A Bear Won’t Eat What A Bear Can’t Smell: When Real Life Provides the Dialogue


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I’m currently living in the limbo that inspires fear and loathing in many writers, and drives others to query random Magic 8 Balls with the seriousness of a sugar-drunk eight-year-old at a slumber party: I have a manuscript on submission. For the sake of my sanity, let’s step away from the constant checking of email, the extra glass of wine after dinner, and the cold-sweat certainty that there should have been One More Edit before it went out.

So, tell me things, please. Specifically, I want you to think about the sayings you have in your family. They might be well-known sayings, or something you and your siblings picked up from a long lost television episode that stuck with you for whatever reason. Or it might be a saying whose origins are lost to history, but you still use it. These sayings don’t necessarily have the gravitas or moral spin of an aphorism, but when you use colorful or shocking or sweet sayings occasionally and appropriately in your dialogue, they immediately give your reader important information about your characters.

I’ll start. Here are some that show up again and again in the Benedict family, or came from my childhood:

People in hell want ice water. (my dad)

Smooth move, Ex-Lax. (also my dad)

Sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite. (my mom)

We like the moon, because it’s close to us. (this video is at least 10 years old)

Biggie fries, biggie drink. (no comment)

Pretty makes up for bad. (this showed up around the time my daughter was five)

Pretty is as pretty does. (this one gives me the same hives it gave me when was five)

Does a bear poop in the woods? (dad, again)

Is the Pope Catholic? (yep, dad)

A bear won’t eat what a bear can’t smell. (from a Saran Wrap commercial–could only find the ad with a tiger)

Measure head size before ordering. (appropriate whenever, well, ordering something–I picked it up from an Elmore Leonard novel)

Same poop, different flies. (from husband’s family)

Cam down, Linwood. (MIL’s family–she said she has no idea where it came from)

Hold ‘er, Newt. She’s headed for the barn! (also from MIL’s family–she doesn’t know where this is from either. but I did find versions online)

Scratch your ass and get happy. (heard this at a family reunion–acquired it immediately)

These three came from workshop students:

It’s a poor ass rabbit that only has one hole. (meaning is fairly obvious)

You can’t look up a hog’s ass and tell the price of lard. (heh)

She’s a real Corinthian. (wish I’d written down the origin of this one–so many possible interpretations)

Your turn!

This entry was posted in character voice, characterization, dialogue, Writing and tagged , by Laura Benedict. Bookmark the permalink.

About Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award- nominated author of eight novels of suspense, including The Stranger Inside (Publishers Weekly starred review). Her Bliss House gothic trilogy includes The Abandoned Heart, Charlotte’s Story (Booklist starred review), and Bliss House. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, she lives in Southern Illinois with her family. Visit her at www.laurabenedict.com.

38 thoughts on “A Bear Won’t Eat What A Bear Can’t Smell: When Real Life Provides the Dialogue

  1. What I remember from my dad were his attempts to both skirt answering our questions and also improve our language skills.
    We’d say “Why?” and he’d say “Y is a crooked letter.”
    Or we’d say, “Well?” and he’s say “A well is a hole in the ground.”

  2. Love this. So many of your dad’s expressions are ones my mom uses and has always used. I grew up in Western Pennsylvania, if that helps. Here are a few others she uses early and often:

    * Don’t let the door bump you in the a** on the way out.
    * You have more _____ than Carter had pills. (the origin of this, I later found out, is from the old time Carter’s Little Liver Pills)
    * Your room looks like the wreck of the Hesperus. (For years mom pronounced this as Hespers. We never knew what she meant until one day, when my brothers and I and our folks were sitting around the kitchen table in my folks home talking about the things she always said and it came up. It was my ex-husband who cleared it all up for us at the time by telling us she meant the ship in the Longfellow poem, the Hesperus.)
    *He’s/She’s not the sharpest tool in the shed.

    • Given my maiden name was Carter, I heard that pill reference a LOT.
      But to me, they weren’t “old time” — I guess that makes me an old timer.

  3. All the truly unique sayings I use in my stories, but I’ll share a few common ones.

    This or that is the bee’s knees.
    This or that is the snake’s hips.
    You’ve got more junk than Carter has liver pills.
    No sh*t, Sherlock.
    Useless as doorknobs on a toilet seat.
    She’s a whale of a gal.
    You’re not the brightest bulb in the pack. Or sharpest blade in the drawer.

    Best of luck with your submission, Laura!!!

    • Thanks, Sue!

      These are all great. I’ve never heard “Useless as doorknobs on a toilet seat.” The colorful equivalent I know is “Useless as teats on a bull.”

  4. Why don’t you make like a tree, and get outta here. – Biff, from Back to the Future.

    I love it when people mangle these things. Malapropisms. Like the woman I heard say, “It just washes off my back like a duck.”

  5. Cute post!
    Ah, shoot a monkey (like a long version of darn, no idea the origin, something in my childhood)
    also had the Pope Catholic thing, and Ex-lax slightly differently…smooth move Ex-lax, take a bowel.
    Also, my brother called me “Einstein” when I did something smart – so not a dig, except in his tone of voice.

  6. Okay, gotta go a little blue here for the sake of impact. This one comes from my late great mom-in-law who feared no one and nothing. She’d tell this to her kids (my husband) when they were bugging her and she felt harried:

    “Stick a broom up my ass and I’ll sweep the floor while I walk!”

    But funny you should mention this. Yesterday, I put a line from the REM song “Losing My Religion” in my chapter. But then I figured I better go check out what Michael Stipe meant when he wrote the song. Turns out it has nothing to do with religion but is an old Southern saying expressing exasperation. As in, “Boy, your bad behavior is making me lose my religion!” Which is something my mom-in-law would have said to her sons if she hadn’t been from New Jersey.

    • I thought “losing my religion” meant the situation made you want to cuss, which a good Christian would not do.

      • Fay, I think that’s implied! It means driving you to such a point that you’ll do something any God-fearing soul would not.

    • Hahahahahahahaha! Your MIL sounds like she was a real treasure. What a blessing to know someone so plainspoken.

      Wikipedia tells me REM came from Georgia, so the line makes total sense. Faye, your supposition dovetails perfectly.

  7. “He don’t know sh*t from Shinola.”

    “She’s built like a brick sh*it house.”

    “That’s good enough for who it’s for.” (My dad about a project for Mom.

  8. I used one of my grandmother-isms in my book, appropriately described as “Like my grandma used to say . . .”

    “I was as mean as a bear with a sore head.”

    I also apparently let my age show with:

    “You’re coming through five-by-five” and, “Meanwhile, on the flip side . . .”


  9. Anything Justin Halpern’s dad said in SH*T MY DAD SAYS. I’ve read it more than once. Hilarious. Plus this line: “The thing I write will be the thing I write,” which is now my adopted byline, paraphrased from dialogue in the baseball novel CHANCE by Steve Shilstone. So loved the dialogue on that one.

  10. My family refers to sweat pants, yoga pants, etc. as “lounging britches” because of a conversation one of my sisters overheard while Christmas shopping years ago.

  11. Thirty plus years ago while working for the US Postal Service, I heard this joke.
    What did the elephant say to the crocodile after the crocodile bit off the elephant’s trunk?

    Say the answer while holding your nose to get a nasal sound, “What did you do that for?”

    This transformed into a comment whenever someone in my family would do something not so smart. In a nasal voice, “What did you do that for?”

  12. Referring to something difficult to do or understand: It’s harder than Chinese arithmetic. (I’ve also heard it used during my navy days to describe male sexual excitement).

  13. My step-dad:
    Me: Dad? Whatcha doin’?
    Dad: “Makin’ cat fur for kitten mittens.”
    Dad: “Makin’ rubber baby buggy bumpers.”
    Dad: “SSH! The game is on! Get me another beer real quick, will ya son?”

    My biological father:
    Me: “What’s up dad?”
    Father: “Dang son, I’m happier to see you than a gunny-sack full of @$$h0les.”
    Me: “How was insert object of choice here.”
    Father: “It was more insert descriptive here than a gunny-sack full of @$$h0les.”
    Me: “How was work, dad?” (father was a fire chief and often went to gruesome car accidents)
    Father: “That was nastier than a gunny-sack full of fresh @$$h0les.”

    …notice the pattern?…

    Nanny (step-grandma, and hard line independent Appalachian Pentecostal minister).
    Me: “Hey Nanny, I’m gonna be a fiction writer!”
    Nanny: “You know LIARS GO STRAIGHT TO HAYUL!”

    …erp….uh…yes ma’am.

  14. A few from the fam:

    • Take my advice, think for yourself…

    • Should be isn’t is.

    • Never miss the opportunity to go to the bathroom. (From my big papa, and it’s made its way through four generations to great-grandsons who never met him – but know him.)

    • Not my circus, not my monkey.

  15. My Dad’s go-to saying whenever I was dealing with something stressful: “In every crisis, there is a hidden opportunity. ” To this day I automatically search for the hidden opportunity in any stressful moment. If nothing else, the search gives my mind something else to focus on!

  16. And if I can sneak back in here…

    “Half done is just begun…”

    From his Navy days (daze), Pop instilled this way to say we didn’t know something:
    “Beats me, Lieutenant;”
    and this way to deny something of which we might have been suspected:
    “Didn’t happen, Capt’n…”

  17. “Your ass is grass and I’m the lawn mower.” (take a guess)

    “No shit, Sherlock.” (take a guess)

    “You sound like a broken record.”
    -LOL…I said this to one of my boys about 8 years ago and he replied, “What’s a record?”

    • Oh, wait…a couple more regarding passing gas..haha!

      “A dog smells his own dirt, first.” (guess who)
      “Whoever smelt it, dealt it.” (our cousin, MA)

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