Angie Azur is a YA Sci-fi Writer.
Writer for PALEO Magazine.
Former Intern at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency.
SCBWI & COWG Member.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

People, Places, and Things

I grew up on a small blueberry farm in the middle of the boonies with a bunch of rednecks who got pricked by jagger bushes n'nat, many of them drank melk and washed up with rags, pushed buggies through grocery stores, and loved watching Stillers football.

Yes, this is really how many Pittsburghers, especially in the outer regions, speak. To this day, even with speech and voice lessons, I still say probly instead of probably. I can get out of Pittsburgh, but I can't get the Pittsburgh out of me. But it's fine. When my friends say, huh? to something odd I said, I pull out my Pittsburgese dictionary and let them read.

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It's not only Pittsburghers that have created their very own inner circle language. Small communities around the world have odd words to describe certain things. In London, there is a small community where they call boots, daisies. There is a reason for this and if you know the answer - put it in the comments, and I let you know if you're right.

People from southern California often say the word "the" before describing a road. They might say, "You take the 101 to the 1". People from Pittsburgh never put a "the" before giving directions. They might say, "You take 79 to I90".

Knowing these small differences per region and small town helps ground the reader in reality. You, as the writer, want people who live in the same areas your characters live to feel like the characters are real people. If they say a word that is not used in that area, it will throw them out of your novel. They may even stop reading.

While working on REDWOOD BLOOD, I had a young reader in my targeted age range read the first 4 chapters. He said he really liked it, but the main character "wasn't from here." It threw me back. Why did my reader say this? Well, I was allowing my main character to live in Mill Valley, but talk like she lived in Pittsburgh. A classic newbie mistake. I hadn't done my research to know how the local kids spoke. I used what I knew from growing up back east. It didn't work.

Researching for my new book, THE LINK, I have tried to find links to slang in Alaska and slang in Oregon. It's taking time, but I am getting to know some of the local jargon. You too should research the way people talk to one another in the town you find your characters living in or moving to.

Here are some of the interesting words and meanings I found: They came from the Alaskan website below.


Going Outside: Leaving the state for any reason.
Lower 48:  The 48 states south of Alaska. 
Cheechako: Anyone new to Alaska.
Sourdough:  Anyone old to Alaska.
Cache (cash):  A very small, food storage cabin - elevated out of reach of animals and your kids.  
Ice Worm: Small, very tiny worms that actually live in glacial ice.  
Bear Insurance: Handguns .357, 44 magnum or better, Pump 12 gauge shotgun, or small, handheld nuclear weapons.
Permanent Fund: Money from the state for living in Alaska.
Tin Dog: Snowmobile, Ski-Doo
Bear Insurance #2: It's the best protection of all...always be with someone you can outrun.
Mukluk:'s not something you just stepped in out there on the tundra, but rather very warm, fur boots usually knee high.
The Bush: Places in Alaska you can only get to by plane or boat (that's almost the entire state).
Termination Dust: The first, light dusting of snow on just the mountain tops.  It's a warning - the first, really big snow is just around the corner.  This of course, triggers an huge shopping frenzy.
Cabin Fever: When Alaskans start bouncing off the walls, from being inside those walls, way too long in winter. 
Ditch Divers: All-wheel drive vehicle owners learning they can't drive fast on snow and ice. 
Arctic Entry: A pre-entry to your home where dirty, slushy boots, winter gear, mud boots, work clothes, etc... can be taken off before they're taken off 'inside' your clean house.
Mosquito Dope (aka Bug Juice): Mosquito repellent: spray, liquid, and roll on. Patches, bracelets, smoke rings, and citronella anything. 
Alaskan Sneakers: Waders - leg, hip, or chest waders.
Combat Fishing: Casting a fishing line where 1500 other people are doing the same thing at the same time.  Oh! and you only have six inches between you and those on either side of you.
Sing Song: Any concert, recital, or competition for singing.
Breakup: The process of all the snow and ice finally melting away marking the end of winter and the beginning of tourist season.

Some great websites for slang and/or local talk are these:

Talk like locals in cities around the world:
American business slang:
American slang wrong side of the tracks:
CB terminology and trucker slang:
Alaskan slang:

The look of the people and the town:

Another aspect of the town or country that you've placed your characters in is the "look" of the people, and the places they live or work in. I mean, what do the people collectively look like? What vibe does the town give? What do the buildings look like?

Right now I am in Vermont visiting family. We've been coming here for over 20 years. In that time the people have changed, but not so much the town. The look of the town is still very much the same.

Vermont houses are big. They look like two houses connected by a lower level walkway. Many of these homes are over 50 or 100 years old. Some look Victorian, some like a barn, and some are log cabins. Many of them are run down. They need paint. They need weeds pulled, and cement steps fixed. Most have dirt, or gravel roads to get to them. The lawns are huge, massive areas of cut grass. And no one is ever playing in them.

The people have changed from thin, skinny, smokers. To overweight, in many cases obese, smokers. The fashion is tank top, cut off jean shorts, flip flops. It's difficult to find a healthy meal in town. Most foods are fried. And there are cigarette butts all over the ground.

The summer weather is oppressively hot. The winters are harsh. Many people marry early, as in 18 year-old grooms and brides. Most of these young families have 3-5 children. A lot of them are on welfare. It's become a depressed area. And yet, people gather. They hang out on their porches and shoot the shit.

You can drop by your neighbors house without calling first. Every kid is on a sports team. The whole town watches little league. People help one another. There is a feeling of cooperation and trust. Farmers leave food in baskets, with a box for your money. You take, you pay, you leave. Trust.

The surrounding lake is beautiful, with rolling green hills, and purple mountains in the background. There are parks, and free concerts. People smile and say hello when you pass by.

From all this description I've just give you, can you "feel" this town? Does it remind of you any others? Do you like or dislike it? Would you visit or not? Would your character get married young or do everything she can to leave? These are things you must think about when you write.


What about the things your character covets? Does she own a special necklace? Is it in style now, or really old? What about her room? What things are in there that will give your reader a tell about your character?

If I wrote that my main character in THE LINK, Seit, hid all of her artist brushes under her bed so her crazy Uncle wouldn't find them and sell them. What would you guess about her? About him?

What if I said, Seit loved to paint, but when her Uncle needed extra cash to make ends meet, she put her art supplies out at the garage sale. What do you think of her now?

The things, and how your characters use or hide them will tell a lot about your character.

The things in the town your character lives also give a full picture of your character, and how they grew up, or what they are dealing with now.

In Vermont there are tractors for sale in many yards. They are old-fashioned looking tractors, like the red ones in toy stores. Do you ever see tractors for sale in your town? In a city? With this small detail, you can let your reader know where your main character grew up.

So wherever your characters end up, be sure to know the local slang. Use these words sparingly, or your work may become dated. If used correctly, your readers will know exactly where in the world your character stands without much description.

Be sure to know the "look" of the people and the town, and be sure to know the things that make up the town and your main characters home.

Knowing these three things, and making choices on how you use them in regards to your characters will make your writing much stronger.

Good luck and as always,

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