Monday, September 20, 2010

Billy Boyle, or making sure the words fit the time


How does an author create a sense of place and time?

On Page 91 of Rag and Bone, author James R. Benn has the narrator/protagonist, U.S. Army Lt. Billy Boyle, escorted into the presence of a gangster in wartime London.

"Two other guys, middle-management thugs by the look of them, sat at the table playing cards," Billy tells us.

Seventy-five pages later, Billy's sidekick tells him: "Them two knuckleheads are probably still changing that tire, and no one else followed us."

Middle management? Knuckleheads? Did people talk that way in 1944? Are the terms historically accurate?

Not only are they accurate, but they are accurate with impressive precision. One search traces the first use of knucklehead to 1944, another finds middle management used first sometime between 1945 and 1950. More to the point, they lend Billy and his aide, Big Mike, a distinctive American voice. This is especially important in this tale of a young American abroad.

More on Billy Boyle later. In the meantime, how does dialogue contribute to a sense of place in fiction? Give examples of dialogue and vocabulary well suited to their fictional place and time — or not so well suited.
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(James R. Benn will be a member of my "Flags of Terror" panel at Bouchercon 2010 in San Francisco, Friday, Oct. 15, at 10 a.m.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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15 Comments:

Blogger Brian Lindenmuth said...

I was watching something on TV a few years back that was set in the 60’s. There was a dinner party and a young girl took some cheese off of one of the trays and commenting on the cheese said something like “This is some extreme cheese.”

It felt very off to me, very jarring to the ear. I just couldn't accept that she would use this word and so just chalked it up to sloppy writing.

**

Word verification is "entsmut". So that's where the Ent wives went...

September 20, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's about the most grating anachronism I've heard of. I'm guessing the writers and whoever else had script approval were shallow, highly paid, semiliterate 23-year-olds.

"Extreme" is annoyingly slangy even today. Its occurence in a 1960s setting would have me shutting off the TV or discarding the book instantly.

"Entsmut" is the cry of German anti-pornography activists.

September 20, 2010  
Blogger Simona said...

I recently read The Maltese Falcon (I know, I am behind my reading list) and remember wondering whether people really talked like that, when encountering certain expressions. Of course, now I don't remember a specific example. As a foreigner, I don't have that sensitivity. I agree with your assessment of "extreme," Peter.

September 20, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Simona, I haven't read The Maltese Falcon in a while, but I did read a number of Hammett's short stories recently. I have no idea whether his dialogue reflected popular speech of the time, but it feels right because it's the only version of 1920s speech that I know. I presume Hammett's stories had a contemporary setting, which means he's less likely to have got the language wrong.

Extreme meaning whatever the hell extreme means in youth/skateboard/advertising/ESPN slang, on the other hand, is jarring in the extreme, not to mention almost certainly anachronistic.

I wonder how accurately Hammett captures the version of English spoken by his occasional Chinese characters. In one story, he and a Chinese man engage in a ludicrous send-up of stereotypical Chinese politeness, and Hammett makes clear that the Chinese character is playing along.

September 20, 2010  
Anonymous Fred Zackel said...

I grew up in Cleveland in the 1950s and 1960s. "Knuckleheads" could be either a term of endearment (such as it is) or an insult. The good nuns (such as they were) would call us that in grade school. Sometimes in the same sentence. It might be a Midwest usage.

September 21, 2010  
Anonymous Fred Zackel said...

BTW, Peter, did you get my San Francisco sightseeing email?

September 21, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the lowdown on knuckleheads. I find the possibility of a nun using the term beguiling.

Billy Boyle is an Irish Catholic from Boston and would certainly have had ample exposure to knucklehead-spouting sisters, if the term was current among women religious. (The author is a librarian, so I trust that he did his research in these matters.)

And thanks for the travel tips. They ought to be more than enough for the three or four days I'll have after the convention.

September 21, 2010  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Hmm! Tried to post but was refused. Strange.

September 21, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I hope you'll try again! Blogger is more than overdue to start malfunctioning; I had hoped that its regular monthly breakdowns were a thing of the past.

September 21, 2010  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Thanks, You're very kind. The point I made on the lost post was that the thing I hate most is reconstructed language from a period. Writing the way a renaissance person or an eighteenth century gentleman spoke is simply impossible. The result is so artificial, it grates on the ear, regardless of how much research went into it. Usually, it's badly overdone. (Umm, my degrees are in British lit., so I can speak to this).

September 21, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kelli Stanley, who wrote a mystery set in first-century Rome, probably had something similar in mind when she said at last year's Bouchercon that "I translate history."

Translating Latin curse words, she said, "I would use the vernacular -- plenty of `Goddamnit!' and no "By Jupiter's nose!"

September 21, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I once read an author's advice on dialect that may be pertinent here, as well. The author suggested that dialect be used sparingly and near the beginning of a book, just enough to get the reader's mental ear to hear it even when it's not there.

The same might apply to Roman curses or eighteenth-century courtly speech or even to French or Norwegian words in an English or American novel set in contemporary France or Norway.

September 21, 2010  
Blogger Geoff McGeachin said...

My latest novel is set in 1947 in rural Australia which is a bit of a radical departure from the previous books. The dialogue comes in for a lot positive comments from reviewers with my favourite being, ‘How long since you have heard the threat “I’ll spiflicate you”?’

From this writers point of view while getting the language right is vital it is relatively easy compared to creating the correct level of casual racism, misogyny and xenophobia for a given period. I’m planning to revisit this character at 10 year intervals and I know part of the fun/pain will be getting the language and attitudes right each time.
And then of course submersing it all so that the book doesn’t scream out, ‘Look at me, what a great researcher I am.’

I had a long series of discussions with one of my editors on what she suggested was the overuse of the great Australian adjective, ‘Bloody’ in the dialogue. This was always a moderate-to-strong curse word in Australia depending on the company and though ubiquitous when Australian males got together would almost never have appeared in books written at the time. The editor changed her mind and sent me an apology after a weekend spent watching Deadwood on DVD which she said opened her eyes to the use of swearing in the vernacular.
Even a century ago Australians had an interesting relationship with the word.
http://www.middlemiss.org/lit/authors/denniscj/backblockother/australaise.html

September 24, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

How long since you have heard the threat “I’ll spiflicate you”?’

I don't hear it nearly as much as I'd like to, actually.

From this writers point of view while getting the language right is vital it is relatively easy compared to creating the correct level of casual racism, misogyny and xenophobia for a given period.

How do you plan to make sure you get those bits right?

I wonder how Australian readers react to "bloody" and to all the colorful slang and dialect in Australian crime and other novels. For we outsiders, the colorful dialogue is very much a marker of Australian writing even if most of us probably can't judge whether expressions are quite appropriate or suitable to the period in which the book is set. So you could probably pull a few North American legs and go a bit over the top with the slang, and we'd all love you for being so typically and colorfully Aussie.

September 24, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Oh, and the song is terrific. I was singing it in my head even though I don't know the tune.

September 24, 2010  

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