Ever Been Flummoxed?
I have. I’ve been bamboozled, too. By some rowdy-dow fella from back east.
One of the really fun things about writing stories set in the Old American West is researching the colloquialisms of the times and making sure the characters’ dialogue and thoughts include a proper sprinkling of period-accurate sayings.
It’s Like Cooking
With some foods, the spicier the better. With others, a little drizzle of olive oil and a dash of salt is all you need to bring out all the natural flavor your tongue could ever hanker for.
Same thing with Old West lingo. One character is plenty memorable with just a pet phrase or two, here or there. Another–perhaps a more colorful character–can keep the reader grinning with a non-stop flow of unforgettable Old West parlance. Who can ever forget Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday from the movie Tombstone? “I’m your huckleberry.”
It’s Like Transcribing
Lots of authors have commented on how, after a point, some scenes begin to almost write themselves, and characters develop their own personalities. Initially, the writer might be inclined to have the protagonist say things one way, but in the process of figuring out how the scene needs to unfold, it’s as if the character himself steps in and whispers, “This is how I would’ve said it.” And the author grins and says, “Yes you would’ve–in your own inimitable vernacular.” He then proceeds to write, almost as though transcribing a movie he’s watching.
The Right Words for the Right Characters
Some conversations, supposedly taking place in the late 1800s, simply wouldn’t work using ordinary twenty-first century expressions. Take this hypothetical exchange for example.
“Is Zeke gonna fight him, or not?”
Jack shrugged. “I truly don’t know. I reckon we can go ask him and see how the cat jumps.”
“Aw, he ain’t gonna fight him. He’s so roostered he wouldn’t know his shootin’ iron from his eatin’ irons long about now.”
Jack stopped his whittling and looked up at Bill. “Well Frank don’t look no better. Saw him just a few minutes ago. Looked as though he’d been rode hard and put up wet.”
Bill shook his head. “To think, all this over a girl down at the local nanny shop…”
“Hm. Don’t let Frank hear you say that. Tuckered out or not, he’ll beat the deuce outta you.”
Granted, not every scene or conversation could support this kind of ballyhoo, and I wouldn’t want every character to sound as though he’d had no serious education or no exposure to a more cultured side of life. But dialogue like this is sure to entertain when the author gets the timing and dosages right.
Just One Aspect of Westerns
The language of the Old West is just one component that makes Westerns so colorful. The land itself–the physical setting of the genre–is so big and so untamed. Simply surviving on the late-nineteenth-century frontier required strength of character. Some folks had that strength of character. Others developed it. Still others broke themselves–mind, soul, body, or all three–trying to get by without cultivating strong character. It all makes for an endless array of captivating personalities and a limitless lineup of intriguing stories.
Adventure, danger, love lost and love gained, fortunes built only to be frittered away again–it’s all there in the American Western, often communicated in delightfully amusing language.