Tuesday, February 19, 2013

I Say! My Characters Sound Too British?

I love getting reviews from people I don't know, not because I'm a glutton for punishment or a gourmand for praise, but because I enjoy finding out about other people and their lives.

I recently got a review for "Let Slip the Dogs of War", my novel about a gang of retired CIA people running a bed and breakfast in Vermont. The reader said Bea and Ben, the proprietors, used decidedly British expressions, and that was something the reader felt was unsuccessful.

There's an irony here. For one thing, I actually have familial roots in the United Kingdom. Both of my grandmothers came over as children and my grandfathers were first generation in this country. I grew up with certain expressions handed because my ancestors settled here amidst fellow immigrants, so the common bonds of language remained strong.

My Scottish grandmother had an expression to describe someone less than swift. You were like Willie off the pickle boat. That's a fishing boat that comes in last because the crew caught herring and pickled them on the way in, hence the pickle boat terminology. These days, it's been replaced by the "bounced off the banana boat" expression, but the meaning's pretty much the same.

Historians can speak to the fact that the King's English had strong roots in the mid-eighteenth century in America. I grew up in New England, so I know from experience there are still pockets of population that use British colloquialisms in everyday speech.

When I was getting my education degree, I had a professor who explained that in some places in the South, especially in Appalachia, the spoken language retained many of the English words as a result of the population being cut off from modern society.

If you think about it, American English is a reflection of the influx (or lack of influx) of immigrants. Remember Frances McDormand in "Fargo", as Marge Gunderson? All those Scandinavian and German settlers put their mark on the Upper Midwest accent over the generations. Consider the speech idioms in Louisiana. There's a difference between Creoles and Cajuns. The Cajuns descend from the French families booted out of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick by the British. The Creoles are more expansive in their ancestry, with a mix of French, Spanish, Caribbean, and African heritage. All this is reflected in local culture, speech, expressions, and food, but the differences between the two remain. They are not interchangeable.

Ironically, the expressions I used with Bea and Ben are those I grew up with, so to me, they are normal. When I am in touch with my British relatives, I am always so aware of the fact that I have to translate American expressions. Television isn't TV, it's telly. The car's trunk is a boot in the UK. They have coffee bags, we have tea bags. Chips are french fries here and potato chips are crisps there.

If you've ever called someone a tinker around an Irishman, you might find yourself corrected. Once a description of an itinerant tinsmith who did odd jobs on the road, the word became offensive to some Irish families because many gypsies and travelers adopted that lifestyle, and as such, were not welcomed. On the other hand, in Scotland, it's not such an offensive term. It all depends on your ancestry, doesn't it?

But it's more than just what we do and say in our everyday lives that defines our language skills, expressions, and colloquialisms. It's how we interact with our surroundings. If you've ever spent time with someone who has traveled the globe, you know that person has picked up a lot over the years. It's hard not to want to adopt new cultural behaviors that are appealing. In Europe, the Speedo is the norm for many men, but not so much here in the States. Baked beans on toast is a staple in Britain, even at breakfast, but we like our beans for barbecue and chili here. When we expand our horizons, we adapt what we like and we lose what we don't.

Ben, Uncle Edward, and Lorna are seasoned globetrotters. They've been in exotic places and had exotic experiences, Bea less so. Uncle Edward and Lorna have been professors, and as such, they are well-educated. Uncle Edward's love affair with Shakespeare influenced his dream of the Bard's Bed & Breakfast. How can there not be a British flair to the story, even as it unfolds in Vermont? Vermont is a lot like the Lake District in England, with all that lush landscape.

In "A Plague O' Both Your Houses", I introduced a Jamaican nurse with a trunkful of expressions from the island. Some of the best proverbs have come from that little shining spot in the Caribbean. I actually have a very lovely friend whose accent is still as thick and sweet as sugar cane, and half the time I have to stop and figure out what she is saying to me. There is something ever so cheerful about a Jamaican lilt in the spoken word, with its musical tonation. Jamaican proverbs exude wisdom and insight into human nature. Put the two together and it's music to the ears. I think Shakespeare would have taken great delight in Jamaican characters and idioms. In many ways, these expressions recognize both the difficulties of real life and the desire to escape them, much like Shakespeare's works. That's why every dog has his day and puss has his four o'clock.

And at four o'clock, there's nothing wrong with a cuppa...oops, a cup of tea. That's what my grandmother enjoyed every afternoon. Personally, I prefer black tea over green. Orange pekoe, English breakfast, just about anything but Earl Grey. Not a fan.

It's okay that my reviewer perceived the expressions as decidely British and didn't really feel they worked. I'm never going to be everyone's cup of tea. The truth is some people just prefer coffee. (Isn't it ironic that one of the best producers of amazing coffee beans and black teas is Kenya? So much flavor in that soil.) Me? I have to be true to my roots. I have to write from my authentic voice, using my experience and knowledge to craft my characters. That's why you won't ever see my characters scarfing down sushi, solving the great riddles of the universe, or crossing the ocean on a hand-crafted raft. I don't eat raw fish (other than oysters and ceviche), I've never been big on complex scientific theories (although I do admit to enjoying "The Big Bang Theory"), and I can't sail to save my life (although I have had a lifelong love affair with the sea). I am what I am. I don't do vampires or evil empires in space. I don't write erotica or dabble in magic. I do write about people caught up in life's meat grinder, who try to come out on the other end with their decency and determination to protect the goodness in life intact. In this world, with all its challenges, it's not easy. But then, it wasn't easy in Shakespeare's day either.

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