What Did You Say?

By Miko Johnston

I’ve been thinking a great deal about words lately. Part of the reason is that I recently pitched a story I’d written almost two decades ago to a producer who’s shown some interest in the project. It contains language that would be inappropriate for this blog, but while the comic murder mystery at the heart of the story is meant to entertain, its satirical backdrop illustrates society’s relationship with certain words over the last half-century.

Anyone who’s lived more than a few decades has seen a loosening of standards in the media as well as in general life. While this blog – and  I suspect some of you – may eschew using certain words, I’ll bet your standards have changed along with the rest of our world. I’ve seen words in newspaper articles I’d never expect to see in print. I rarely watch TV except when I travel, but even with my limited exposure I’ve heard language in television programs – and I’m talking network TV, not cable – that wouldn’t have been permitted in the past.

Do you recall George Carlin’s Seven Words you can’t say on TV? Lately a few have slipped by. I recently heard a TV news anchor say a word I never expected to hear, having to do with bovine excrement, without a peep from the network or FCC. One of the Democratic candidates uttered another Carlin no-no during the first debate. A few words are still off-limits, and by my account we’ve added a new one to the list (hint: it starts with an N).

I’m not only thinking about obscenities. I’ve also noticed how many ‘ordinary’ words have been redefined or had their meaning augmented. Take the word average. It’s a mathematical term, yet it’s taken on social connotations. We hear about the average person and equate it with falling straight down the middle of a ranking system, not being good or bad. No one aspires to be average anymore; it has become something to avoid, either as a person or as an opinion.

As a writer, I find I must be more precise in my usage of certain words because of this. It concerns me that something I say or write could be misinterpreted. As a former journalist, my goals in reporting were ABC: Accuracy, Brevity, Clarity. Let’s not get into accuracy in news. Brevity translates into sound bites – catch phrases and such, or interrupting a speaker who takes more than a microsecond to get a point across. These days Clarity must include weighing a word’s intended meaning against what it’s perceived to mean. Social shifts, political correctness, and cultural rebranding have all contributed to this landscape, opening up new possibilities for writers as well as new dangers.

On occasion I’ve read lines of writing that could be misinterpreted. In each case I had close ties to the author, so I knew better than to take offense at what they wrote. However, readers who lack that personal advantage might not see it that way. I also worry a great deal about doing that myself and have on more than one occasion censored my work rather than risk the possibility of having someone take my words to mean something I never intended.

Have you thought about this as well? Are you concerned with the possibility that something you’ve written could be taken as insulting or offensive even if that wasn’t your intent?

 

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Miko Johnston is the author of the A Petal In The Wind Series, available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington. Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com

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(Posted for Miko Johnston by Jackie Houchin)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fact vs. Fiction with G.B. Pool

A former private detective and once a reporter for a small weekly newspaper, G.B.Pool writes the Johnny Casino Casebook Series and the Gin Caulfield P.I. Series. She teaches writing classes: “Anatomy of a Short Story,” “How To Write Convincing Dialogue” and “Writing a Killer Opening Line.”




Putting Facts in Your Fiction

You hear a version of these comments a thousand times from writers: A reader sent me an e-mail saying I got the name of the cross street wrong in their town. Or maybe it’s: A fan said people didn’t have that type of phone in the Eighties when my story takes place. Or how about: A chef wouldn’t make an omelet that way. Or: Cops don’t work that way.

Here’s a Fact of Life: Nitpickers are out there.

Here’s a way to deal with them: DON’T Ignore them…But don’t let them get you down, either.

The 21st Century has given us many great tools to use to avoid the nitpickers in our lives. MapQuest and Google Maps will show you the streets in towns you are writing about. The satellite version will show you what the place actually looks like.

When I was writing one of the stories in my Johnny Casino Casebook Series, I was describing a hotel along South Beach in Miami. I made up the name of the hotel, but I wanted that location. I assumed (big mistake) there would be hotels or shops on both sides of the street. When I looked at MapQuest and actually “got down on the street” in their Street View Mode, I looked to the left and saw the hotel I was using and then to my right. Instead of other shops or restaurants or more hotels, I saw the beach and the ocean. Very glad I looked.

I did the same thing when Johnny went to Mexico and even Marrakech, Morocco. They didn’t have Google or MapQuest for Marrakech, but some wonderful guy had his cell phone video of his bus trip through the city posted on a travel site. I got to “ride along” with him and see the sights without buying an airline ticket or getting all those shots.

I know several writers who make up their towns. I did that for Logjam, California, the place where Johnny Casino starts out in my three-book series. I drew a detailed map. I know where his house is, and the restaurant he frequents is, and where the Mafia lodge is. It’s no longer just in my imagination. I have a map.

As for using the right phone or anything else in a period piece, whether it be ten years ago or a hundred, do some research. Something I do is watch a movie either made during that era or one that covers that era. The studio set designers are often very good at their job.

If you are writing a cooking mystery or literary fiction that requires your character to make an omelet, for goodness sake, learn how to make an omelet. You don’t want to cheat your audience. Most craft-related mysteries are written by writers who actually know their crafts. And often the techniques or even recipes are half the reason people read those types of books. If you don’t know that information, ask somebody who does or watch a cooking or craft show.

Now police procedures and jargon is something else. Some “police procedural” books are way too technical to be interesting, just like mysteries that feature a lot of legal lingo or medical techniques. Unless the information sets the scene for the story you’re telling like Dick Francis does in his novels, pare down the information.

In my latest books, The SPYGAME Trilogy, I use a lot of history to tell the stories. The books take place during World War II, the Vietnam era, and the Hollywood Left trials. Since these are practically ancient history to people younger than forty, I added a good deal of facts just to set the stage, plus I introduced real people into the stories. I have my main character, Robert Mackenzie, work with not only “Wild Bill” Donovan, the first head of the OSS, predecessor of the CIA, but also Ian Fleming who really did work with Donovan.

During the Hollywood years depicted in my books, I have a few real movie stars make a guest appearance as well as the ones I made up. But I did my homework. In Star Power, I learned what kind of movies were being made, both anti-war and those wanting America to join the fight. As fate would have it, those movies were showing up on television while I was writing the books. That’s research I love doing.

But there was another element I added to these stories; something that I have included in a few other of my novels: FACTS FROM MY OWN LIFE. My father was a pilot in the Air Force. He flew the Owen Stanley Hump in Papua, New Guinea, during the WWII. I relocated the character I based on him, Ralph Barton, for a portion of the story and had him fly a mission over Hamburg. That’s the fiction part.

I also used the house were we lived in France while stationed there in the 60s in one of the books, The Odd Man. The house really was used by the Nazis during the war. That’s the fact part. My story about what Mac and Ralph Barton did there was the fiction side. I even used my boarding school in France in one of the books, Dry Bones. The school was strictly military boring architecture, but I made it look like Oxford. Fact and Fiction.

I have used a few people I know in my books, but most of the time I changed their names slightly, just to keep it fictional. Most of the actual names of real historical people like Bill Donovan or even Ian Fleming are used strictly because I admired them. Since there is nothing libelous in the story about them, I don’t worry about anybody getting upset. And people I don’t like never appear in my books. Why give them any ink when I wouldn’t give them the time of day in real life. (Rhetorical question) And my fictional bad guys get their comeuppance; something that doesn’t necessarily happen in the real world.

I thought it was fun to work within a time frame of actual historical events as I wrote the spy novels. The only deviation was when I mentioned one of my characters, Elaine Barton, a writer, taking acting lessons from Rudy Solari and Guy Stockwell to learn how to write dialogue for her screenplays. I took those lessons myself, but in a different year than the story relates.

I actually worked as a private detective for a while and use bits and pieces of that life in both the spy novels and my Gin Caulfield P.I. Series: Media Justice, Hedge Bet, and Damning Evidence.

There is just something about mixing fact with fiction that makes me feel like I am creating an alternative universe. I guess I have gotten to know these characters so well, I see them as one big, happy family. In fact (or fiction), Gin Caulfield taught Johnny Casino the private detective trade and her uncle is Robert Mackenzie, the master spymaker. My world indeed.