It’s a Duesy! It’s a Doozy! It’s a Daisy!
by C. K. Thomas
However you spell it and whatever it might be, you can be sure if it’s a Duesy, a Doozy, or a Daisy, then it’s just grand. Golly gee, that’s just swell. Man, that’s cool. I feel really hip having said that.
Mixing the slang of several eras, as in the paragraph above, can be very confusing. If you’re writing a novel set in the 1960s, you might grab words like hip, cool, or far out to put in your character’s mouth. The 1950s calls for Daddy-O, way out, or rag top. If it’s the 1940s you’re after, you’ll probably throw in swell, golly gee, or the cat’s meow.
It doesn’t take much in the way of the language of an era – or even a country – to spice up the dialogue in your novels, does it? “Top o’ the mornin’ to ya laddie” immediately tells the reader we’re either in Ireland or that a character has a bit of the Irish in his blood. I believe overdoing slang, a favorite phrase a character uses, or other off-beat language, ethnic phrases, and accents can actually irritate a reader.
I know I get tired of hearing a character use the same phrase again and again, even though it might be a part of that character’s personality. It’s annoying, for instance, to read, “don’t ya know” at the end of every sentence uttered by the old codger in your book. I don’t know about you, but it makes me want to throw the book across the room.
Reading dialogue rife with the cumbersome spellings of a dialect also quickly gets tiresome. I prefer to throw in a phrase or two to clue the reader and then get on with the story in language that’s easier to read. For example, in the third book in The Arrowstar Series, The Storm Women, I used the following scene to introduce a character’s personality and ethnic background:
The woman, who didn’t appear to be much older than Almanza’s 18 years, looked her up and down and said, “Can ya sing, lassie?”
“Uh, no, but I know how to dance.”
“Grand, that’ll do,” the woman said as she grabbed Almanza’s arm and guided her back through the open tent flap and slapped the gathered pile of paper down on one of the long tables inside. “We’re a wee bit short on players for tomorrow night’s melodrama, and if you can dance, then we won’t be so scundered.”
“You won’t be what?” Almanza asked, confused at the thick Irish brogue she was trying to decipher.
“Embarrassed, we won’t be so embarrassed when we can’t get our act together.”
I didn’t strive to make this character’s dialogue throughout the book look as if she just arrived from Ireland, but I think I established her character well enough in this short sequence for the reader to get a sense of her personality and voice.
I’d appreciate hearing from any of you about how you handle devices such as those above. It’s a fine line we writers walk when attempting to communicate the essence of our characters without making them tiresome.
C.K. Thomas lives in Phoenix, Arizona. Before retiring, she worked for Phoenix Newspapers while raising three children and later as communications editor for a large United Methodist Church. The Storm Women is her fourth novel and the third in the Arrowstar series about adventurous women of the desert Southwest. Follow her blog: We-Tired and Writing Blog.