Monday, November 27, 2017

Vernacular in Another World

I’m not sure what topical word you’d have to use today to get an editor to remove it, now that Mark Twain’s suggestion of subbing “damn” for every “very” doesn’t seem to have the same punch. In fact, I’m not sure there’s a swear word out there that will automatically get cut anymore. Maybe we have to be more clever with something like “literally.” Perhaps “ironically.” Not “irregardless” simply because your editor would lose all faith in you.

Mark Twain, ironically, was the king of incorporating vernacular into his stories. He is referenced as one of swaying forces in the literary world, writing right at the beginning that dense reads and poetic prose was going out of fashion and more common slang was becoming popular. Despite his hatred of the word “very,” which you might think a man who liked simple conversation would appreciate, his characters spoke without the artistic license and romantic flourish of the successful authors around him.

His dialogue often incorporated heavy accents and utilized apostrophes and uncommon contractions. He wrote about people who weren’t the aristocracy and tried to replicate them in authentic ways. Today, “real” speech is very in vogue (damn in vogue?), and, tied in with an illustration of real life personalities, you have the makings of a critically acclaimed novel. (If you have the advertising budget behind you, of course.) Not with accents, obviously - we all know how bloggers despise those - but simple and to the point with no coloration is key. No longer do we have the Oscar Wildes of the world, but we all must follow in the footprints of Hemingway or Stephanie Meyer and keep our prose at a fifth-grade reading level—at least according to all college creative writing professors.

I am a speculative fiction author, which is a 25 cent way to say ALL the geek. Science fiction, fantasy, paranormal, folklore… any sort of writing that is spawned out of human imagination and speculation versus typical rules of science. People who use ‘speculative fiction’ do so, not to sound smart (for once), but to avoid people making assumptions about their work. Fantasy and sci-fi, even paranormal tends to illicit specific images and books, and if your story doesn’t have the elves of Tolkien or the aliens of Star Trek, your reader might end up very disappointed.

My serial short stories, Stories of the Wyrd, might be better put into the category of paranormal, the human characters often encountering more ghost-like supernatural beasts than, say, dwarves. However, it is not urban fantasy, like most would assume if you were to talk about a paranormal book where the characters are from “our” world, just our world with vampires and demons. In that vein, my work is closer to high fantasy with a completely made up setting.

Only a handful of my manuscripts take place in modern day America. In those, my choice in how to portray characters’ vernacular is obvious and easy. I have a general understanding of the way that conversation has changed over the years without too much imagination. I have a few real life examples of how a sixty year old man would talk, even one in the body of a twenty-year-old human.

I don't get stuck on conversation. Sometimes I go through and have to tweak their words, realizing he is too passive, she’s too submissive, he’s too stupid, she needs to just stop talking all together, but it’s not something I consciously have to sludge through, making my brain hurt as I force it to think hard about how to write.

But lately I’ve reconsidered.

Stories of the Wyrd is set in an industrial age, the world a mixture between turn of the century Russia, the American west, and medieval Europe as well as pieces all my own. They do not have the technology we do, though they surpass us in others. The evolution of their language would be very different than ours, their vernacular new and foreign.

They should not be using current slang, right?

It’s a common complaint about fantasy novels—the overly formal, proper, and even poetic dialogues that roam prevalent through those types of books. Personally, I don’t dislike it, and can even get excited about it at times. Having characters speak in a way that we don’t adds a foreign air to the scene, gives it ambiance, removes the readers from it just a smidge, and often fits for the world at hand.

That being said, I agree with some of the criticism in that, one, it doesn’t always work, and two, it is overdone. Considering Stories of the Wyrd, is an attempt to play around with my writing, have fun, and not be restricted by what I think an audience or agent will want, plus my belief that all fantasy books don’t need to be formal, I have to question if developing an entirely new vernacular is necessary or even beneficial. Especially when you consider the fact that they’re not speaking English at all.

In my mind, Stories is being told by a narrator from our world relating it to our audience. The narrator is a foreigner to the Wyrd and their lands, following Kaia and Rasmus and retelling the events to people who have never heard of the place before. This narrator is completely invisible, meaning he has never show a sign of humanity, personality, or existence in the stories and probably won’t ever, but it helps me motivate and understand why each description and detail is depicted when, where, and how it is. The narrator, while not born there, is an expert, and has translated Kaia and Rasmus’s words so that we can understand him. No, Kaia and Rasmus do not know about his existence. They have no idea they’re being watched. It's not a story point, simply how I naturally view the scene. It took some self-reflection to understand, despite my brother arguing, "WHY ARE YOU MAKING IT SO COMPLICATED?"

Instead of being a literal translator, he depicts intent. He removes their colloquialisms and adds in some of our own. He says what the characters meant, not what they said, which is especially necessary considering he is going off of memory and wouldn’t be able to repeat their words verbatim anyway.

This is always what I’ve assumed, and it wasn’t until I started to pick holes in my writing and question it that I wonder if it’s a good idea. Should I develop a new vernacular that adds to the strangeness of their world and situation, or do I leave in everyday vernacular that makes them more relatable and funnier?

Because these stories are predominantly a relaxer for me and because I have no one yet commenting on their language of their own volition, it’s not something I am too concerned about when it comes to Kaia and Rasmus. But it has started to be questioned on other manuscripts, and I wonder if I shouldn’t be challenging myself to really develop the world passed what it is.

I’ll probably try it at least.

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