One of the most important components in a great story is great dialogue — yet sometimes a writer can only travel so far to do his or her research. Fortunately, the Library of Congress has made available a series of American English Dialect Recordings — and it’s well worth checking out. Funded by the Center for Applied Linguistics and the National Endowment for the Humanities, the recordings feature 118 hours of speech samples, linguistic interviews, oral histories, conversations, and excerpts from public speeches, drawn from archives and private collections.
For a reader/listener, it’s an amazing glimpse into U.S. social and linguistic history — and for a writer, it’s an invaluable way to tune your ear to the nuances of America’s myriad dialects. As the web site states, the project “reveals distinctions in speech related to gender, race, social class, education, age, literacy, ethnic background, and occupational group (including the specialized jargon or vocabulary of various occupations). The oral history interviews are a rich resource on many topics, such as storytelling and family histories; descriptions of holiday celebrations, traditional farming, schools, education, health care, and the uses of traditional medicines; and discussions of race relations, politics, and natural disasters such as floods.” The recordings were made from 1941 to 1984 and include forty-three states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and parts of Canada.
If you’re a writer who has trouble focusing, you should check out WriteRoom software, which promises “distraction free writing.” It aims to eliminate all the extras that come along with Word (such as margins) and provide a space for nothing but letters on a page. (The one distraction, though, is that it seems to encourage you to spend all sorts of time choosing colors and fonts for your “distraction-free” page.) I prefer Omm Writer (the original version) for my own distraction-free writing time. The image below is what my screen looks like:
Online dictionaries and thesauruses are wonderful resources — and if you ever need to go a step beyond the dictionary, visit Wordnik, which provides not only a definition of any word you type in but examples as well, including real-time examples from Twitter. It’s really cool — but be warned that it could be another major time drain as well.
Wishing you happy, distraction-free writing.
Many writers firmly believe in what they’ve been hearing for years: Write what you know. Not that there’s anything wrong with that — but I find that students who are just starting to write often find it difficult to branch out, to assert their authority as writers beyond their own experiences. At this point I’ll usually point to Melanie Rae Thon’s brilliant story “Little White Sister,” which not only an amazing read but an important lesson to writers: Write beyond what you know.
In this interview with BOMB Magazine, Thon talks about her decision to write from the perspective of a black male in first person:
“Those voices of censorship become ridiculous. The extrapolation of that kind of thinking is that you can’t write as a child, you can’t write as an old person, you can’t write as somebody of the opposite sex. I move into my material intuitively and if I’m paying attention to that, if the things that I’m writing are things I feel I must understand, then I have a right to explore them. I have a need to explore them and ultimately a duty to do so.”
In the same way reading opens up our understanding of the world around us, writing from perspectives beyond our own (and in the process, understanding them) not only makes us better writers but better human beings. We all need to get outside our own lives once in a while.
A great opinion on this topic is this post on Erika Dreifus’s awesome blog, Practicing Writing, in which she discusses writing from the POV of a mother even though she’s not a mother. After being critiqued in workshops — not for her writing but for her non-motherhood — she makes the very good point that good writing has nothing to do with the writer’s personal life but with the authenticity of what’s on the page. She writes: “… my fellow writers failed to appreciate elements that go into fiction writing that transcend one’s own lived experience.”
Unless you’re writing memoir, try to write beyond what you know. You’ll probably find that you know far more than you think — and you’ll probably also have to do a lot of research (which always enlightening anyway). The more you challenge yourself, the more you’ll challenge your readers — in the best possible way.
While most writers know that book titles can’t be copyrighted, we have yet to see another Moby-Dick or Gone with the Wind. What’s far more common, as this site shows, is using same cover art for many different books.
Doesn’t every writer love a good malapropism? This NY Times article reminded me of my days living in Taipei, when I’d encounter various bizarre English translations. Visitors to Shanghai won’t be able to enjoy similar mistakes much longer, thanks to the Shanghai Commission for the Management of Language Use, which is fixing everything from menus to street signs. So long to menus listing “monolithic tree mushroom stem squid” and restroom signs reading “urine district.” Check out the Times slide show for a few hilarious examples, including the one below.
Speaking of being lost in translation: From Jhumpa Lahiri to Chuck Palahniuk to Donald Barthelme, authors’ names are often mispronounced with such authority that soon even the correct pronunciation sounds wrong. Click here for a guide.
I rather enjoyed this Life magazine slide show entitled “Famous Literary Drunks & Addicts.” If nothing else, it made me feel pretty healthy by comparison.
Having trouble jump-starting your latest story? The American Book Review lists the best 100 first lines from novels here … it’s inspiring, if a little intimidating.
And finally — and definitely inspiring — is this blog from Alan Rinzler on finding courage as a writer, with such advice as not being afraid to talk to yourself, to let things simmer, and to start over.
Given the way our culture celebrates youth (including writers), I really enjoyed this post by Randy Susan Meyers in the Huffington Post: a list of 41 writers whose debut novels were published after they turned 40 (among them: Meyers’ own book, The Murderer’s Daughters, as well as National Book Award winner Julia Glass and Pulitzer winners Paul Harding, Edward P. Jones, and Elizabeth Strout).
For those of you who love short stories (and who doesn’t?!), check out Storyville, an iPhone/iPad app that brings stories directly to your device. It’s $4.99 for six months’ worth of stories — one each week. And even better news for short story (and literary novel) readers: Andrew’s Book Club is back! And there’s already a new pick for the new year. And for both readers and writers, be sure to check out Ashland Creek Shorts, which are available on the Kindle for 99 cents — and we’re now taking submissions!
Maybe it’s our diminishing attention spans, but stories seem to be getting shorter and shorter and shorter. Along with flash fiction, micro fiction, and prose poems, we now have “hint fiction” (check out this NPR story for samples).
As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, The Paris Review has made its interviews available online — an amazing series of author interviews all the way back to the 1950s.
If you draw inspiration from seeing where writers work, in the U.S. there are 73 writers’ houses open to the public, including Norman Mailer’s and Edith Wharton’s.
And did you know that for 90 percent of what we communicate, we use only about 7,000 words? We’re losing words from the English language every day, and Oxford University Press hopes to save them with Save the Words, where you can visit with long-lost words and offer up your own words for safekeeping.