Ooh! That’s Interesting! When local flavor doesn’t work.

Like many authors, when I write I try to give an authentic flavor of the location in which my story is set. For readers who are familiar with those locations, this makes a story feel more real. And for those who are unfamiliar, the details help them get a good sense of place.

Sometimes I can give a sense of place with the specific minutiae of daily life. Examples of this include the bewildering (to foreigners) way in which groceries are bagged in a Venetian grocery store (Venetian Masks), the frustration of getting stuck when the bridge is up and you’re in a hurry (Good Bones), or the rituals of drinking coffee in 15th century Bosnia (The Pillar) or modern Croatia (Dei Ex Machina–due out in October).

Another way to give authentic flavor is by using local terminology. For instance, Southern Californians use definite articles when referring to freeways–“There was a huge traffic jam on the 5 today.”–while those of us to the north never do. Local phrasing is great, except sometimes those terms may bewilder or confuse readers. That’s when I have to step back–often at my editors’ suggestion–and reevaluate whether to use a particular phrasing. Here are a couple examples I can recall:

–In Violet’s Present, a character originally stated that a relative had moved “out state.” Eastern Nebraskans use this phrase to mean Western Nebraska (which, incidentally, irritates some Western Nebraskans). But to everyone else it probably looks like a typo for “out of state,” so we changed it.

–In Astounding! (to be released next month), it’s raining hard in one scene and a character has bark dust on him. One of my editors asked how there could be dust in the rain. Ah. To folks in the Pacific Northwest, bark dust means large chunks of bark used in landscaping. Why it’s called “dust” I’ll never know. Anyway, we changed it to bark mulch, which everyone can understand.

–In Corruption (to be released June 12), a character is in Kansas, standing among fields of milo. One of my editors pointed out that Milo is a brand of drink powder in Australia. Australian readers might imagine my guy surrounded by acres of green cans and packets. Not quite the picture I was aiming for. So we substituted another name for the crop, sorghum.

What are some of the terms used where you live that would get outsiders scratching their heads?

 

4 thoughts on “Ooh! That’s Interesting! When local flavor doesn’t work.

  1. Not where I live, but when I was in Scotland my landlady said the weather was dreich. (Sort of cold and grey.)

  2. If you’re ever tempted to write something based in the U.P. of Michigan and you want some local flavor, I’m your girl. Lots of woods for wolves, and surely someone interesting lives in Lake Superior. Or some sort of snow creature?????

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