One of the ways in which an author makes a novel feel authentic is through the use of vocabulary. I’m not talking here about common dialect words (e.g. lorry/truck or petrol/gasoline); most readers are familiar with those sorts of vocabulary differences and even if there is a word one hasn’t seen before it’s usually easy to work out. There are some kinds of vocabulary though that aren’t so familiar. In those cases the writer is faced with a challenge. Does one stop in the middle of a story and explain a term? That clears the matter up but can interrupt the reader’s engagement. Does one provide a glossary? That’s awfully helpful but it does mean the reader has to look up the word. There are other approaches too that authors use, and any of them can work well, depending on the kind of story it is and the author’s way of writing.
Some authors do provide glossaries and that makes sense if one’s writing a story that includes a lot of words that the average reader might not understand. For instance, Tarquin Hall’s series featuring Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri includes a lot of vocabulary that English-speaking readers might not know. There are expressions, words for different kinds of foods and so on. Those words add to the sense of place in the novels but not all of them are easy to work out from the context. Not having them there would detract from the story; it just wouldn’t seem as real. So Hall includes a glossary with his books so readers who don’t know particular words can find their meanings. It’s really helpful actually.
Rhys Bowen has written several crime fiction series. One of them, her Constable Evan Evans series, takes place in Llanfair, Wales. The setting and context of these novels are distinctly Welsh and so are many of the characters. This means that some of the vocabulary Bowen uses in the novels is Welsh too. For instance, in Evans to Betsy, Llanfair local Betsy Edwards gets drawn into a mystery when an American graduate student Emmy Court convinces her that she may have ‘second sight.’ She encourages Betsy to attend Sacred Grove, a New Age centre led by renowned psychic Randy Wunderlich. Betsy gets involved in Sacred Grove’s activities, which is how she comes to the attention of Constable Evans, who suspects that Sacred Grove is a scam operation. Then, a young girl Rebecca Riesen goes missing and her trail seems to lead to Sacred Grove. Evans is trying to trace Rebecca when Betsy has a dream in which she sees Randy Wunderlich dead in a cave. When her dream turns out to be all too real, Evans knows that this centre is more than just a scam operation. One evening Betsy comes over to visit Evans while he happens to be cooking dinner. Here’s a bit of their conversation:
‘‘You’re welcome to join me. I can’t eat a whole leg [of lamb] on my own.’
Evan stood back to let her in.
‘Lovely! Diolch yn fawr, Evan bach.’ She gave him a beaming smile as she came in. ‘Do you want me to lay the table?’’
At the end of this novel there’s a glossary that explains that Diolich yn fawr is Welsh for ‘thank you very much.’
Some authors prefer to explain vocabulary in the context of the story. For instance, Angela Savage’s series featuring PI Jayne Keeney takes place in Thailand. The series has a strong sense of place and context, which wouldn’t be the case if there were no use of Thai. So when it adds to the story Savage includes Thai words. But their definitions and explanations are woven into the narrative. For instance, in The Half Child, Jim Delbeck hires Keeney to look into the death of his daughter Maryanne, who jumped, was pushed, or fell from the roof of the Pattaya hotel where she was living. Keeney travels to Pattaya and goes undercover at the New Life Children’s Centre where Maryanne was volunteering. She’s hoping that by doing so she’ll find some clues as to how and why Maryanne died. Bit by bit Keeney learns that New Life may very be hiding some dark secrets. It’s very possible that Maryanne found out more than it was safe for her to know. Keeney also learns that Maryanne’s personal life was complicated too, and that could have led to her death. One of the people whose help Keeney seeks in this case is Police Major General Wichit, who owes her a favour. Here is Wichit’s response when Keeney asks him to act as a reference for her before she goes undercover:
‘Mai pen rai,’ Wichit said, the ubiquitous Thai phrase meaning ‘it doesn’t matter’, even when it did.’
In this way, Savage shares the meaning of mai pen rai with the reader without interrupting the flow of the story.
James Lee Burke chooses to use context, rather than definition, to let readers know what unfamiliar words mean. In A Forning for Flamingos for instance, his sleuth Dave Robicheaux and his partner Lester Benoit are assigned to transport Tee Beau Latiolais and Jimmie Lee Boggs to Louisiana’s state penitentiary at Angola. Both men have been convicted of murder, but Tee Beau’s grandmother Tante Lemon claims that he’s innocent and was with her at the time of the murder. She wants Robicheaux to look into the case and clear Tee Beau’s name. Here’s a little of the conversation they have about it:
‘’I told all them people, Mr. Dave. They ain’t listen to me. What for they gonna listen an old nigger woman worked Miz Hattie’s crib? That’s what they say. Old nigger putain lyin’ for Tee Beau.’
‘His lawyer’s going to appeal. There are a lot of things that can be done yet,’ I said. I kept waiting for the elevator doors to open.
‘They gonna electrocute that boy,’ she said.
‘Tante Lemon, I can’t do anything about it,’ I said.
But Robicheaux is drawn into the case when Tee Beau and Boggs escape while en route to Angola, killing Lester Benoit and leaving Robicheaux for dead. If you’ll notice in this dialogue, Burke doesn’t stop to explain what putain means. It’s not hard given the context for the reader to work that out.
Sometimes, vocabulary is highly technical. For instance, both Aaron Elkins’ Gideon Oliver and Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway are scientists. They use very technical terms in their work which makes sense. Those are specific terms that have particular meanings. However, not everyone understands what they mean. Both Elkins and Griffiths have chosen to explain those vocabulary words in the context of conversations that Oliver and Galloway have with others. For instance, in Griffiths’ The Janus Stone, Galloway is called in when a child’s skeleton is found beneath the remains of an old children’s home. Here is a bit of the conversation when Galloway and DCI Harry Nelson attend the autopsy conducted by pathologist Chris Stevenson:
‘‘Cause of death – decapitation?’ suggests Stevenson.
‘Poena post mortem,’ says Ruth shortly, turning to Nelson. ‘Mutilation after death. The head was cut off later.’’
Here, Griffith shares the meaning of the technical term within the context of the story.
There are other ways too in which authors define and explain vocabulary. It can be a challenge to do so without interrupting the flow of a story, but when the author does it well, the reader can get a deeper sense of a word or phrase and drawn further into a story.
What are your thoughts on this? Do you like having terminology explained? If you do, do you prefer glossaries, explanations, dialogue or something else? If you’re a writer how do you integrate vocabulary?
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song written by Elvis Costello for singer/songwriter Wendy James.