Shared Memories and Writing Effects
Today, with the wind, snow, and cold taking control of the outer environs, I realized again just how complex the human thought process truly is.
My sister was busy in her office after a 60 hr. shift–she’s in EMS–and I sat working in my office putting together another interview questionnaire for the coming week. I’d been sort of feverish all morning and early afternoon.
A gust of howling wind pummeled my window. I said to Sis, “It’s amazing how cold it can sound outside, isn’t it?”
As soon as the words left my mouth I knew how ridiculous they sounded in any logical form. I followed my statement/question by saying, “You have to ask yourself, don’t you, just how a howling wind can sound cold, too.”
I was being serious in my observation. She remarked, “Experience teaches a person lots of things.”
And she’s right. Our little experiences teach us many things that get expressed in odd ways all the time. The wind can’t actually sound cold. And air can’t really feel soft. But ask anyone who’s lived where it snows and you’ll find everyone knows exactly what you’re talking about with cold wind and its sounds. The same holds true for soft air. Down in the south on one of those gentle twilight summer evenings when the humidity level is just right and the temperature is equal to the perfect baby’s bath, the air feels like satin skimming across your skin as you take in the evening chorus of frogs and cicadas.
Memories tag along with those sounds and feelings. We remember sitting on the porch or in the back yard listening to the coming of night and its mysteries. We relive that blizzard that howled its way past our front door, leaving behind two feet of snow on the flat and people stranded to freeze to death if they weren’t prepared for the storm.
We talk to each other in memories whether we realize it or not. These are shared memories many times. Otherwise we couldn’t understand each other at all. Perhaps that’s what creates a culture as much as anything else.
The guy down the street calls over to his neighbor, “Better prune heavy this year. Forecast’s look bad for heavy storms next spring.”
In Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas and Texas that phrase means “Make sure you have everything trimmed way back. The weather service is predicting lots of bad t-storms with possible tornados. You wouldn’t want that big elm to come down on your house.”
Every region of the country has its own language built on memories shared by its people. Those of Louisiana will never regard Gulf storms the same and their references can really only be understood by those along the Gulf coastline who’ve gone through horrendous hurricanes like Katrina, Camille, Mitch and others.
Writers use this knowledge to place their stories is believable settings. It doesn’t matter whether the setting is down the block, across the state, or across the galaxy or time. Writers understand how this wonderful world of culture works, if only on an intuitive level.
Ask any writer who’s read a bad historical fiction piece why it was bad. Nine out of ten times he/she will say something like “The characters just didn’t talk right.” Or, “The props were off.” Or, something equally technical.
I’d be willing to bet that most readers can’t get into a story when things just feel off within it. They might not know how to express what’s wrong, but they know that something’s off kilter.
I suppose that’s one of the primary reasons to real aloud what you’d written to see how it sounds. We all read things in our heads in that little reading voice that only we can hear. But reading it aloud gives the words real body and weight and more of an opportunity to allow us to “hear, feel, taste, smell, etc.” the experience that the MC is witnessing, living, or creating.
Having an unbiased listener exaggerates that experience and gives the writer valuable feedback from the actual reading. It matters more if the listener is not a writer because the feedback is raw and nebulous many times.
I’ve lived a long time and have stored up all sorts of euphemisms and colloquialisms. I like using them. Yet, like all writers, I have to remember that they are regional. While a few sprinkled in moderation to create mood, a sense of place, and MC identity help the writing, too many can confuse the reader to the point of having him/her put the piece aside as too folksy, too in your face, too much dialect to be easily read.
Let’s face it, people like to visit other places and get a taste of the people, places and local history. They’re not necessarily looking to relocate there permanently. I love my southern roots and the understanding it’s given me during my life. But, I have no intention of ever living any farther south of the Mason/Dixon. I just can’t do the heat and humidity anymore.
Here’s something you might want to do. Really pay attention to what you say for one week. Make a note–if you can–each time you use regional/cultural speech that would be understood only by those living in the area. Add them all up at the end of the week and then look at your writing for the past several months. Then ask yourself if your “voice” in written expression been as colorful as your daily verbal encounters? You might be surprised.
Oh, one other thing. Ask yourself if you’re really sure if this/that bit of expression is truly regional. What you might think is a normal expression everywhere may be folksy and what you think folksy might be more universal than previously thought.
That’s all for now. Take care and God bless. Have a marvelous weekend.