Ask the Editor — Researching in the Present

By Sherry from Northern Virginia

We are starting an Ask the Editors column where we will be talking to independent edtiors on how to improve your manuscript. I’m first up. Yesterday, Edith talked about researching historical details which leads nicely to my topic of getting it right in the present day. I don’t think writers always research their present day characters as thoroughly as they might a historical character.

depositphotos_Slang-Words-DoodlesWatch out when using slang. Slang evolves from generation to generation and the word you used to describe something when you were a teen is likely obsolete now. Slang can take me out of a story as fast as the overuse of big words or head hopping. I recently edited a manuscript that had a teenager using the word “phat”. Phat was used in the nineties. There are various stories about its origin from Pretty, Hot and Tempting to a shorten version of party hat. It was usually used as a synonym for “cool”.

Interestingly, “cool” has survived in its modern form since the 1950s. But other words like Yolo (you only live once), that came from abbreviations from texts, are short lived and now widely mocked when used by teens and twenty somethings. I found that the Urban Dictionary is a good resource for researching slang terms.

Slang can be used if you want to identify someone who is stuck in the past. An aging hippie who is still walking around saying: groovy, far out, and peace. Or a valley girl who always says like and totally.

IMG_4792Fashion can be another trap. A manuscript I edited had a teenage girl wearing her Uggs out into a raging blizzard on purpose. Uggs are a fashion statement and, at least with my daughter and her friends, would no more be worn into a snow storm than peep-toed stilettos. On our retreat  someone mentioned that the denim industry was hurting because yoga pants are so popular not only with teens but through thirty-somethings. My protagonist is 38 and she is usually wearing jeans but I’ve added some yoga pants into her wardrobe. Yoga pants are probably a phase like flannel pajama bottoms were in the early 2000s and spandex was in the early 90’s.

depositphotos-Detail-of-guitarMusic is another thing that is easy to get wrong. In my manuscript that’s in the drawer I have my thirty-five year old easily identify the Simon and Garfunkel song, El Condor Pasa (If I Could). I checked with a thirty-five year old and she’d never heard the song. So I added that the character’s mother was a big fan of Simon and Garfunkel and since my protagonist grew up listening to them she could identify the songs.

Have you had any frustrating experiences with research?

31 Thoughts

  1. Great tips, Sherry. I think that Uggs-in-blizzard manuscript might just have been mine! I changed Ellie’s boots to some cool (yes, I’m old) snow boots. ;^) I’ll tell ya, the flannel pajama pants fad is not over yet up here in northeastern Massachusetts.

    1. I wasn’t going to out you with the Uggs reference, Edith! Interesting to know the flannel pajama thing is still done up there. And it points out the importance of knowing the region you are writing about.

  2. Thanks for the tips, Sherry. Small but important things to research and look for during that final pass through the ms.

    Edith, not only do I still say “cool,” but now my Deputy Director says it all the time. Words pass on and I picked it up from a former landlord I did a lot of writing for. Needless to say, we’re all three from the same generation.

  3. One reason I won’t even think about writing a YA or “new adult” book is that I have no idea what the right slang, fashion, social mores, etc., might be, and no one to ask. I’d be ridiculed by my peers and those younger types.

    And if you think it’s bad trying to get slang right in this country, try finding Irish phrases that make sense. My editor spent a year in Dublin in college, so might know more than I do (or not–Dublin does not represent the whole country), so we go back and forth on what words to use. I’ll admit I’ve mis-used a few terms, but if I’ve never heard a phrase spoken by anyone, young or old, I figure it will just confuse my readers. Anybody want to guess what an “air biscuit” is?

    Rock on, “cool”!

    1. I have no idea what an air biscuit is. I know in England they call cookies “biscuits” but beyond thinking of light, fluffy cookies, I’ve got nothing.

      1. What comes to mind re: air biscuit is passing gas. Fluffernutter, crop-dusting, etc.
        On passe slang, my 27 year old son and his friends say “Peace” and “Peace, out”. It sounds dated to me since I was around the first time (Late in life baby he was.). I don’t know where they picked it up. The movies, maybe.

  4. What do you think about using slang at all? If used correctly, it can properly help with a character’s voice. But could it end up giving a book a shorter life span because the book could seem dated somewhat quickly? I go back and forth on it.

    1. I have the same problem with slang, Barb. The same happens with any modern culture reference such as TV shows like Friends or mentioning One Direction as a hot boy band. I think it boils down to shelf life and what you expect. Most of us aren’t going to be Jane Austen and if we were hopefully the reader will be fascinated by the times.

  5. Slang. Oy. I used to work in a business with adults of all ages, from all over the States, Canada and Europe. It was a great way to pick up speech patterns and slang “organically.” Now that I’m home full-time it’s not so easy. I rely on my kids, though they too are rapidly aging!

    1. I ask my daughter too! That’s why I liked the Urban Dictionary — it told me that tweens like Yolo but not older teens. My daughter confirmed this for me.

  6. Sherry I often think about these things as I write. How advisable is it to use at all? Except for someone like your timewarped hippie example, how far do I want to go in dating a character?

    Thanks for explaining what yolo means! I still don’t know what yoga pants are. I pictured loose-fitting light weight sweat pants, but then found an ad where they looked very tight fitting and uncomfortable. I don’t think I’d dare use them in a story!

    1. I battle with the same issues, Reine. Yoga pants are tight but I think they are comfortable — I’ve never tried any but know people who almost live in them.

  7. I think “tNancy is right–to float an air biscuit is to pass gas.

    I love my yoga pants! I’m not exactly young or slender, but I wear them with tunic-type tops & they are much more comfortable & less revealing than leggings, and look much better than a regular pair of slacks with the tops. (at least I think so. Don’t disillusion me if I’m wrong.)

    In my work, I sometimes use vocabulary that is slang, but really doesn’t change that much over the years. Mostly prison and biker slang. I do need to check periodically with some expressions, and fortunatley I have a few buddies who will tell me if I ask. And since they are presently incarcerated, they have all the time in the world to write back.

    When I worked daily with young adults I had a sense of their slang, but it changes quickly and I don’t think I’d be comfortable now using what I know.

    Kathleen Rockwood

    1. Now you are tempting me to try a pair of yoga pants! And it is always interesting to have a reliable source for slang! I hope Sheila pops back over to confirm the air biscuit!

      1. Yup, passing gas. Makes you wonder if people sit around making these absurd things up. And I feel so ahead of the curve (ha!)–I’ve actually owned one pair of yoga pants, but I wore them only around the house, not in public. Very comfortable in all directions–no binding waistband! I have never worn flannel pajama bottoms outside the house.

      2. I would have never guessed that Sheila! Okay, I am going to have to try a pair — but I won’t wear them out of the house either!

  8. A good post, though I disagree a little about the music. Today it’s easy for anyone to be into anything of any era–I’ve read people talking about their kids being into the Beach Boys or Sinatra, for instance.

    1. Good point, Fraser. A variety of music is readily available now. I like lots of current music and kids still like rock and roll. I do remember having some record on as a kid and my dad asking me if the record was broken.

  9. Something I find useful is remembering all the decades someone’s lived through. If a character’s 35 this year, then Nirvana and Titanic were huge in her teen years, for instance.

    1. I read that wrong the first time and thought you meant the sinking of the ship. Which reminded me that when I was very young, I knew someone whose husband had gone down with the Titanic. That makes me feel old! But my daughter and I have attended Bob Dylan and Fleetwood Mac concerts together, so I guess it works both ways.

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