I love the way words rise and fall. I am fascinated by the way punctuation can change their cadence and rhythm and impart new shadings of tone to their meaning. I can get downright giddy when I find a new one. Ever since I started to take my writing seriously, I have been squirreling away the most fabulous and exotic words in a special drawer so I could pull them out when the right occasion would arise.
When my editors told me that a word, although otherwise appropriate, is “too obscure,” I pointed to Laurie King and her Mary Russell character: “But Laurie King sees no reason to dumb down her writing,” I argued. “She doesn’t shy away from ‘vituperated’ and ‘epistolary’ and ‘assertion of strength.’ Why should I shy away from ‘crepuscular’ just because I write gay romance? I’ve been waiting to use that word for over a year!”
Laurie King was my go-to excuse for ‘neuromusular synapses’ and ‘measure of apprehension’ and ‘inchoate.’ Until yesterday – a fateful day – upon which I was plowing through Laurie King’s and Michelle Springer’s book on writing, only to grind to a halt when I tripped over the following:
Top Tip on using distinctive language
Unless, as in the case of Mary Russell, an idiosyncratic vocabulary and syntax is key to your story, it is best to keep language in the background, making it a strong, vivid means of conveying the actions and personalities of your characters.
“The Arvon Book of Crime and Thriller Writing,” page 174. Well, damn. Two books and four short stories later is a bad time to find out that presenting this particular author’s use of “idiosyncratic vocabulary and syntax” as an argument against the cutting pen of my merciless editors is hopelessly flawed! Laurie King further explains that Russell’s language is meant to reflect the vocabulary of an octogenarian academic, and that the author herself uses a thesaurus to keep Russell in top form.
Thus chastised, I tucked my tail between my legs and did my best to return to short, Anglo-Saxon words and the simpler, point-and-shoot dialogue of hard-boiled detective fiction. It’s hard, though. My ready supply of beautiful words remains in their special drawer like a dieter’s hoard of chocolate bars. There they languish in darkness, lonely and disconsolate, yearning for the murmur of the literary forest.
Robert B. Parker, I never have really abandoned you. Even though it might have seemed that way.