Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Linguistics 101 with Mike Dellosso

Hi you awesome Inkwell Inspirational Blog Readers! Jillian Kent here to introduce you to someone who doesn’t write romance. But he does write incredible, truth-filled, thriller novels. Mike's books are published by Strang/Realms, the same publisher who will be releasing my first historical romance novel in May 2011. When you read Mike's books you're bound to look at life . . . and death differently. Mike also has a lot to say about language that I think you’ll enjoy. Therefore, we welcome you to Linguistics 101.

Okay, class, find a seat and quiet down.

Uh, sir . . . yes, you . . . please put the iPod away, pull your pants up before they wind up around your ankles, and sit down.

And you, you there, what are you hiding behind your back? Flarp? Really? My third grader plays with that stuff. Put it away, please.

Okay, class, settle down. I’d like you all to get out a pad of paper and a pen, open your eyes and ears, and close your mouths. Welcome to Linguistics 101. The first lesson we’re going to talk about, and the most important for dealing with language in fiction is mastering the art of spying and eavesdropping. I know it sounds sinister, and no, we’re not training you for the KGB, but trust me, these two little techniques are very useful. And hey, if you don’t like the terms spying and eavesdropping you can always call them by their more domesticated term: being nosey.

Language, both verbal and non-verbal, is a very important element of writing fiction. Your readers don’t want pasty dialogue that sounds like you scooped it out of some can, they don’t want flat characters acting out their roles like preprogrammed robots, they want realism. They want to be able to feel as though the characters of your story are real and living people inhabiting a real and living world.

The best way to learn how to incorporate authentic language into your stories is to watch, study, record, and obsess over real and living people.

Now, I’m a people-watcher by nature, always have been. I grew up with a severe stuttering problem that kept me from talking too much, very little, in fact. In a group of people I was the quiet one, the observer . . . the watcher (sounds creepy, doesn’t it?). But I learned to observe people, to read them, and know what they were saying when they hadn’t spoken a word or what they were really saying when they did speak. I watched body language; I listened to conversations.

Watch and listen; spy and eavesdrop. Those are the essential ingredients to capturing realistic language in your fiction.

So here’s what you do, your assignment. Go to a mall, a grocery store, your church foyer after the morning service, or some other high traffic area and just sit and watch people. Take note of their body language, their hand gestures, facial expressions, posturing. The way they laugh, express surprise, fake a smile. Watch their eyes, their mouth, their hands and feet. Study them. Put them under a microscope and scrutinize their every move. Then get up and mill around and listen to conversations, not to get ammo for juicy gossip but to learn how people really talk. Listen to the words they use, the colloquialisms, the slang, the familiar expressions. Listen to the choppiness of conversational speech. Take note how often they cut each other off or finish each other’s sentences.

Then go home and take notes, jot down what you saw and heard. Copy conversations so you get the feel and rhythm of dialogue between two or more people.

Look, all of us have read books where we stopped in the middle of a section of dialogue and said, “Oh, c’mon. People don’t really talk like that.” You don’t want someone saying that about your writing. You want the reader to move right through without skipping a beat because the dialogue you’ve created is so realistic that it’s no different than the conversations they hear at work, at home, at church, or in the store.

One more thing, one final assignment. Find an author in your genre who has mastered dialogue and body language and read his or her work, not for pleasure but to learn. For me, it’s Stephen King. I’ve never read an author with such a keen sense of language as King. For you it may be someone else.

Now, go get your spy gear and get to it. I can’t wait to read what you come up with. And yes, you can take your Flarp out now.

Mike Dellosso is the author of three novels of supernatural suspense, his most recent being Darlington Woods. When he’s not creating fiction Mike also writes a bi-weekly column for his local newspaper and is an adjunct professor of writing at Lancaster Bible College. He lives in Hanover, PA with his wife and three daughters.


  1. Good Morning Everyone!
    I can't believe I'm the first one here this morning. That's different! And I'd say Mike's different from who we ususally have on board here at the Inkwell. I just picked up his latest book, Darlington Woods and if you go to Amazon you will see a lot of 5 star reviews there.

    Mike has a crazy schedule like many of us, but he will join us when possible.

    So hang on tight class, you're in for a wild ride. Welcome Mike! Thanks for being here.

  2. Ahh, two of my favorite words, spying and flarp. One of the best things about being a writer is the encouragement to be nosey. It's all characterization for later. "Go back to your conversations, folks. I'm a professional."

  3. Hi Jill and everyone, great to be here! I'll be checking in from time to time during the day and commenting, answering questions, etc. If you have any questions, please ask. Comments are always welcome too. It's good to get another point of view on a subject matter and learn from other writers.

  4. Thanks Jillian and Mike. It's great to have company of the male persuasion.

    Writing historicals means taking the things about conversation that never change--interrupting,for example, word usage (education, the things we leave unsaid . . . )--and combining them with the vernacular of the era.

    Reading and spying, I mean people watching, are still the way to go!

    I really love an author's ability to write subtext in a combination of word choice and body language. Here we see what's NOT being said!

    Thanks Mike!

  5. Yes, Deb, so much of conversation is what is unsaid. The challenge is to work that into our writing so the reader gets the full experience of being "there" in the midst of the conversation.

  6. Hi, Mike. No doubt I'd be sitting in the back of the class getting in trouble for something :)

    Dialogue is actually one fiction elements that comes easy to me. I credit my theatre experience. Acting really gives you a peek inside different characters and the language they use.

    On the other hand, I still manage to mess up my dialogue scenes. First draft always reads like a radio script with nothing visual happening. Blame the voices in my head. Then I have to go back and try to picture the scene and add in more elements that way.

  7. Dina, you bring up a great point when writing a dialogue scene (or any scene, for that matter). Visualization. Visualize the scene in your head as if it's playing out in real life or in a movie. Watch what the people do, how they move, what they say and how they say it.

    That's where observation comes into play. The more you observe people in dialogue the easier it will be to visualize it.

  8. Great post, Mike!

    Yesterday Chitlin #4 tied her scarf to the upstairs railing overlooking the family room. I first gave her my eyes wide "did you really just do that" look.

    Then my eyes narrowed, lips drew into a line and I unspeakingly said "you'd better go untie that and put it away properly."

    Gotta love how a facial expression conveys everything.

  9. Hi Mike,
    I used to get comments in contest feedback about stilted language. I think it was because I was trying to write the way I thought they spoke during the Regency period. Example: I didn't say that. vs I did not say that. Today's readers don't seem to care about how characters in history used language in their day. Well, I'm sure some do, but not many, because it's harder to read. I could be completely wrong, but that's been my experience.

    Okay, not to put you on the spot, Mike, but if you have access to one of your books can you give us an example of your writing? Maybe a paragraph that demonstrates body language so we can get a feel for your writing? Or how you a couple sentences before a scary section.

    Also, I know from reading the preface to Scream and your old website that you've been through a serious illness. Can you tell us a little bit about coping with that while you were writing?

  10. Here's a paragraph from Darlington Woods. Rob and Juli, the protags, are about to enter the woods when they spot a group of townies across the meadow staring them down. Here it is:

    "Rob turned and saw a small group of five people standing in the church parking lot. There were four men and one woman, all much older than Rob, standing at least an arm's length from each other. They looked like human bowling pins, evenly spaced and motionless. The woman, a tall thin thing wearing a brown dress that hung on her like a curtain, stood in the back and rocked side to side, looking about nervously. One of the men held a rifle in one hand. Another gripped a hatchet. For a few long seconds Rob and the gaggle of Darlingtonians stared at each other. No one moved but the woman in the back swaying, swaying like a bowling pin knocked off balance but not ready to fall."

    Can you feel the tension? The posturing and body language of the characters says it all without a single word spoken.

  11. Now, about the illness. In 2008 I was diagnosed with stage III colon cancer. I was 35, married, three little girls. Long story short, I went through multiple surgeries, chemotherapy, and had an ileostomy for nine months. Not fun stuff. Talk about suspense and fear!

    Going through something like cancer changes you, it has to. Darlington Woods was written shortly after finishing up treatment and it contains so much symbolism in it. The story is all about facing your fears and for me much of the emotional battle I fought during cancer has found its way into the story. I look at life differently now. In some ways I take it so much more seriously and in other ways not nearly as seriously as I used to.

    As for my writing, I treat every book like it could be my last and want to make every story count. I don't take any of this for granted, I can't. I've been given an opportunity that few get and want to make the most of it.

    I could go on for another whole blog post but I won't.

  12. Like my kids love to say, "Spooky and creepy." Great job, Mike.

    What's one of the things you would tell readers who've never experienced your books before? I know you're a fan of Stephen King. Is there other authors you like to read just for fun?

    And I have to ask: Other than your books, what does your wife like to read? :)

  13. I've never had a really serious illness but l lost a brother to cancer. It changes your life. I'm so glad you are willing to talk about these things. I think it's really important and I think you are making a huge difference to a lot of people.

    I think treating every book like it could be your last is the way we should all write.

    Okay, I'll go away for awhile and let someone else ask questions or comment.

  14. I tell people my books are supernatural suspense with a faith message. For Stephen King fans I say they're Stephen King without all the swearing and with a spiritual message . . . if you can imagine that.

    I also like reading Dean Koontz, Travis Thrasher, Athol Dickson, Kathryn Mackel, Charles Martin.

    My wife reads my books because they're my books. If I didn't write them she would never read them. She enjoys Kristin Heitzmann (sorry if mispelled), Athol Dickson, and others I can't think of at the moment.

  15. Great post, Mike, I spend a lot of time watching other people which in itself is weird because I hate people watching me. The story in our family is how I poked my grandmother in the eyes because she turned around in the car to say something to me. I was 4 at the time and to this day, I remember telling her, "Don't look at me." Poke. LOL Who'da thought.

    Actually, I watch the reality shows like Bachelor/ette and True Beauty etc because even though they don't use all the footage, there's enough facial expressions and body language to keep me in notes. That's my reason and I'm sticking to it. LOL

    And yes, I know it's been said before, but TV shows like Lie to Me can help, too, if you're not the watching in public type.

    Thanks for being here today, Mike.


  16. Anita, we all know why you really watch those dating shows . . . the acting is inspiring! :)

    Seriously, though, they are a great place to watch dialogue and learn.

    Thanks for the comment.


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