Posts Tagged horses

A world in a word – 3 ways your vocabulary can increase reader belief

I had an interesting comment from a reader of my novel Lifeform Three. She was curious that I’d described a horse’s coat as ‘fur’. Surely the more usual term, she said, is ‘hair’.

She’s not wrong.

‘This might worry readers,’ she went on, ‘who will think you don’t know one end of a horse from the other.’

We’ll return to that in a bit.

The writer’s deception

Fiction writers are, of course, the ultimate fakers. We write experiences we haven’t had. In places we haven’t been to, about people who never existed. And we must make it real. Readers want to believe. Even if they know we can’t have been alive in Victorian London. Or on a fantasy planet.

Vocabulary is one of our tools for this.

1 Vocabulary is occupation, profession

A bomb disposal expert has to sound like a bomb disposal expert. And not just in the way you describe the activities of their work, with technical language and insider shorthand. Their work will give them a life outlook too. Any occupation will add to a character’s slang vocabulary, and even their humour style. Think of medics and their distinctive black humour.

2 Vocabulary is culture and time

Vocabulary shows the culture of the book’s world – the way characters think, the way they behave with each other.

Fantasy authors are a good example. With every word choice, they’re casting the spell of the setting, letting us know we’re not in the everyday. If their world is quasi-medieval, they might choose terms with an archaic or courtly quality.

Historical fiction authors have an additional concern – they mustn’t introduce words or phrases that are inappropriate for the times.

This brings me to character attitudes. Attitudes come from the culture. In our own time, social attitudes change wildly within a decade. Put another way, each era has distinctive values that affect how characters behave to each other. A major bugbear of historical novelists – and readers – is character attitudes that are anachronistic, especially 21st century snark and rebellion. There’s nothing wrong with rebellion, but it must be a kind of rebellion that fits with the times. (Aside: if you want to put ‘bugbear’ in your historical novel, you’re good. It entered English in the 16th century, according to Merriam-Webster.)

3 Vocabulary is individual character

Language also shows character, especially in dialogue and first-person narration (and close third where we follow the character’s thoughts and feelings).

Characters will have different ways of thinking, which come from their education levels, their occupations (or lack of them) and their personalities.

Characters will have their own lexical signature. How they curse. What they say when impressed or upset. Even, how they say hello or goodbye. What they call their parents – Mum and Dad, Mom and Pop, Mummy and Daddy, Mater and Pater. Perhaps one parent is a warm word (Mum), the other is severe (Father). Perhaps they use first names. (There’s loads more about this in my characters book.)

Fur again

Back to Lifeform Three. Of course – of COURSE – I know the correct term was hair, not fur. So why did I use such a weird word?

1 – Temporal setting – Lifeform Three is set in the future. Terms might have changed. My odd choice of word is a cue to the reader; take notice, this is not your time.

2 – Cultural shift – at the time of Lifeform Three, people don’t encounter horses very much. Or any animal. ‘Normal’ terms are created by communities. Dog owners of the 2020s know what to call everything because there is a long tradition and expertise. They talk to each other, read books, write blogs, go to vets, buy gear. All of that creates a shared vocabulary for talking about dogs. If no one does any of that, there is no shared vocabulary.

3 – Character – the narration is from the point of view of an artificial human, who has to invent his own terms for everything.

As I wrote that scene in Lifeform Three, I felt the term ‘hair’ would be wrong.

My perceptive reader noticed. Wondered why. Which is what I wanted.

And should readers be concerned about my grasp of horse lore? In a superb irony, the idea came from a weird comment by a riding instructor. ‘Ram your outside hand into the horse’s neck,’ she called, ‘right into the fur’.

‘Fur?’ I thought. ‘You always pick such peculiar words.’ Peculiar words were one of her tics, bless her.

Years later, about to type the word ‘hair’, I stopped and thought, is ‘hair’ the best word for this character, in this time? Would another word serve me better?

Sometimes, the strange word is the right word.

If you’d like more writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk (and my very exciting new novel), look here. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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From bust to trust (the tale of a little horse) – guest post at Martha Engber @marthaengber

This is an unusual kind of guest post as it’s not exactly about writing.

Actually, it’s not at all about writing, though it is on the blog of a fellow writer.

That writer is Martha Engber, best described as a words everyperson. Editor, playwright, novelist, essayist, writing coach journalist… the full (extensive) credentials are here, along with a link to her latest novel, Winter Light.

Martha asked me to contribute to a series she runs about pets. I think she was anticipating a cat or a dog. But readers of my newsletter will know my pet is somewhat larger…

No problem, said Martha, sportingly. Write about his quirks.

What emerged was a story about his quirks and mine, how they nearly undid us, and how… well, you’ll have to read it. As I said, it’s rather light on writing advice. But it’s super-strong on perseverence advice. And horses. Do drop in.

PS If you’d like concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here (where you could win Martha’s latest novel, among many other beautiful books) and subscribe to future updates here.

 

 

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The inner horse – and your fictional character’s true nature

Lifeform Three Roz MorrisI was teaching a masterclass at The Guardian yesterday and we were discussing characters. One of my students said this:
‘I think of my characters as horses.’

To be honest, I couldn’t believe my ears. If you know me on Facebook and Twitter, you’ll know I’m rather fond of the equine breed, so when one of my students said ‘I think of my characters as horses’, I thought I was still in bed at home, waiting for the alarm.

Not as mad as it seems

But she went on to explain. She ran a carriage-driving centre, and found that all of her horses were such different temperaments they were a great basis for building fictional characters.

Stay with me here, because it makes glorious sense. One of the fundamentals of a character is what they’re like in the core of their soul, the things they can’t fake or change. Whether they’re bold in new situations, whether they feel safer following the crowd or prefer to be in charge, what kind of personalities annoy them, whether there are bad past experiences that have left scars, whether they’re naturally friendly or touchy-feely, or prefer to keep to themselves, whether they’re gentle or insensitive.

If you hang around horses a lot – and, I can imagine, dogs – you’re used to the company of a creature that can’t pretend. It always shows the material they’re made of. Then if we start to imagine those behaviours translated into a human character, who might try to cover them up, and whose life might make more complex demands…

The Johari Window

Indeed, this is not unlike the Johari Window, which can be useful for designing characters. It’s a grid, split into four, in which you write:

  • the things the character and everyone else knows
  • the things only the character knows
  • the things everyone else knows but the character doesn’t
  • the things that are unknown – the traits, fears, and feelings that no one suspects.

These last two are where we can have most fun with the character: the impulses that drive them, behaviours they are not in control of, and make them complex and interesting.

That’s the horse self. (And a nice excuse for me to include a picture of my own Lifeform Three.)

Use this to write a character who is very different from your own personality

Another student asked how to write a character who is very different from you.

This is where advice to ‘write what you know’ seems somewhat unhelpful. If we followed it we wouldn’t write murderers, queens, abuse victims, abusers, fatally jealous people, talented artists, heiresses, politicians, housemaids in Victorian houses, wizards…

On the other hand, ‘writing what you know’ is the place to start. All characters will have certain traits that we can relate to. Again, these come back to very simple impulses. What do they want to protect? What makes them feel threatened? What gives them joy and release? What makes them feel safe? If you start with those, you can find your way into most characters.

nyn2 2014 smlThere are more tips for your fictional people in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel.

Do you have any off-the-wall tips for getting to the hidden depths in a character? All pets welcome.

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‘He hears sounds like a heartbeat in the ground’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Lifeform Three

for logoMy new novel isn’t set in the world of music and none of the characters are musicians. It’s a quirky take on the future dystopia/utopia, with a smattering of Arcadia too – misty woods, abandoned towns, a forbidden life by night; the scent of bygone days; and an enigmatic door in a dream. Behind the scenes, though, music did all the early work for me. The first, rough outline came to me from favourite tracks by Boards of Canada, Peter Gabriel, Vangelis, Enya, Ralph Vaughan Williams and the Hungarian electronica composer Gabor Presser. As I built the story I listened to them repeatedly, and now each of them represents a landmark on my main character’s journey. Join me on the Red Blog, when I’ll explain the Undercover Soundtrack for Lifeform Three.

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‘An enigmatic contradiction; fragile but powerfully emotive’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Jennifer Scoullar

It was hard to choose a quote to introduce this week’s Undercover Soundtrack. Jennifer Scoullar’s novel about Australia’s Brumby horses and the people who live among them has a soundtrack of many moods – from the intensely spiritual to the raucously rocking. She has also dedicated Brumby’s Run to causes that protect wild horses. In the end, ‘fragile but powerful’ seems the best way to do it justice. Join me at the Red Blog for her Undercover Soundtrack

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