Words, Language and Vocabulary: Our Building Blocks

ABC's of Writing, Matilda Butler, Post #5

Words. Language. These are the building blocks for a writer’s story. A poet parses language one way, often looking for the fewest, most precise words to convey thought. In this paragraph, I’ve already been more casual in my use of words than a poet. A humorist looks for juxtapositions in language that will make the reader laugh. And fiction and memoir writers want to find the words that will bring the reader into her story, words that will enable her to convey a message. 

When we think of words, of language, we usually start with our own vocabulary. Many of us rely on a thesaurus to help us find a better word, perhaps one we don’t normally use but one that could be found within the network of interchangeable words we employ. Even when we include dialogue in our writing, we usually draw on our own vocabulary.

This past week, I saw David McCullough’s John Adams. While admitting that I cheated by seeing the 3 DVD set movie (originally an HBO mini-series) rather than reading the book, I found the visual presentation to be superb. If you look on Amazon for the DVD, you can view a brief video of McCullough talking about this movie version of his book. He worked closely with the production company. In particular, he talks about the level of detail in the sets, the props, the costumes, and the vocabulary.

Ah, here we are again with vocabulary. Because my mind was filled with thoughts and images of John Adams and Abigail Adams, I spotted McCullough’s chapter in my copy of The Writing Life; Writers on How They Think and Work. By reading literature written during Adam’s lifetime, McCullough began to develop a better sense of how language and even what language was used during that time. McCullough writes: “…when John Adams called the Quakers of Philadelphia ‘dull as beetles,’ he was only employing a familiar expression." 

What does all this have to do with our memoir writing? We often fall back on our own vocabulary when we write about an older generation, when when we engage them in written dialogue. What words did they use that may not even be in use today? What expressions were popular when our parents or grandparents were in their 20s or 30s or 40s? How about when they were teenagers? We can’t come up with the answers without research. 

McCullough’s chapter focuses on the incredible amount of research he does for all of his books although his examples relate to his writing John Adams. He mentions words like “spatterdashes” and “diabled.” (If you’d like to know the meaning of these words, click here.) How does he write in a way that is true to the period? Well, that became the subject of my Writing in Five video this week that I’ve just posted on Women’s Memoirs. 

When you’re working about another person, consider the person’s likely language influenced by books or other people. This will help you write truer to the person. 

If you’d like to see my brief Writing in Five video, click here. I think David McCullough’s concept of “marinate the head” that I focus on may be useful to you when you’re researching your memoir.

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