Good writing has a place. And by that I mean a town, city or region. I used to make the mistake of being too vague. So I decided to set my novel in Liverpool, because I know it and also because it is such a great setting for a story.
What I didn’t know is just how Liverpool to make it and by that I mean slang, idiosyncratic terms, dialect and dialogue.
Would I alienate people from outside the city by calling things ‘boss’ or ‘sound’, saying that someone had ‘lost their bottle’, using the bizarre phrase ‘alarse’, calling every kind of alcohol ‘ale’ and adding, ‘lad, la, kidda’, and ‘is right’ and the occasional ‘proper’ and ‘pure’ before words to make a point about just how boss something was? It was proving to be a tricky mix. So what to do abar (about) it?
In my novel – The Dictionary of Departures , Gina is a scouser and I’ve been working phrases and words familiar to the city into the story, but in a way that doesn’t exclude readers from other places.
I found some useful tips on the Daily Writing Tips website that suggested writers ‘should pay attention to phrases and idioms that pertain to a character’s geographic location…’ It reported that this won’t slow the reader down, distract or confuse them.
I wanted to use one of their phrase examples “she’s dumber than a bucket of hair, bless her heart,” but that places someone in the American South. My offering could be– ‘she’s proper dozy her la’?
I looked to three other writers for help.
God, them fishfingers are gorgeous
I’ve just finished All She Wants, the debut novel by Jonathan Harvey. This does use phrases and words particular to Liverpool with occasional explanations. The main character Jody explains ‘trainees are trainers’ but ‘arlarse’ is left alone. This book takes a lot of its humour from the very scouse way the characters talk but often this is in such a way that any reader can detract their meaning. When Jodie first works on an advert one of her phrases in fact haunts her for a while – God, them fishfingers are gorgeous. The main point is that the reader always gets it.
Not very casual West Country
In The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling a lot of debate has centred on her harrowing and dark departure from Harry Potter but I started to study the dialogue. One of the characters Krystal Weedon is characterised by her language and so are her family. The setting is the fictional West Country village of Pagford but it has clear West Country accents. Rowling has been criticised in The Guardian for creating underclass characters all using a kind of generalised, Dickensian lower-order-speak e.g. “I takes Robbie to the nurs’ry”; “Tha’s norra fuckin’ crime”; “No, shurrup, righ’?”.
Rowling reportedly drew on her own mildly unhappy West Country childhood, in a village outside Bristol and then later outside Chepstow. It was a great book in my opinion but I did get the point about the Dickensian dialogue.
Marion Keyes said in her newsletter that the late Maeve Binchy gave her the confidence to ‘write with an Irish accent’. She said: ‘I personally owe her a debt of gratitude because when I started writing, I was appalled to discover that I was writing in an Irish accent – I thought nobody other than a few Irish people would be interested in reading my Irishy stuff. Then I remembered Maeve – she wrote in an Irish accent and most of her books were set in Ireland and it hadn’t done her any harm – she was beloved worldwide. So she gave me the confidence to ‘write in my own voice’.”
One thing is in common for all of the above – they all write where they know or have known. That is already what I am doing. But how to make this authentic…?
So Me head’s chocker and you can help
What scouse words and sayings would you want to see in a book set in Liverpool? And how would you spell them? Tweet @ClareDoran or email firstname.lastname@example.org with any ideas!
Bagsy all the best ones for my book.
This has nothing to do with the above article but I found this overheard in Liverpool phrase quite funny and I’m going to have to use it somewhere, perhaps if I become a scapegoat for bad scouse sayings in my novel:
‘They can fuck right off. I’m no one’s escaped goat.’