Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Colorful Language by Guest Author Donis Casey

This week, please welcome guest author Donis Casey, author of ten Alafair Tucker Mysteries from Poisoned Pen Press. Her award-winning historical mystery series, featuring the sleuthing mother of ten children who will do anything, legal or not, for her kids, is set in Oklahoma during the booming 1910s. While researching her own genealogy, Donis discovered so many ripping tales of murder, dastardly deeds, and general mayhem that she said to herself, “Donis, you should write a series.” Donis is a former teacher, academic librarian, and entrepreneur who lives in Tempe, AZ. For more information about her and her books, visit her web site, and follow her on Facebook and Goodreads.

Since I write a series set in early 20th century Oklahoma, I'm very aware of dialect when I write. And often worried about it, too. The characters in the Alafair Tucker series do in fact use what may be considered cliche terms and phrases. The reason is that this is really the way my grandparents talked, all of whom were in their teens and twenties in the 1910s. In truth, I don’t write exactly like they talked, because it would not be understandable if I did. Oklahoma is what linguists call a "transitional state." My northern Oklahoma-born husband's accent is different from my eastern Oklahoma accent.
Writing dialect is dangerous business, any as any writer knows. It's really hard not to sound ridiculous, and so most teachers warn students away from it. Now that most people no longer use such a strong dialect in their daily speech, I find that I miss it. To me it sounds like my warm and loving childhood, and that's why I try to give a flavor of it in my writing.

My grandparents—and parents—had the most wonderful way of putting things. One grandma was born and raised in Kentucky and the others in Arkansas at the turn of the 20th century. Their language  and vocabulary was absolutely Elizabethan. When Grandma went to garden over yonder, she put on her gauntlets and hunkered down to tend her "yarbs."

Now, I, of course, was desperate to get rid of my Oklahoma accent when I was young. My accent is not as strong as my parents', nor was theirs as strong as their parents. My nieces and nephews in their thirties sound more standard yet. But after years living away from my native place, I saw on a news program an interview with two young women from my home town of Tulsa. They sounded like Valley girls. I was shocked. What happened to that beautiful twang? That poetic way with words? That delightful Scotch-Irish combination of humor and fatalism? 

I grew up among people whose goal was to curse in the most imaginative language possible, which can really increase your vocabulary if you apply yourself. My mother was particularly good at coming up with ways to express disapproval using only G-rated words. One of her scariest curses was "I heap coals of fire upon him." The words themselves weren't as frightening as her throaty growl and the curl of her lip over her eyetooth. My father had been a Marine, and knew words that I don't understand to this day, but he had a house full of little daughters and controlled his language heroically.  He often had the pee-waddin' scared out of him and wondered what in the cat-hair was going on.

I've been known to use less than pristine epithets myself and find them extremely useful in times of stress. In fact, I am reminded of a dear friend of mine whom I have known since my salad days at the University of Oklahoma. At the time, he was an extraordinarily innocent boy who on frequent occasions would curl your ears with the most astoundingly filthy curses known to man. Because of his sweet face and gentle nature, the effect of this language was much less shocking than it was hilarious, and ever since, for good or ill, I've had quite an affection for dirty words.

I love a true evocation of language. I’ve always been fascinated by words and the mind-pictures they paint. I’m sure I come by it honestly. I've written stories since I could hold a pencil in my fist. Perhaps it's because my parents read to me from the cradle, or because I come from such a long line of tale-tellers. One of my grandmothers used to keep us fascinated for hours on end with her stories of life in the Kentucky mountains. Toward the end of my grandmother's life, one of my sisters asked her how much of what she had told us was true and she replied, "Well...some of it." So the truth is I didn't decide to become a writer. I'll quote the Achilles character in the movie "Troy"..."I didn't choose this life. I was born and this is what I am."


About Forty Dead Men
George Washington Tucker–a young veteran of the fighting in France during World War I, returns home to the family farm in Oklahoma. Overjoyed, his family gives him space to ponder what to do with his life. Only his tiger mother, Alafair, senses that all is not well with her elder son. One morning when she tidies up his quarters, she finds two cartridge boxes under his pillow, boxes that once contained twenty “dead men” each. All the bullets are missing, save one. When Gee Dub becomes the number one suspect in a murder,  his mother Alafair, who recognizes that not all wounds are physical, will travel any distance and go to any lengths to keep him out of prison. And that one bullet is now missing as well.

NOTE: Forty Dead Men has just been named a finalist in the Fiction category for the Oklahoma Book Award from the Oklahoma State Library's Center for the Book.


Ann Parker said...

Thank you for agreeing to do a guest post, Donis. I love how you use language in your series, through dialogue and description. Language is such an important element in breathing life into a time and place, and you use it sooooo well!

Now, a serious question.

In Oklahoma, is it "crick" or "creek?" ;-)

Donis Casey said...

Well,Ann, my parents taught us to say creek, but I never heard my grandparents say anything other than "crick".

Irene Bennett Brown said...

I've read and loved all of the series except FORTY DEAD MEN which is in my Nook and next on my list. My only problem being that they don't come as often as I'd like. (Same goes for your series, Ann.)

My Dad used 'crick' and many other colorful words inherited from his Scotch-Iris ancestors hailing from Kentucky and Missouri.

Thanks to both of you for this post!

Irene Bennett Brown said...

(That would be Scotch-Irish

Ann Parker said...

Thanks for stopping by, Irene!
My parents were from Colorado, moved to California, and we had a creek/crick out back. I remember that, for my father in any case, it was always "crick." Since my paternal g'pa was raised in Nebraska, maybe that's why. :-)

Sandy Bremser said...

My parents would ask me to "red up" the table after dinner. From asking others, I'm wondering if this was a southern thing, though I hail from southern Illinois.

Cathy said...

One of the reasons why I love Donis's series so much is the language. When I read, I hear my grandparents and great-grandparents speaking. Not all that much difference between Oklahoma and central/southern Illinois, I reckon.

Illinois is also an interesting place for language since the northern third was settled by folks north of the Mason-Dixon Line and the rest was settled by those south of the line. My family came from North Carolina and Virginia, then moved to Tennessee and Kentucky, then settled in southern Illinois in the early 19th century. When I moved away from home, I had to learn to say "creek" instead of "crick," "Mizzooree" instead of "Mizzooruh" (that's Missouri, y'all), and "Washington" instead of "Warshington."

I spent a month in the Carolinas training folks, and I came back to Arizona with a southern accent it took me almost two years to get rid of. Something tells me my southern roots run deep! I have those "roots" influencing me as well as the colloquialisms from my family of farmers and sailors. Then I married an Englishman from Lancashire, so now I really can "talk funny" when I've a mind to.

Donis Casey said...

Cathy, my OK sister in law calls her daughter-in-law's home state MassaTOOsets. It goes well with Mizzooruh, I guess. Sandy, "red up the table" new to me!

P. Casey Morgan said...

My father was a third-generation Oklahoman and my mother was from New York. I was born and raised in Tulsa. The result of this "mixed" heritage is that I speak with a Southern accent, but much more quickly than most Southerners speak. And I also don't know if the expressions I grew up hearing were from here or New York, so I have a hard time volunteering regional sayings from my childhood. For me, it's not so much the language in the Alafair Tucker books as the day-to-day life in such a large family, the logistics of feeding and clothing said family and how they have to jump on a horse or buggy to go into town. Makes me feel like a whiner when I get upset that my cell phone battery is low. Looking much forward to the new book. (p.s. Could someone please fix the last sentence of the description of the book above? It is kind of driving me crazy.)

Donis Casey said...

My bad, Casey. The comma got away from me. BTW the farm my Tucker lives on is modeled after my great-grandfather Morgan's farm outside of Boynton. His daughter married a Casey and thus my father. Suppose we're related?

P. Casey Morgan said...

I would be thrilled to be related to someone with your talent, but probably not. And I can't keep from harping on this a little - it's not a missing comma in that last sentence. It's an extra comma (after "Alafair") and the word "who." It sets up a clause that is not paid off. It's setting off my copy editor alarms. No real harm done. Your books are always very well edited. And, as I may not have made clear above, I buy each of your books the minute they are released. Thank you for your hard work and for creating such endearing characters and such engrossing plots.

Ann Parker said...

Hello Casey! I checked a book description elsewhere and took a guess as to how that sentence should "deliver." :-) Donis can let us know if I'm wrong... I hope this will set your copy-editor alarm to "snooze." Thanks for mentioning it! :-)

Anonymous said...

Donis, I was thrilled to read this post. Cussing has been a bane for me. I, too, grew up in Oklahoma with colorful language and learned the most delightful beat of swearing by simply hearing it around the dinner table and everyday living.

I've successfully broken my swearing tendencies several times, only to fall back in them. I simply haven't found words that evoke equal frustration and disgust as a strong-cussword.

I notice the older I get, the less concerned I am about finding more "intelligent" words to describe idiots and exasperating situations.

I put out different series of books; one with NO cussing, the other with swearing. (Though the feedback I receive is that most people don't consider many four-letter words cussing anymore, because they're everywhere--even in advertising.

A great blog post and enjoyable read.

P. Casey Morgan said...

Ann Parker - YES! Thank you for fixing that. I thought maybe there was a whole phrase missing. Much better now. Copy editor brain can go back into "lurk" mode. Thanks for that and for having Donis on your blog. I've just ordered your first book from the library and look forward to reading it.

Carol Crigger said...

I've had the pee-waddin' scared out of me many a time. And what in the cat hair is wrong with people, all wanting to sound the same.
Congrats to Donis for being a finalist. Forty Dead Men has gone on my favorite books of 2018 list.

Donis Casey said...

Thanks, Carol, I'm so glad you liked it.! Pee-waddin' was one of my dad's favorite things to be scared out of, by the way. And thanks to Ann for hosting me and for correcting my errors. You are a dear and I look forward to seeing you here in Arizona in May.

Ann Parker said...

Hello Casey :-)
Glad we cleared that up so the editor in you can relax!
And happy to hear you checked out Silver Lies from the library! Hope you find it a fun read. (Goodness, now I'm wondering: What would Alafair and Inez think of each other, should they meet in the fictional universe. Inez would be 62 years old in 1912, so maybe will have mellowed some by then. Or maybe not!)

Ann Parker said...

I love the term "pee-waddin'"... That's a new one on me! Hmmm. Wonder if I can work that into the next book... ;-)

Ann Parker said...

Donis--It was a pleasure to host you! Anytime you want to come on back and set for a virtual spell, just let me know and I'll "red up" the virtual guest room! ;-)

Looking forward to seeing you in Arizona as well!

Anonymous said...

This blog topic certainly puts the kibosch on any ideas that folks from the “Middle West” talk in bland tongues! Great read.

Priscilla said...

Like you, Donis, I grew up in a household of “colorful” language so really enjoyed your perspective. My grandmother was from the hill country of eastern TN so my father learned quite the variety of creative expressions. Nothing quite as good as “pee-waddin” though. Your books, BTW, are treasures.

Donis Casey said...

why, that's quite a complement coming from you, Priscilla.