Blogger: Etta Wilson
Location: Books & Such, Nashville Office
Weather: Cool and leaves falling
Like so many others in this country (and soon to be in 29 more countries), I’m reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Since I lived in Mississippi during the time in which the book is set, I was particularly interested in the story. Although I was in a university town north of Jackson, a lot of it rings true.
But beyond the setting, plot and characters, I’m entranced by the author’s use of African American dialect and especially the large amount of rich, regional idioms. For example, on page 208, ” [her] basket ain’t got many pawpaws left in it” means the character has lost her wits. A little further down on the same page, we find the simile, “like bees buzzing on a comb.” I wonder if all readers know that’s a honeycomb, not a hair comb.
Following the oh-so-careful rules of editorial sensitivity, I’ve usually counseled authors to be careful in the land mines of idiom and simile. You have to have almost grown up hearing these expressions, have great recall, and then you have to translate them so that they don’t repel readers who have not. But using such expressions in speech and narrative can do much to delineate character.
I’m trying to mend my ways (is that an idiom?) and develop some guidelines about when to use idiom and simile. Questions that come to mind are:
- When is an author served by using idiom and dialect?
- Are they more useful in fiction or nonfiction?
- Are they more useful and acceptable in historical writing than in contemporary? Why or why not?
Let’s explore answers in the next few days. In the meantime, what books have you read rich in idiom and simile that either worked for you or repelled you from continuing with the book?