Sunday, April 4, 2010

Writing in a Different Language

Nothing drives home the fact of how much you don't know about your host culture than writing a book set there featuring characters who grew up there.

My current project takes place in England and is populated with native Brits. For the most part, people are people, and I've been here long enough to know how they talk and how they go about their daily business, so I shouldn't fall into obvious traps, like having a character talk about when she was in "high school" or making reference to a "senior prom." There are, however, numerous opportunities for gaffs.

After finishing the first draft, I reread it and took pages of notes highlighting details I needed to research. Such as: you can't go visit someone in the hospital (actually, the person would be "in hospital") here and expect the receptionist to give you a room number. Patients are on wards, there are nurses, but no candy stripers and some nurses, depending upon their duties, are called "Sister" or "Matron."

Registering a car, getting insurance, all different from my American experiences. They don't have appointment books, they have "Diaries" and they don't write things like, "Nathan said 'Hi' to me outside of math class today and I have a great big pimple in the middle of my forehead! I wanted to die!" in them.

What gets me is not the amount of research I have to do to make my prose not sound like it was written by an American (for one thing, in the above dialogue, I'd have to change Math to Maths and Pimple to Spot); I'm more concerned about the things I can't know:

What is it like to go through the British school system? What TV shows would they have watched, what pastimes would they have enjoyed, how would they and their friends have behaved?

But, to quote Donald Rumsfeld, those are things I know I don't know, and I expect a combination of creative prose and research will get me over those hurdles; it's the things I don't know I don't know that are more likely to trip me up. (By the by, that famously amusing "Things we know" quote makes perfect sense if you read it carefully.)

My biggest fear is that I will spend a lot of time on this manuscript only to send it off laced with unintentional hilarity like having a Memorial Day celebration and totally ignoring Whitsun, or having a character asking for a "round trip" ticket.

At least I know enough to not have a cop pull a gun.


  1. I'd be happy to check it over for you, a chapter at a time if you want to be sure?
    Blessings, Star

  2. That must be the answer Mike - some good proof-readers. Though we are so used to Americanisms here, sometimes I think I don't even notice them now. I'd like to know what a Hershey bar is though... don't have anyone eat one of those!

  3. As time goes by I have started mixing it up and I've forgotten which is UK and which is USA language. Today I had to ask my OH, "in England, do we pronounce crayon cray'N or crayON?" He said cray'n.
    I'm looking forward to the book.

  4. Star: Thanks for the offer; when it is finished, I may take you up on it.

    Jennyfreckles: A Hersey Bar is America's answer to chocolate. It tastes horrible! It is, and I am not making this up, made with sour milk. US kids are weened on the stuff. I would NEVER have a UK character eat a Hersey bar, just for their own sake ;)

    Pam: I've gotten to that point, too. I have to ask someone if the word/pronunciation/idiom is British or American.

  5. It is tough. I spent 3 years in the States as a child and as a result have a huge hole in my British culture. People are always going - you remember that show, and I have no idea what they are talking about.

    I'll echo Star's offer if you need another pair of eyes to check for cultural slip ups, let me know.

  6. Yep sure is a lazy language.
    the tyre is flat cos its tired out,
    color my world well the states there are some nice colours in England.
    need to throw away the yanky spell checker,
    but most folks today are also getting lazy egypt think the english language is soo easy.
    most can read text messages. i luv u cos 4 long tym i mis u.

  7. "yanky" - love it ;)

  8. Hi Mike, We've had some correspondence on my blog (Pond Hopper), I just wanted to let you know I just ordered your book and I'm looking forward to reading it! Best of luck on your next one!

  9. Hi, Erren. Good to hear from you, and thanks for buying my book!!!

  10. Mind you - it takes so long to write anything and get it on the shelves that the American words will have crept into the UK lexicon by then!

  11. Hello again, Your book arrived today. I stole a couple of minutes to leaf through it while my son played, read 2 pages and laughed out loud twice. THANK YOU. I have never felt so validated! I'll gladly put a link to buy the book on my site.
    Do you have the code for a link with the pic to but on Amazon? If so, just email it to me (
    You really made my day!

  12. Erren: Thanks again!