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The Power of Colloquialism and Peculiar Jargon in Writing: Or, Capturing the Voice of London

Author M. Laszlo discusses the importance of dialogue in fiction and the challenge in capturing it authentically.

We all know that everything began with the word. According to Judeo-Christian tradition, nothing even existed before Jehovah spoke. “Let there be light,” the Deity said, if memory serves. At any rate, a similar kind of awesome, language-related event happened to me during my youth. In the summer of 1985, I traveled to London and discovered the most glorious words of all: the freakish brilliance that is Britspeak.

(Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Ignoring What You Know)

Ah, London! Ah, the summer of 1985! What a magnificent experience. As a weird kid daydreaming about being an author, London made me realize that dialogue has to be real—that characters ought to talk the way people really talk. All these years later, that’s what guided me through the authoring of my first book. Every step of the way, I endeavored to employ British colloquialism and phraseology to capture London and to bring it life. This comes down to the fact it is the vernacular that makes characters and their stories seem genuine. In short, glorious Britspeak makes the unbelievable seem as true as Coventry blue.

At this point, it would be tempting to list out some of the really great terms that had come into fashion back in 1985. The problem is that so many of them are utterly obscene. More to the point, though, 1980s Britspeak opened up my mind to the rich history of British colloquialism—the quirky, brilliant, obsolete terms and jocular phrases that came into existence long before the summer of 1985. Looking back, there can be no question that the magnificence of Victorian-era and Edwardian-era colloquialism influenced me to set my writings in the WWI era—a really interesting time when 19th-century phrases and modern-day ones were constantly coming into contact with one another. As an author, though, this is where things got really confusing. Imagine translating a London diary filled with 1980s slang and vulgarism into the kind of slang and vulgarism that young people would’ve used back in the 1910s.

The Power of Colloquialism and Peculiar Jargon in Writing: Or, Capturing the Voice of London

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Another challenge came in the form of trying to translate the language of the music scene. That process became especially challenging when trying to create a mythical explanation for the origins of London’s Goth youth culture. In the summer of 1985, London was alive with the sounds of Goth bands and really dark neo-psychedelic bands alike: the Cure, Bauhaus, Joy Division, Echo and the Bunnymen, Throbbing Gristle, and the Teardrop Explodes to name a few. How to reduplicate such extraordinary nomenclature? It’s easier said than done—especially if the author wishes to remain fairly accurate to history.

In the course of writing my novellas, another challenge presented itself: how to describe the Goth attire? In the 1980s, London was alive with beautiful, somber-dressed young women who had a really timeless, almost Edwardian style. For my first book, it was necessary to learn the terms that precisely denote defunct women’s fashions. Make no mistake about it: Without the jargon of fashion history, it’s impossible to really give characters their proper, era-appropriate “clobber.”

Another place where it proved incredibly trying to move the 1980s into the past came with the sport of ice-skating. In the spring of 1985, the very beautiful Katarina Witt had won the world figure-skating championship—and because of my infatuation with her, my youthful diary reveals a habit of constantly comparing young ladies to the famous skater. As a consequence, there was no way to translate the diary into novellas without having at least one character dedicated to ice skating. Ultimately, though, my novellas had to become fairly anachronistic in some respects. This follows from the fact that my WWI-era characters had to be able to perform the elements that Katarina Witt could. In the end, I had no option but to employ literary license so as to let my WWI-era narrator know about 1980s ice-skating jargon and the various terms for futuristic, yet-to-be-developed techniques.

The Power of Colloquialism and Peculiar Jargon in Writing: Or, Capturing the Voice of London

As it so happened, back in the summer of 1985, nobody in London seemed to care very much about Katarina Witt. The one German athlete who dominated the papers that summer was Boris Becker. He did well at Wimbledon, but it surprised me to see all the snide, snarky humor in the print media. The British journalists presented him as a kind of cartoonishly wrathful Red Baron type figure. What a surprise, too, just to hear all the Britspeak epithets reserved for German nationals. Perhaps it would be impolite to repeat any of them here, so I’ll not do it. The salient point is that the whole Boris Becker media frenzy must have had something to do with my peculiar impulse to translate my diary into the WWI era. In short, I picked up on the British-German rivalry and really wanted to say something about it.

All of which brings us to the novellas themselves. Why go to all this trouble to write them at all? Well, here’s the reason: The written word is far more potentially enlightening than the spoken word. It is the written word which permits us to share what we have learned and to perhaps help to ennoble someone somewhere. Yes, the notion that the spoken word created the universe is the Judeo-Christian belief. Nevertheless, the power of the written word is much more than belief. The written word provides an opportunity to form a meeting of two minds—that of the author and that of the reader. Nothing could ever be more miraculous than that. Perhaps that is why every successful religion requires one thing more than any other: a book.

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