest being Matthew last year, which brought serious flooding to us), sticking out into the Atlantic as we do, we’ve been spared this time and are only getting stiff winds and some rain.  I ran the NC State research trawler up a narrow creek four days ago to secure it out of the wind (but not necessarily out of any rising water).  So all is well here.

    I’ve been thinking, though, is there a way to stop hurricanes well before they grow into such destructive monsters?  Most of these storms begin as hot air blowing westward off North Africa.  The wind gives rise to thunderheads that enlarge and gang up to form a low pressure area, which acquires spin because of Earth’s rotation, and then comes charging across the warm Atlantic, guided by trade winds and the Bermuda high and other invisible steering currents, acquiring strength along the way to finally chew up the Caribbean islands, Mexico, and the North American coast.

    The science of cloud seeding with silver iodide or potassium iodide or dry ice in order to produce rain has been well proven to work quite well.  Therefore, why couldn’t an effort be made to seed those early thunderheads as they form just off the African coast, making them rain out where they are and thus preventing their gathering into the precursor of a hurricane?  Even if the cost turned out to be multiple millions of dollars to kill all the suspicious thunderheads during a hurricane season, that would be a mere pittance compared with the multiple billions of dollars these monster storms routinely wind up causing, not to mention the immeasurable costs in human life and misery.


Monday, September 4, 2017


     In the movie Hook (Robin Williams as Peter Pan and Julia Roberts as Tinker Bell) Dustin Hoffman (as the evil pirate Hook) tells Smee, one of his scruffy underlings, “I’ve had an epiphany.”  Later in the story, Smee, emulating his idol, declares, “Oi’ve just 'ad an apostrophe.”  It’s one of my favorite movie lines.

     I’m happy to say I’ve had an apostrophe.  My current novel-in-progress had run aground at 35,000 words.  Like some other authors—John D. MacDonald, Elmore Leonard, and Lee Child for examples—I don’t write to an outline, preferring to make up the story as I go along, letting my characters do as they will.  I wish I could outline like Jeffery Deaver so cleverly and successfully does, but I cannot.  (I’ve met Deaver twice.  He creates an elaborate outline for every book, refining it repeatedly until it’s all laid out in detail, one reason his stories are filled with exquisitely devious twists.)

     I’ve often been asked at workshops and talks, “Do you outline?”  I’ve said, “Well, if even I don’t know what’s gonna happen next in a story, the reader surely won’t, either, and that keeps it interesting.”  But it seems a lame answer.  And it’s not the most comfortable or confident way to write.  Working on my second novel in a trilogy some time ago, I was 65,000 words along and nervously facing a looming deadline before I realized who the killer was going to be.

          One morning over coffee I opened the novel I was reading but my eyes were only scanning the words, my brain unable to retain anything because my own novel plot seemed to be growing ever clearer by the minute as if by some wonderful magic, my relief and enthusiasm growing as well.  Suddenly I could see nearly to the end of the story, with most of the loose ends weaving themselves together nicely like an exotic tapestry.

          It was an excellent feeling.  A major apostrophe.

          I think writers like the great John D. MacDonald really have outlined their work, albeit subconsciously.  Their stories are too refined and cohesive to think otherwise.  I believe my own subconscious mind has been churning away at my novel the whole time I’ve been working on it, and finally that aspect of my mind came through for me with clear visions for the rest of the story.  All that was left was to write it.

          Wishing you happy apostrophes in your writing and in your life.


Monday, August 28, 2017

A writer’s exercise

     I’d been walking 30 minutes two or three times a week, but my doctor wanted 45 minutes every day.  Naomi, my girlfriend and most incisive editor, said she’d walk with me.  We decided that rather than take it on as a daily chore, we’d try making it fun on the theory it eventually might actually become fun.
    We started driving downtown to the attractively restored historic district early every morning to beat the heat.  We set up several routes for variety.

     One game we play is to spot three things we never noticed on previous walks.  An architectural embellishment.  An unusual floral or arboreal species.  A name on a historical sign.  Then the next day we’d have to each find three more, and remember the ones we spotted the day before.  And then the day before that.  We got it up to a week’s worth.  And we still see things we’ve not noticed before.

     Another game is people watching.  Trying to guess what a particular walker does or may have done for a living and what their personality might be like.  Trying to memorize at least three dominant facial and physical features.  Trying to judge height and weight.

     It wasn’t long before we were looking forward to our morning sessions.  Exercising our bodies.  Oxygenating and exercising our brains.  Practicing observing our surroundings and life, one of the best skills any writer can learn.

     Sometimes we try to see how many and what items in a shop window each of us can remember after a three-second look.

     But the game I like the best is interacting with people we meet.  If we can elicit a laugh from someone, we get an A.  A smile gets a B.  A wave of acknowledgement is a C.  None of the above is a D.  If you try only half-hard, Ds are rare.

     Example:  We were walking past a yard where a young woman in Spandex was braced against a tree, feet placed well back, legs straight, head between her arms, probably stretching her hamstrings.  I said, “You need help pushing that over?”

     She emitted a nice explosive little laugh.

     I gave myself an A-plus.


Monday, August 7, 2017

Talkin’ Tennessee-un

          A quick lesson in Tennessee dialect:
The spoken word                                    What it actually means
             far                                                              fire
             fat                                                              fight
             tar                                                              tire
             yawl                                                           you all
             brat                                                            bright
             wah?                                                          why?
             hail no                                                        hell no
             lay-us gnat                                                 last night
             wail owl rat                                               well all right
             yeeeeeeee-haw                                       this experience is quite enjoyable (useful for
                                                                       everything from eating fried pork skins to making love)
          And so on.  After a few days in Knoxville or Nashville, you can learn enough to understand restaurant specials and converse with the locals a bit.  After that, hopefully, your drive home will be long enough to shed all the words you've recently learned and return to normal speech.  If there be such a thing.

          There are some two dozen distinct major English dialects recognized in the United States.  Some cover a broad area, like the Southern Appalachian voice that includes Tennessee-tawk.  Some are only used in restricted areas, like San Francisco Urban, New York Urban, Boston Urban, and the extra-hard-to-understand Gullah of the Charleston area.  One I like, especially when used in singing, is Louisiana Cajun.  Near where I live there’s a dialect peculiar to only modest-sized Harkers Island, preserving remnants of the old Elizabethan tongue (high tide to them is “hoi toide”).

          Using dialect and foreign-language accents in writing dialog can be a challenge.   If you try to portray a hillbilly speaking, for example, and you replace the g on all words ending in “ing” with an apostrophe, you could soon have a page swimming with tadpole-like apostrophes, only confusing and slowing readers.  The late Elmore Leonard solved this by not using any apostrophes at all, simply spelling out dialect words phonetically (but still recognizably).

          The best advice I’ve heard is to use dialect words sparingly in the first place, then go back during the final self-editing and cull out even more of them.

          In conveying dialect and foreign accents, the merest hint is almost always quite enough.


Monday, July 31, 2017

A Deaver Do

Naomi and I attended a one-day workshop sponsored by the Southeast Chapter of Mystery Writers of America (SEMWA) this past weekend in Columbia, South Carolina.  Once again, as with all writer events I've attended, including Bouchercon, Killer Nashville (twice), and Sleuthfest, I immediately felt at home, as though this was where I belonged.  Our speaker/instructor, multi-million-copy worldwide best selling author, Jeffery Deaver, was highly informative, witty, unpretentious, and likable.  As with all such events, I took a lot away that will help me in my writing.  Thank you, Jeffery Deaver, thank you Maggie Toussaint, president of SEMWA, and thank you members of Sisters in Crime.

If you're a struggling writer, I strongly recommend you attend every such event you can afford.  It will neither be time nor money wasted.