Basque Shepherds in Yosemite's high country

When he first arrived at the ranch in April, Pello had started out basic, pointing at something and asking “How say ingeles?” It turned out the rancher was busy most of the day, but in the evenings, as he sat on his porch with his glass of whiskey, he seemed to enjoy Pello’s questions. And before the shepherds had left for the mountains, Pello had memorized the correct way to ask, “Please, Sir, how do you say that in English?”

Chapter 15, The Second Promise

So I start to read this book, like a historical romance, right?  Set in like Victorian England or whatever. And the guy is drop-dead gorgeous, with a like interesting past. And the girl’s like in a world of trouble, and I’m all YESSS! This is like totally promising!

Then she starts to talk or think or whatever, and I’m like OH NO YOU DIDN’T! Because she’s like, you know, Alicia Silverstone in “Clueless”. Totally 1995 Valley Girl.  And I’m all PUH-LEEZE! I HATE when that happens!

The Second Promise would include only “authentic” language, or so I thought. But as soon as I began writing, I realized complete authenticity was impossible. For one thing, I wasn’t alive back then to listen to people speak, and there are no movies or records from that era. I had to reach a series of compromises.

It was a constant challenge to insulate the voices of 19th century characters from modern words and expressions. Cali and her friends can’t say “Awesome!” or “Yesss!” to mean “Great!” They can’t even say “great!” to mean “great” as we know it, because back then “great” meant “big”. (Your big toe used to be called your great toe.)  My compromise was to do my best without making the dialogue too stilted. I often found myself checking a word’s etymology to make sure it was actually used in the 1880’s.  (Couldn’t use the word “hillbilly”, which first cropped up in the 1900’s.)

Keeping the dialogue contemporary wasn’t the only problem. The Second Promise  begins in Bodie, the wildest of the Wild West gold rush towns. The language of many of the men would have been incredibly filthy, reflecting the harsh and violent world they tried to master. (If you’re old enough, check out the HBO series “Deadwood”, probably the most accurate film representation of a 19th century Western gold-mining camp.)

"Ho! for Bodie!" Illustration by J. Ross Browne, circa 1863

I’m not comfortable including profane or obscene language in a novel for young people, so my (somewhat weak) compromise was to use harsh, ugly words without obscenity. Here’s an example. Cowboy Perez, who was born in Colombia, is teaching Cali and her friends the proper way to throw a knife when a drunk insults him.

“Hey, greaser!  Keep away from those white kids!” Cali froze when she heard the angry, slurred shout. It was a miner who had emerged unsteadily from a saloon.

Vaqueros breaking a bronc, from a copy of an oil painting by Frederic Remington.

Then there’s the problem of accents. Cowboy Perez speaks English with a Spanish accent. To show this on the page, his speech is sprinkled with a few Spanish words. Here’s what he says to Cali when he gives her his knife:

 “You take it, chica,” he said. “I get another one. Keep it in your boot in case you ever need it. And when you come back to Bodie, you come tell me if you found your papá.”

The Second Promise includes several non-native English speakers, and accents aren’t their only problem.  Like any person learning a new language, they make mistakes. The excerpt at the top of this post is about Pello, a Basque shepherd boy who’s very eager to learn English. When Cali meets him, he’s still a brave beginner:

“I go. Is night. I come morning,” he said carefully. “Morning we speak little bit English, OK?” 

Another challenge: writing in English a conversation spoken in a different language.

Fortune teller writing a letter to China. Photo courtesy of CHSA collection.

Every language has its own rules of grammar; every culture has its own rules of polite speech. As a result, the English translation is never perfect. My compromise was to write naturally, as if the person were speaking English instead of Chinese or Basque or Kutzadika’a  (a Paiute Indian language).  

Kutzedika'a woman and child at their camp by Mono Lake, with John Muir. Photo by C. Hart Merriam, circa 1900. Courtesy, the Bancroft Library.

In this passage, a Kutzadika’a woman and her grown daughter are talking about Cali:

During her sleep, the girl thrashed and cried out in terror. All the while, she clutched a small silk bag in her fist, her fingers tightening on it even as she slept.

“She is chased by a ghost,” Boo-se-ya-nah said.

“What kind of ghost?”  Daughter asked.

“I don’t know. You see she is in mourning, she has cut her hair short. Maybe she did not burn or bury all his things,” Boo-se-ya-nah said.

Daughter nodded. They had both known women haunted by a dead relative if some of his possessions had been overlooked and escaped the fire at his funeral cry dance.

 It’s fun to explore what other writers have done with these issues. Mark Twain’s my hero because he wrote the speech of his everyday characters, even the uneducated ones, at a time when most authors were frozen in an upper-class style of pretentious prose. For more recent tough-guy talk, check out Elmore Leonard. And read Amy Tan and Lisa See, two authors who slide their wonderful characters seamlessly between English and Chinese. Yessss!

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  1. Georgia says:

    I love this post – it’s so true, there’s nothing more jarring than dialog that takes you out of the scene, making you wonder whether or not a character would have actually phrased their words in such a way. I like your approach, and from what I’ve read so far of The Second Promise your dialog is very believable; it feels seamless.

    The question of authenticity is a great one, and something I struggle with, as well, as I write my book, set during WWII in Europe and South America. It’s hard to put yourself in the shoes of your characters when their reality is a far cry from your own! I’ll check out Amy Tan and Lisa See – thanks for the recommendations.

    • Anonymous says:

      Thanks for the feedback and encouragement, G. You must be facing the same issues, and I can’t wait to read more of your book. Love and kisses, Kath

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