Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Local Dialect

As writers, we all like to give a flavour of the area where we have set our stories. Accents and local terminology are there to be played with and if you tell the reader that a character is from a certain region then they will automatically attribute the accent to their dialogue.

The issue is explaining local terminology to the reader, as the characters who inhabit the story know what the local lingo means.

The best example I can think of for dealing with this problem is the Lennox series of novels by Craig Russell. His main protagonist is a Canadian living in Glasgow. Through his first person viewpoint Russell will use a passage like “I followed him into the alley, or close as they call it here” near the start of the novel and then later on when Lennox “ducks into a close” the reader already has the information needed to translate. Matt Hilton did something very similar when he had one of his characters travel to Manchester from America for a chapter or two.

 I’ve set my novel in Cumbria which has a very distinctive dialect all of its own. Some phrases which are used everyday include (apologies to all Cumbrians for any spelling errors)

“a’s gan yam” – I’m going home

“seck like” – such like

“charver” – man / lad / boy

“bewer” – woman / lady / girl

“nashed after I went chawing” – Ran away after I was stealing

There are only so many times that you can have one character explain to another the local lingo, so a lot of the time I have had to refine the language used. Also with Cumbrian being a largely unknown dialect I also have to remember that idiomatic phrases like “why-eye” or “or-hey are kid” are not even slightly relevant.

I still want to include the local language into my novel though so I made an important character a stranger to the region to allow me some wiggle room. After giving you five examples of local language I can now let you read this line of dialogue which is written in full local patois.

“This charver and bewer nashed past me as a was gan yam. I bet they’ve been chawing or seck like.”

Naturally that line is way way to regional to actually use in a novel but if I can find a way of giving a wee info dump on the local dialect (without it being obvious) then I can scatter odd words or terms into the characters dialogue to keep things authentic.

Feel free to comment on how you do or don't deal with this.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Vocabulary Vs Understanding

Us writers love language and it is our natural playground. There are few more satisfying things than a well crafted sentence which creates a setting or evokes an emotion in the reader.

However, there are times when we scribblers can go to far with stunning verbiage. I feel I have at worst an average vocabulary, yet there are times when I’ve been in conversation with colleagues or friends and have used a word or two which has made their eyes visibly glaze over.

As a reader myself there are few things than can pull me out of a story quicker than a word I don’t understand or even guess the context of. If the word is the name for something ancient and unknown to me, then I expect the writer to inform me of the object and its purpose, look or attraction. Being fair most do at some point in the novel. However the introduction of words which are not used in everyday language outside of a laboratory or space station have been known to cause a curse to erupt from my lips.

Don’t get me wrong, I love playing with words and finding double meanings for words so that I can twist them to my own purpose. It’s the usage of innocuous, inconsequential and hitherto un-encountered syntax which elicits the explosions of diatribe aimed at thesaurus swallowing linguists.

Don’t even get me started on those writers who litter their work with foreign languages with no explanation. I know that the British are not renowned for mutli-lingualism but there’s no need to ram the point home every other page. If you’re going to insert another language into a book written in English either explain it or kick its bahookey (A Scottish term for bottom) [see what I did there] right off the page. Local dialect and terminology is acceptable provided that an explanation is forthcoming.

As a writer I try to limit my use of long or obscure words. Yes I have picked up a dictionary or thesaurus to find a better word than the one I’ve written, but I will not use the replacement if I am in any way unsure of its connotation or possible interpretation. I try to keep my language relevant and use everyday language which is comprehensible to the majority of readers.

To summarise this post I would have to say “don’t use words which nobody else will understand” and yes I am aware that I have taken over four hundred words when the eight in quotation marks would have sufficed.

Feel free to tell me I’m right, wrong or even full of merde via the comments below. First person to point out the irony of the language I’ve used in the post will win a signed air guitar.

Monday, 14 January 2013


This week on my blog I have the bestselling author Chris Ewan. Chris's novel Safe House topped the kindle charts for most of December and was one of the best novels I read last year. Such was the brilliance of Safe House I voted for it to be entered into Crimesquad.com's top ten of 2012

Chris also writes The Good Thief's Guide To series and I have nothing but praise for this series. With tinder dry wit and excellent plotting the series is one which you miss at your peril. I've read the latest one (TGTGT Berlin) and it's a belter.

Enough from me, here's Chris talking about choosing the locations for his books.

When I’m starting work on planning a novel, location is one of the first things I need to settle on. Different locations conjure up different images and emotions in my mind, and it always helps me to find a location that complements the tone and style that I’m hoping to achieve. On top of that, the location I select tells me what is and isn’t going to be possible in the story I’m writing. For example, in Safe House, the Isle of Man setting helped me to conjure up a sense of isloation, even claustrophobia, and to explore the secrets that can exist in the smallest of communities. But equally, the location eliminated certain possibilities. I was never going to be writing about the working process of an FBI profiler or a tactical assault by a SWAT team down in Peel marina …

In terms of my series of Good Thief’s Guide mysteries about globetrotting burglar Charlie Howard, location plays an even more important role. When I first started the series, part of my goal was to try and combine elements of travel fiction with a crime novel. In the course of the books, Charlie has visited Amsterdam, Paris, Las Vegas and Venice. And, tough as it is, I’ve visited them all several times in the name of research, too.

When it came to writing the fifth entry in the series, I faced up to the dilemma of where to send Charlie next. For a while, I toyed with the idea of Prague or Barcelona. Istanbul became a real possibility. But ultimately, the location that excited me most was Berlin.

Why? Well there’s a fascinating tension at the heart of Berlin – a strikingly modern city that can’t escape its past. Hitler’s bunker is concealed beneath an ordinary-looking car park. The Reichstag, Germany’s parliament building, is topped by a glass and steel dome designed by an Englishman. Fragments of the Berlin Wall remain, and where the wall has been removed, a double-line of cobbles is stitched into the tarmac as a permanent reminder of Berlin’s Cold War history. Even some of the city’s inhabitants play a dual role – by night, the men who dress in US Army uniforms and pose for daytime photographs outside a mock-up of Checkpoint Charlie, perform in a troupe of male strippers.

I wanted to throw Charlie into this mix and to write about contemporary Berlin in a way that gave a nod to its extensive history, as well as the literary tradition of the Berlin-set espionage novel. The icing on the cake was the wonderful architectural backdrop for the action in the book that the city provides – from iconic structures like the Brandenburg Gate to hip and desirable residential zones in the former Eastern district, where graffiti colours the drab concrete apartment blocks, and where underground nightclubs and independent caf├ęs line the streets.

I loved writing The Good Thief’s Guide to Berlin and I had a blast deciding where the action in the book should take place. But ultimately, it seems fitting to me that perhaps my favourite location to write about was one I never had the chance to visit at all. The Spree Park, an abandoned GDR amusement park, plays a pivotal role in the book. And really, what’s not to love about a deserted, socialist amusement park with rusting roller coasters and fake dinosaurs?


Chris Ewan is the bestselling author of the standalone thriller, Safe House, as well as five novels in The Good Thief’s Guide to… series of mystery novels. You can find him on Twitter @chrisewan or visit his website: www.chrisewan.com


Monday, 7 January 2013

Choosing the Right Crime

I'm Back! Christmas has been Merry, New Year was Happy and the flu was something I coulda done without. Anyway normal service has been resumed and I won't bore you with my opinions on the best and worst of 2012. Instead I'm gonna talk about crime instead. 

As a crime writer one of the biggest and often hardest decisions to make is quite simply choosing the crime. We need a crime which has consequences in the near future if the criminals are not caught. Serial killers claiming another victim, kidnappers killing after the ransom goes unpaid, terrorist bombs going off or even a stolen wedding ring not being returned to the bride / groom in time for the wedding.

The police or detective solving the crime must have a deadline to increase tension. The greater the consequences then the greater the tension and drama created. 

Serial killers have been done so often there is little new ground to break unless you have a massively innovative idea. (If this idea involves vampires, ghosts or any other supernatural being then sadly it’s not innovative anymore.) 

Of course there are terrorist plots, but they can mean a whole different style of novel than the author intended writing. Historical finds or time slip novels are great too but they more than any other style need the author to show a massive amount of information to the reader without slowing the pace down. 

Kidnapping is a crime with its own built in timeline and consequences which is great, but again kidnapping has been done so often that there are few new angles to explore. Murder is fine for a whodunit, but if there is only one murder then there are no consequences to worry about and pace is replaced by a drilled down police procedural. 

High concept robbery is always good for a police procedural with the whodunit element thrown in. If plans for further robberies are found then you also have a plot driver as consequences have been introduced. Although I’d prefer the detective to “have” to solve this kind crime to save his job / get paid so he can pay his mortgage and prevent his wife from leaving as I care more about characters than corporations. 

Intercepting drugs shipments / human trafficking rings and so on are always fertile ground for writers as they have built in consequences and deadlines. Sex crimes tend to fall into the same bracket as serial killers, as they also have repeat offenders who escalate their spree and they generally kill their victims to cover their tracks.

Missing jewellery and lost pets are not on my reading or writing radar so I will pass no comment other than “get that fucking cat off my radar.”

So folks, what crimes do you choose to read and write?