Writing Dialog: Idioms & Colloquialisms

One of the secrets of writing good dialog is to make every character sound unique.  As a writer, you want your dialog (both the internal and communication between your characters) to also sound natural. And it’s got to sparkle.  To that effect, many fiction writers pepper their prose with informal expressions (often ingrained since childhood) known as Idioms & Colloquialisms. 

An idiom is a combination of words that has a figurative meaning. Idioms exist in every language. Defined as a peculiar phrase that means something very different from the literal meaning. For example, if you say someone has “kicked the bucket,” it doesn’t mean that the bucket is laying on it’s side, it means (at least in the US), that someone is dead.
– It takes two to tango
– When pigs fly
– Raining cats and dogs
– Over the moon

A colloquialism is language used in daily life, consisting of informal, non-standard phrases that rise from verbal speech. Or to quote Strunk & White, “a word or expression appropriate to informal conversation but not usually suitable for academic or business writing.”  Authors tend to use colloquialisms (including profanity, slang, jargon, and contractions) to give dialog the ring of authenticity.
– Pitching a hissy fit
– Chuffed
– Dine and Dash
– Wazzup?

But the thing is, both techniques are considered among the deadly sins in fiction. In particular, slang use tends to go in and out of fashion, and idioms or jargon can mystify the reader, who tend to skim over the phrase (and pop right out of the story). This is deadly for any writer, and most editors viciously target idioms and colloquiallisms for deletion.

That doesn’t mean that these techniques don’t belong in the writer’s toolbox.  On the contrary, the creative use of idioms and colloquialisms can liven up the text, inject humor, lock the reader into story, and above all, reveal character. Take a tip from these folks:

  • “When your mama was a geek, my dreamlets,” Papa would say, “she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing.” Katherine Dunn, Geek Love
  • “…he ducked his head and smiled at that white man just like a salesman whose luck has gone bad.” —Walter Mosley, Devil in a Blue Dress
  • “Personally, I don’t have anything against shroud eaters.” Richard Kadrey, Kill the Dead
  • “Strikes me some people’s left their eyes outside in the sun, or maybe they’re just not very bright today.” Richard Adams, Maia
  • “…what you have mostly are rich ladies come out with their little doggies to make wee-wee. I mean the doggies, not the ladies.” —Elmore Leonard, Rum Punch 

Unique?  Check. Natural-sounding?  Check. Cliche? Not on your life. Ordinary characters don’t talk this way. These characters are compelling in their language and point of view.  They sparkle. Tell me you didn’t drink up every word of every sentence and want to read more.

Next time you find yourself searching for stronger internal narrative or dialog, don’t be satisfied with mere slang or epithets. Dig deeper into your characters and their attitudes. With the proper use of idioms and colloquialisms, you’ll be  happy as a puppy with two peckers at the results.

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2018: The List and the Lessons

At the end of every year, I like to look back at the books I’ve read and share some of my favorite reads, and while I’m at it, also offer up the top lessons I’ve learned as a writer in 2018. Sort of a literary year in review.

For me, this year was one of regrouping; of getting my feet back under me after a couple of years of struggling–and I’m not alone. Seems to me that the last couple of years have been pretty harsh for a lot of folks. With the shrinking of the polar ice caps comes a polarization of minds and hearts as well. Whether you get your news from traditional media or social media, it’s hard to miss the angst and anger these days. Thank goodness there are plenty of good books to offer a bit of escape and solace.

I read 35 novels this year, but I got a late start. As I do every year, I always try to read authors I haven’t read as well as catch up with my favorites, and try a classic or two.

Favorite new (to me) authors:
RICHARD MORGAN’s Altered Carbon was recommended to me by a good friend and fellow noir genre fan, and I was not disappointed. Takeshi Kovacs is an intriguing character in a harsh and unforgiving future. Although I found a few plot elements unbelievable (surviving in the trunk of a car for hours in a southeast Asia summer), Morgan’s vision of immortality through downloadable memory stacks and progressive  human ‘sleeves’ felt more like manifest destiny than science fiction, to me. I liked it so much, I’m reading Broken Angels right now.

I also enjoyed Chuck Wendig’s Under the Empyrian Sky. I thought the world building and ideas around super-GMO corn and the rise of the seed industry to be believable, unique and engaging.

Favorite Classic:
A tie this year, for works by authors whose writing, craft, and genre couldn’t be more different. I’d never read any of Lois McMaster Bujold’s work, but I enjoyed The Sharing Knife (Book I). A little slow for my taste, but I liked the characters enough so that I’ll probably read more in the series. On the other hand, I didn’t like any of the characters in Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, but it didn’t matter– I will be reading him again. Man, can that guy keep me turning the pages.  Yes,  a detective novel, but a good one, with many twists and turns. I liked the ‘esper’ (as in ESP) world he built, where those with extrasensory perception belong to a layered guild, based on ability, and all the competitive politics to go with it.

As for favorite reads by favorite authors, I gorged on more than a dozen of Robin Hobb’s novels.  And as much as I loved the Farseer Trilogy, and the Fitz & The Fool series, I thought all four volumes of the Rain Wilds Chronicles were superb; and each book in the series had a better ending than the last. The series conclusion was absolutely stunning. And that is how you write a series.

My mentor(s) have always stressed getting words written every day, whether you feel like it or not. So at the beginning of the year, I set my writing goals and made them aggressive. I would write more this year than last year, I promised myself.  I planned to write three novels this year.

And then I didn’t.

Almost from the beginning, I struggled with getting words written, and those I did write, felt wrong. I thought that maybe it was because my 10 year-old ‘writing computer’ died, and the laptop keyboard didn’t feel the same. Or maybe it was that the story I was working on felt too tame, but I couldn’t seem to give it up and write something else. Anything else.

So I didn’t make my writing goals. Or even submit anything. I’d sit down with the intention to write, but ended up shuffling pages or rereading an outline that didn’t appeal to me. Maybe, I thought, I’d lost my creativity. Maybe I don’t have any more stories in me–ugh, what a thought. Or, maybe the day job is siphoning all my energy away. Creatively speaking, the well felt empty.

I quit trying to force it. I felt like a fraud.

And then (as life and all the other things that go with it do) my dog died. Big loss. Deep sorrow. Months later, and the emotions are still pretty close to the surface. I miss her, but I feel guilty too–at the sheer relief from worry. The worry of coming home every day for the last six months of her life and putting my hand on her side to see if she was still breathing. I don’t miss that. Or getting up several times a night to check on her. I don’t miss that either.

And slowly, in the place where all that worry used to live, the story is starting to whisper to me again. I feel the flicker of inspiration coming back. And it gets stronger with every good book I read. And weird little messages from the universe seem to be pointing me back to the ‘write’ path. I made myself very modest writing goals this year. Goals I’m pretty sure I can make. And I’m giving myself permission (again) to write crap, as long as I get the words on the page. I know from experience that once I start writing, I’ll fall into the story, and the writing will take care of itself.

And thus the lesson. There are times in your life when your focus is forced away from your story. Times when what is outside your control takes over your life. Life happens.  Do what you have to do to deal with it. But don’t beat yourself up for not writing.  Give yourself a break. The story isn’t going anywhere.  There is no time limit on creativity; or success. To me, creativity is like a well: sometimes, the water is harder to reach, but it has no place else to go. Keep reading. Eventually, the well will fill up again.

Here’s wishing you a 2019 full of good stories–be they yours or someone else’s.

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You Say Spaghetti Night, I say Western Noir

I confess, I am a huge fan of spaghetti westerns. As a trope, it’s one of my guilty pleasures, right up there with James Bond movies. This weekend, there was a Clint Eastwood movie marathon on TV, and the feast was bountiful, including High Plains Drifter, Pale Rider, The Unforgiven, and one of my all-time favorite films, Hang ‘Em High.

Of course any decent Clint Eastwood movie marathon starts with the Sergio Leone trio of films (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly). The scenery is gorgeous, the violence brutal, and Eastwood’s anti-hero portrayal, timeless. Even today, Rotten Tomatoes scores all three above 94% for appeal, some 50 years after release.

Then there’s Hang ‘Em High.  I hadn’t seen it in a while, and I ended up taking notes. No spoilers here, just an appreciation for plotting and subplots.

The problem the protagonist tries to solve keeps getting away from him when he’s obligated to fix someone else’s problem first. His sense of honor and justice keeps getting in the way of his sense of revenge. His sense of revenge evolves into a determination for justice (for himself), and eventually his own disillusionment with the justice system (as administered by a hanging judge), and in the end, sympathy for the last of 9 men who tried to kill him.

For the audience, there’s a shared frustration with the protag, as he is continually thwarted in his efforts by bigger, higher priority problems that need to be solved (each of which consists of several action scenes), which builds throughout the story until he FINALLY faces off against his would-be murderer, only to be thwarted yet again.

All this thwarting and action showcase his growing disillusionment with the wild west legal system, something which he knows he is a part of, yet is unable to change–the hanging judge is as much a monster as the murderers he hangs. In the end, though his decision to stay and work within it or leave and live happily ever after says everything about the protagonist’s character, and the emotion that the AUDIENCE experiences when he makes his choice is unique to each individual viewer. Wow. For me, this multi-dimensional story-telling. A story that stays with you after you walk out of the theatre.

To me, the ‘spaghetti western‘ genre branding is a misnomer. It implies a a shallow thrill that minimizes the audience experience. I prefer to think of these films as a subgenre of noir: defined as genre of fiction characterized by cynicism, fatalism, and moral ambiguity. And lest you think I’m only interested in Eastwood films, think The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Or, more recently, films like No Country for Old MenBlood Simple, Red Rock West, or Last Man Standing.

So you can keep your spaghetti westerns, I’ll have a Western Noir.
Make it a double feature.

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Dog Days Return

The dog days of summer are here. Defined as “the period between early July and early September when the hot sultry weather of summer usually occurs in the northern hemisphere,” you could say that we are smack in the middle of them. Look at the weather map for the US these days, and it’s plain to see that the heat is on. Here in Portland, Oregon, we are under a heat advisory– temps are expected to hit 99 degrees later today.

A time to turn up the air conditioner, if you’ve got one. Or fire up the fans. Hit the beach. Or go to the movies. Anything to avoid the heat.

It’s a harsh time. A time to endure.

For me, this year, it’s the dogless days of summer which must be weathered. Recently, my beloved Rowan crossed the rainbow bridge (as all good dogs eventually do) and I am bereft. Having lived nearly all my adult life in the company of dogs, I am suddenly dogless. The house is bigger for lack of dog beds scattered across the floor. Without walkies and playtime and mealtimes, and weekly grooming/brushing and the constant battle against the tide of dog hair, I am at loose ends.  I feel as if I’ve forgotten something.  Something important.

And then I remember.
And am left shorn and bereaved all over again.  Her loss brings to mind the other beloved  fur kids who preceded her: Mia, Quilly, Taz, and the rest. I remember each of them, and how, over time, the pain of loss lessens and is replaced by wonderful memories. Sometimes, even dreams.

Rowan will not be my last dog, but for now I can only endure.  Some day, I know, another dog will come into my life, and I will rejoice.

Until then, I can only imagine that wonderful day, when the dog days return.

Posted in dog hair, dogs, Sharon Joss, summer | Tagged | 1 Comment

Comic-Con Fans Rock

If a picture is worth a thousand words, this one is worth a whole book.

Yes, here’s a terrific pic of the fan who found the virtual me last weekend at Comic-Con in San Diego. She’s holding a couple of trading cards I sent along with a friend as swag (including one of mine).

I’ll be sending her an autographed copy of my novel, Brothers of the Fang.

Needless to say, it made my day.


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Comic-Con, I Am In You

Virtually speaking, that is.

Physically speaking, I’m not going to make it to Comic-Con this year. It’s on my bucket list, but  I’ve never even managed to even get tickets for the mother-of-all Cons in San Diego.

This year, though, I have a friend who is going to be there and has kindly offered to distribute some swag for me. I gave her a few trading cards to give away, including a dozen  of mine. Two of them are autographed.

So here’s the deal, if you manage to snag one of my trading cards, or any of my books while at Comic-Con this year, snap a photo of yourself holding it at the Con and email the pic to me with your mailing address. I’ll send you an autographed copy of one of my books. Free.

Granted, finding my books or one of my trading cards in the middle of the biggest party in town might be a bit like finding a needle in a haystack, but I’m confident somebody will find me.  The Force is strong in you.







Posted in AURUM, Brothers of the Fang, Chaos Karma, Comic-Con, Cosmic Jive, Destiny Blues, Sharon Joss, Stars That Make Dark Heaven Light, STEAM DOGS | Leave a comment

The Shape of Water is Story

The drought is over.

After a dearth of appealing films kept me out of movie theatres for all of 2017, I went to see Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water this weekend. Of course I’ve heard the hype–all the nominations and awards the film has already garnered. I’d also heard the catcalls claiming it was just another overdone creature feature trope with glitter.

The reviews only partly influenced my decision to quench my thirst on this particular film experience.  I’m a huge fan of Guillermo de Toro films, and Pan’s Labyrinth is one of my all time favorites, even though the experience left me devastated and sobbing. Since that film, I think I’ve seen most of his movies. As a fan, he’s on my “automatic buy” list–anything he puts out, I’m going to spend my money on it. To me, he’s not just a great director, he’s a master storyteller.

And thus the lesson.
Just like the opening paragraphs of any good novel, from the dreamy opening credits and music, I knew this is going to be good. Fantasy. Tone. Mood. Music. All set within the first few seconds. The (short) voiceover in the opening serves as the prolog for what will come, but the same voiceover at the end it wraps up the story, giving the film it’s final context.

With water as the predominant theme, it is echoed in the setting, the characters and their actions. Rain, boiling eggs, overflowing bathtubs, spilled water; even the colors used (key lime pie, green Jello, a cadillac, a lapel pin), and the muteness of the two protagonists all mirror the effects set in the opening scene, reminding the audience that we are in a special place.

In contrast, the conflicts are hard-edged and real. Violent. Cruel. Electric. A ticking clock elevates the tension, the stakes are high.  Death. Betrayal. Loss.  The story could have been set anywhere or any time, but a secret research facility in the paranoia of the early 1960’s is a perfect contrast to the dreamy cocoon of an apartment above the perfectly-named Orpheus Theatre in downtown Baltimore (Orpheus. Get it? Perfect).

You know the trope. Thanks to the critics and the marketing, you probably already know the story, but it doesn’t matter.  We come to story for the experience.  For the emotional journey.  Yes, the film is a fairy tale.  But more than that, The Shape of Water is Story, told by a master, with the most beautiful music (composed by Alexandre Desplat), cinematography (Dan Laustsen), and cast that will make you forget everything but the wondrous tale that unfolds before you.

Go see it.





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