by Andrea Dowing
A while ago I received an email from a friend which began, “I’m flying low today…” Concerned, I wrote her right back and said I hoped she wasn’t feeling ill. She, in turn, replied that, that hadn’t been what she meant—she meant to say she was busy and had a lot of things to do. Then we both googled the expression and were amazed to find that it actually was meant to be a polite way of telling a gentleman his fly was unzipped! So this got me thinking, and
worrying about how what we write
may be misinterpreted by our readers. In
sending an email we often put in an emoticon if we need to make the point of
what we are saying and how it should be read.
In writing dialogue, we use tag lines that should tell the reader how
the line is meant. But what happens when
the tag line fails?
In my novel Loveland I have the tag, “she added acerbically.” One friend complained that the adjective ‘acerbically’ took her right out of the book and, seeing it now, I’d have to agree. Yet at the time it did seem the right word, a better choice than perhaps ‘sarcastically’ or ‘bitterly’. But what was going on in my head at the time of writing and what goes on in my reader’s head at the time of reading may be two very different things. And I am one solitary writer, but my readers are (hopefully) numerous and varied! The best thing I can do is aim for the common ground. In my WIP one critique has had me change ‘perused’ to ‘surveyed’ and I do think that’s an excellent choice. What the heck was I thinking when I wrote ‘perused?’
Then there is the worry of dialect, especially in an historical western. The original mss. for Loveland had a plethora of “cain’t”s and a sprinkling of “this a-here”s amongst the “reckon”s and “if’ns”. As a reader, I find the overuse of dialect one of the most invasive devices; it simply kills my enjoyment of a book. On the other hand, as a writer, I had to differentiate between my characters via their dialogue, especially between the English and the cowhands, most of whom had come up from the South to Colorado. A happy medium had to be reached, a little dash of dialect for atmosphere. I hope I’ve achieved that.
My other, very personal, problem is to be sure to be rid of my English expressions—unless of course I am writing the dialogue for an English character. Having lived most of my life in the U.K., writing a Colorado or a Texan character is quite a
stretch at times. In Loveland, one helpful friend pointed out
that Jesse would never say, “Why ever not?” but simply “Why not?” Uh-oh!
I let that one slip. Then, back
to my WIP, my critique found a number of English words that had to be wiped
from the mss: ‘windscreen’ instead of
‘windshield,’ ‘cattle guard’ instead of ‘cattle grid,’ ‘ring’ instead of ‘call’
or ‘phone.’ For some reason, as I had
moseyed on through life back in NYC, no one had corrected any of these to date. Yet the converse was also a problem. I have my English heroine in Loveland pointing out to her brother
that she was never very good at “maths.”
Yes, in England it has an “s” on the end of it. My editor pointed out to me that most
American readers will believe it a typo. I had to reply that it was better for Americans
to think it a typo than for English to think I didn’t know any better.
In addition to individual words, there were expressions of the vernacular with which to deal. As Professor Higgins sings in “My Fair Lady,” in America they haven’t used (English) for years! In my WIP I had one character saying, “…he’s real good with people, is Jake.” Apparently in the good ol’ USA it should be, ‘Jake is.’ Maybe the British see the “he” with its modifiers as the subject—or possibly it is pure and simply the turn of expression. Add to this the local sayings like, ‘keep your powder dry’ or ‘keep it between the ditches’ and you can tell what sort of problems I faced. And there’ll still be American readers saying I don’t know piddly from a possum princess!
When Lady Alexandra Calthorpe returns to the Loveland, Colorado, ranch owned by her father, the Duke, she has little idea of how the experience will alter her future. Headstrong and willful, Alex tries to overcome a disastrous marriage in England and be free of the strictures of Victorian society --and become independent of men. That is, until Jesse Makepeace saunters back into her life...
Hot-tempered and hot-blooded cowpuncher Jesse Makepeace can’t seem to accept that the child he once knew is now the ravishing yet determined woman before him. Fighting rustlers proves a whole lot easier than fighting Alex when he’s got to keep more than his temper under control.
Arguments abound as Alex pursues her career as an artist and Jesse faces the prejudice of the English social order. The question is, will Loveland live up to its name?
As the round-up wound down, the Reps took their stock back to their outfits, and soon the men were back at headquarters or at the camps. Alex knew word had more or less got out and found the punchers were gentler now around her, had a sort of quiet respect for her, and she hated it. She tried to bully them a bit to show them she was still the same girl, jolly them into joshing with her as they had before. It was slow work. At the same time, she yearned to see Jesse, to speak with him, to try to get life back to the way it was before the argument at the corral, and before he saw the scars. The opportunity didn’t present itself. She would see him from a distance some days, riding with the herd, sitting his horse with that peculiar grace he had, throwing his lariat out with an ease that reminded her of people on a dock waving their hankies in farewell. Hoping to just be near him, she slid into one of the corrals one evening to practice her roping. The light was failing and the birds were settling with their evening calls. Somewhere in the pasture a horse nickered. She sensed Jesse was there, watching, but she never turned as he stood at the fence. She heard him climb over and ease up behind her. He took the coiled rope from her in his left hand and slid his right hand over hers on the swing end, almost forcing her backward into his arms. She thought of paintings and statues she had seen, imagining his naked arms now, how the muscles would form them into long oblique curves, how he probably had soft downy fair hair on his forearms, how his muscle would slightly bulge as he bent his arm. His voice was soft in her ear, and she could feel his breath on her neck like a whispered secret.
“Gentle-like, right to left, right to left to widen the noose, keep your eye on the post—are you watchin’ where we’re goin’?”
He made the throw and pulled in the rope to tighten the noose. lex stood there, his hand still entwined with hers and, for a moment, she wished they could stand like that forever. Then she took her hand away and faced him. For a second he rested his chin on the top of her head, then straightened again and went to get the noose off the post while coiling in the rope. She looked up at him in the fading light and saw nothing but kindness in his face, simplicity and gentleness that was most inviting. A smile spread across her face as he handed her the coiled rope and sauntered away, turning once to look back at her before he opened the gate. Emptiness filled her like a poisoned vapor seeking every corner of her being, and she stood with the rope in her hand listening to the ring of his spurs as his footsteps retreated.