by Pink Sherbet Photography

Why do some books succeed in transporting you to a different time or place? Part of the magic happens because the writer has built a sense of otherness right into the language of the book.

This is more than just dialect, though what I say here applies to writing dialect as well. I’m talking about the deep structure that underlies an entire world view.

Alexander McCall Smith is a master of this sort of thing. Most of you know you can German mimic (and like Yoda sound) by the verbs at the ends of a sentence placing. But in his Professor Dr. Moritz-Maria von Iglefeld stories, Smith goes much further. Consider the following passage, from Unusual Uses of Olive Oil, in which von Iglefeld meets two new students:

They introduced themselves politely: both as it happened, were called Hans, and both were students of medieval French literature, although they had not met one another before.

“I have just come to Regensburg,” said Hans. “I was in Berlin before.”

“And so now here we are: both interested in the same thing!” said the other Hans.

“That is the great delight of a reading party,” said von Iglefeld. “One finds people who share one’s interests. And then, as the week progresses, one gets to know them better. It is very satisfactory.”

How does Smith do it? There are no contractions anywhere, which alone gives any passage a slightly foreign feel. (German does use contractions, but not in the same places as in English.)

But note the underlying rigor of the language. “And so now here we are,” is more precise than, “And here we are.” Iglefeld’s use of “one” is more strictly correct than “you.” And I don’t think most people would consider “satisfactory” the sort of adjective that needs emphasis.

When he’s writing his Number One Lady’s Detective Agency novels, set in Botswana with African characters, Smith’s language has a completely different feel. Consider this, from The Tears of the Giraffe. J. L. B. Matekoni, a master mechanic, has volunteered to repair the water pump at a local orphanage, run by Mma Potokwane. “Mma” is the Setswana equivalent of “Ms.”

Old diesel engines were generally reliable, but there came a point in their existence when they simply had to be pensioned off. He had hinted at this to Mma Potokwane, but she had always come up with reasons why money should be spent on other, more pressing projects.

“But water is the most important thing of all,” said Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni. “If you can’t water your vegetables, then what are the children going to eat?”

“God will provide,” said Mma Potokwane calmly. “He will send us a new engine one day.”

“Maybe,” said Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni. “But then maybe not. God is sometimes not very interested in engines.”

Again, no contractions – presumably Setswana also has them in different places from English. But the way that Mr. Matekoni always uses his full name and title, even in his interior monologue, points to a culture where polite formality is the norm. The language otherwise is direct and open, compacting complex ideas into straightforward, declarative sentences. Herr Dr. von Iglefeld would be able to go on for at least two pages on the theology behind “God is sometimes not very interested in engines.”

Patrick O’Brian uses slightly different techniques to capture the language of the early nineteenth century in his Aubrey/Maturin series. Consider the following, from The Fortune of War. Jack Aubrey is a ship’s captain during the Napoleonic wars. Stephen Maturin is the ship’s doctor, Jack’s close friend, and an amateur naturalist with a habit of picking up living specimens.

Then, hearing the voice of his steward raised in blasphemous, whining fury [Jack said], “Killick, Killick there: what’s amiss?”

“Which it’s your scraper, sir, your number one scraper. The wombat’s got at it.”

“Then take it away from him, for God’s sake.”

“I duresn’t, sir,” said Killick. “For fear of tearing the lace.”

[Jack tries unsuccessfully to get the hat back, then . . .]
“Pass the word for Dr. Maturin,” said the Captain, looking angrily at the wombat. And a moment later, “Come now, Stephen, this is coming it pretty high: your brute is eating my hat.”

“So he is, too,” said Dr. Maturin. “But do not be so perturbed, Jack; it will do him no harm, at all.”

Of course, O’Brian uses period terms – it’s been a while since hats have been “scrapers” or anyone used “duresn’t” in conversation. But note the unusual use of common words, such as Killick’s starting a sentence with “which,” or Dr. Maturin ending one with “too.” And “coming it pretty high” as a period version of “over the top” is both unexpected and perfectly comprehensible.

So how do you develop this sort of ear for original use of language? If you don’t actually speak the language you’re trying to mimic, read good translations, which should still convey the unspoken priorities behind the language – matters like Smith’s Germanic precision or Botswanan directness. Good films with good subtitles are also useful.

If you’re working in a historical context, read period records that capture everyday speech. Novels are useful, but letters, journals, and court records are even better — O’Brian spent a lot of time with nineteenth-century issues of The Naval Chronicle, which were full of letters from seamen. Pay attention to the words people normally ignore – whether a character goes “to town” or “in to town” or “up to town,” for instance.

Steep yourself in the language you’re trying to mimic, and soon your characters will be speaking, as Killick once put it, “in foreign.” And that will be very satisfactory, indeed.

About Dave King

Dave King is the co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a best-seller among writing books. An independent editor since 1987, he is also a former contributing editor at Writer's Digest. Many of his magazine pieces on the art of writing have been anthologized in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing and in The Writer's Digest Writing Clinic. You can check out several of his articles and get other writing tips on his website.