When the Right Word is Wrong

When the Right Word is Wrong
Terry Odell

As writers, we deal in words. Thousands of words. And we’re always looking for the right word to use. But what happens when the right word is wrong?

For example, I was reading a draft chapter from one of my writing pals. She’d written something about a man pulling up the collar of his t-shirt to wipe sweat off his face. My comment to her was, “T-shirts don’t have collars.” Her reply was “Yes, that’s what I was taught when I took sewing classes.” I recalled that when I worked a temp job, our jackets were provided, but we were told to wear shirts with collars, and the accepted attire was either a blouse with a collar or a polo shirt, but absolutely no t-shirts. Being curious, I hit the search engines and looked up t-shirts.

Merriam-Webster said this: a collarless short-sleeved or sleeveless usually cotton undershirt; also :  an outer shirt of similar design

Wikipedia had this to say: a style of unisex fabric shirt, named after the T shape of the body and sleeves. It is normally associated with short sleeves, a round neckline, known as a crew neck, with no collar.

So, I was “right”—to a degree. Will readers stop reading to research words, especially ones they assume they know the meaning of? Not likely (as authors, we hate to pull anyone out of the read). However, some readers won’t notice it, because they consider the neckline of a t-shirt a collar. Others might hiccup, thinking the same way I did. Will it spoil the read? No.

Is there a solution? Maybe. When in doubt, I’d go with the dictionary definition. That way, if someone is puzzled enough to wonder, when they look it up, they’ll see the author was right.

Another example. My Triple-D Ranch series includes a character who runs a cooking school. I was writing a scene where she was teaching her students about the various pots and pans they’d be using. She was talking about the differences between frying pans and sauté pans (based on my trip through the Google Machine). I ran my draft by my (former) chef brother to see if I got things right. He came back and told me all my research was “wrong” because anyone trained in cooking wouldn’t use those terms, and proceeded (at some length) to set me straight. And therein lies the rub. He’s not my “target” reader, but he knows of what he speaks. Other readers might, too. And just as many would “know” that they’re right about the differences between sauté pans and frying pans. Either way, I’m right for some, and I’m wrong for some.

What did I end up writing? My instructor now says,

“Most cooking techniques and terminology we use comes from the French. However, a lot of names have been Americanized, and none of you will be ready for a fancy French restaurant simply by completing this course. You’ll be cooks, not chefs. So, I’m not going to dwell on terminology too much. As long as you can match the right tool with the right task, you’ll do fine.”

And then there’s the most important part about choosing the right word. POV.

Example 1

My characters were in a café, and it was one where customers place their orders at the counter, and the clerk hands them a metal stand with their order number on it to display on their table so the servers can find them.

First, I’d shown the heroine entering the café and placing her order.

She paid for her meal, accepted the metal holder with the number eighteen from the clerk, and found a small table in the back of the crowded café, inhaling the blend of aromas as she waited for her order to be ready.

In the next scene, the hero arrives and places his order.

At the counter, Bailey ordered a burger—a man had to eat, right?—and carried his stand with its number to Tyrone’s table.

My critique partner had trouble with the word “stand” in the second example, and asked what they were really called, and maybe I should use that definition instead.

So, I took a quick trip through Google and learned they’re called “Table Number Stands,” so my use of the term is correct.

Example 2

My character was at an event in a hotel, and she was going to leave, so she wanted to get rid of the half-empty glass she was carrying.

I’ve been to enough events at hotels or banquet halls, and I know the catering people normally have trays on stands set up at various places around the room where guests can deposit their used dishes. But I didn’t know what they were called.

But you know what? I forgot one crucial aspect. Would the character know?

What if my research showed the aforementioned table number stands were called Grabbendernummers. Then, I could have written, “Bailey carried his Grabbendernummer to the table.” But would he know that?

You see, it doesn’t really matter what you, the author knows or doesn’t know about something. It’s what the character knows. If my character with the half-empty glass were in the catering business, then yes, she’d refer to that tray by a proper name, if it had one. (And per my brother the chef and all the Googling I’d done, there isn’t a specific term for them.) So, my heroine, would simply see the tray on a stand. It might be black, or brown, or covered with linens, but she’s going to think of it as a tray.

Yes, do your research. But if you want to save a lot of time—especially if you’re easily sidetracked while looking something up—ask yourself if the character would know whatever you’re researching first. Just because the author knows (or looked up) what a particular object is called, in Deep POV, it’s the character who has to know it. The character is going to use whatever vocabulary exists in his head, not the author’s.

Are you a stickler for the correct word? Do your characters know them?


Trusting Uncertainty by Terry OdellNow available for Preorder. Trusting Uncertainty, Book 10 in the Blackthorne, Inc. series.
You can’t go back and fix the past. Moving on means moving forward.


Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

+14

Writing in a Point of View Not Your Own

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Last week I wrote about hardboiled fiction and the pedigree that began with a writer named Carroll John Daly. I focused on the First-Person PI narrator.

But a hardboiled series can be told in Third Person, too. Frederick Nebel wrote a hugely popular series for Black Mask featuring police captain Steve MacBride and a reporter named Kennedy. These were done in Third-Person POV. More currently there’s a fellow named Gilstrap who writes about a guy named Grave in Third Person. Likewise Coletta’s Sheriff Niko Quintano, Langley-Hawthorne’s Ursula Marlow, Odell’s Chief of Police Gordon Hepler, Viets’s Helen Hawthorne, and Burke’s Tawny Lindholm

We’ll get to P. J. Parrish in a bit.

So what POV did I choose for my series about a crime-fighting nun, Sister Justicia Marie of the Sisters of Perpetual Justice?

I’ve written here before about the genesis of this character. How my son, who loves plays on words, said I should write about a nun who fights crime with martial arts skills. “You could call it Force of Habit.”

He smiled. I smiled. And then I said, “I think I’ll do it.”

“I was only kidding,” my son said.

“It’s a great concept,” I said. “Original, great title, and I think I can do something with it.”

That was back in 2012. Since that first novelette (about 16k words), four more followed, and quite to my delight has built a loyal following.

Now I’ve put the whole series in one collection, and added a sixth, never-before-published novelette. FORCE OF HABIT: THE COMPLETE SERIES is up for pre-pub. If you reserve your copy now you’ll lock in the $2.99 deal price (and this puppy is 90k words worth of action) before it goes to the regular price of $4.99. The titles are:

FORCE OF HABIT

FORCE OF HABIT 2: AND THEN THERE WERE NUNS

FORCE OF HABIT 3: NUN THE WISER

FORCE OF HABIT 4: THE NUN ALSO RISES

FORCE OF HABIT 5: HOT CROSS NUNS

And for the first time anywhere: FORCE OF HABIT 6: NUN TOO SOON

Allow me just a few horn toots from verified reviews:

“This first book was so good that within minutes of reading it, I downloaded book two.”

“Action packed with both internal and external conflict, I was riveted the whole way through.”

“Sister Justicia is kicking butt and taking names! She knows how to clean up L.A. but good!”

“James Scott Bell seems to be able to put more events in a 50 page novella than you’re likely to find in some 300 page novels.”

“Highest possible recommendation! Five Stars!”

“Honestly, they need to make a TV series about Sister J.”

Now, back to the choice of POV. Having never been a nun…or a woman…I gravitated toward Third Person from the jump. That does not mean I couldn’t take a stab at First Person. Unlike some of the “wisdom” of the age, I say let a writer do what he or she will and let the market decide. I just felt more comfortable in Third.

So what about the nun-woman part? Well, friends, there’s a little thing I like to call RESEARCH. It really works! I have a friend who is a former nun, who helped me tremendously with this series. I also made contact with some Benedictine nuns online for further insight.

As for the woman part, I have the greatest research assistant of all—Mrs. B. She reads all my stuff before anyone else, and offers me invaluable editorial advice.

[And if I may be allowed a side note: Today marks the 40th anniversary of the best decision I ever made. It involved the lovely Cindy, a minister, a packed church, and me.]

Once again, here’s the link for the deal pre-order.

For those of you outside Amazon U.S., you can open to your Amazon site and plug this into the search box: B091DRDWRJ

I will note that Michael Connelly is currently writing a series from a female Pacific Islander POV. And our own Mr. Gilstrap’s new series stars a U.S. Congresswoman who is also a single mom, both of which (if my research is accurate) John has never been.

And leave us not forget the sisters P. J. Parrish writing from the POV of one Louis Kincaid.

It can be done!

Do you agree? 

+15