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Writing Wednesday: Slinging the Slanging

April 6, 2011

In previous entries I mentioned I’m working on a story right now that takes place in the ’30s.  The biggest challenge so far has been with the vernacular.  There are times when I have to stop and ask myself, “How would a person in the 30s insult someone?”  Or, “What would they say if they think something is great?”  I mean, they wouldn’t say it’s “cool,” or “awesome,” or “groovy,” or “gnarly,” or “rad,” or “sweet.”  When in doubt I suppose just say, “That’s great.”

To try and combat that, I’ve been reading a lot of old detective stories.  First I read The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, who I take it was one of the first to do the hardboiled detective thing.  Then I also got from the local library a 1300-page collection of every short story Raymond Chandler has written.

That’s helped a little bit so far.  Like I know I can have my character say, “That’s swell” if she likes something.  Or she can call someone a heel if she doesn’t like him/her.  And what she really doesn’t want is to get pinched by the police instead of getting busted by the cops like I’d say these days.

Besides reading, I’ve also watched a number of noir movies from the ’30s-1950, including the movie version of “Maltese Falcon” that sticks mostly to the book.  (Except of course they had to cut the part where Spade asks the girl to strip so he can see if she swiped $1000 from him.  That’s fine because I really didn’t want to see Mary Astor naked anyway.)  God Bless whoever came up with Netflix Instant for that.  I also finally bought all the Indiana Jones movies, which unfortunately included the lousy fourth one.  Did you know that technically “Temple of Doom” is a prequel to “Raiders of the Lost Ark?”  I didn’t until I watched them back-to-back and realized the beginning of Raiders says 1936 and the beginning of Doom says 1935.  Weird how 25 years go by and then something like that finally hits you.

In one writing group I was in, someone was working on a sort of reference book about slang.  I should probably go look for something like that.  But I think reading it in books and watching movies from that era is better just in that it helps you to hear things in context, which I think gives me a better feel for it.

Any suggestions from y’all out there?

Friday I’m going to talk more about old movies, hooray!  (Or groan.)


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  1. I’ve never seen the Maltese Falcon all the way through, only bits and pieces, and I’ve never read any detective stories from that time period, so I’m afraid I can be no help there.

    You’ve enlightened me about the Indiana Jones timeline. I’d never realized it either.

    Let’s start a movement to bring back “swell”.

  2. Ethan Cooper permalink

    You’ve thought of him, I’m sure. But just in case…how about Damon Runyon? Some good stuff turns up if you search for “Damon Runyon, slang” including:


  3. Yikes….I’m not much help here. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a flash drive full of information for every time period? Just plug it into your brain and voila, you’d be good to go.

  4. Old movies are awesome. It’s a life goal to watch “Citizen Kane” because my film classes refer to it so much for it’s style. Can’t wait for Friday’s post!

    • That’s not much of a life goal. “Citizen Kane” came out in 1941, so you’ve had plenty of time to watch it on VHS, DVD, On Demand, TCM, etc. Slacker! 😉

  5. I should have mentioned in the entry some slang from back then I don’t want to use because it has a different meaning today. Like “gay” meant happy in the old days. Or in the detective novels they say “rod” for gun; nowadays rod is slang for penis, so I couldn’t type that without giggling.

    And then there’s the racist slang I don’t really want to get into either. Not just the n-word (and various other equivalents) but also words like “wop,” “guinea,” or “Jap” among others. It was OK for Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe to say those in the ’30s-’40s but not so much today. And my witch is a worldly person anyway.

  6. Temple of Doom is not a prequel. It’s a sequel. That anomoly you found is just a goof.

    • George Lucas was involved, so I wouldn’t have put it past him to do that intentionally. We know how he loves prequels. And prequels of prequels.

  7. Out of curiosity…why do you feel the need to swear. I read your plot outline that you posted on an earlier day and you have a ton of stuff going on. Why can’t they just have dialogue instead of resulting to “Holy jumped a ballhead Jesus palomina!” or something dumb like that. Swearing is overrated.

    Oh and you can always use the word ‘fuck’. It’s been around for centuries. I traced it back that far during a linguistics course…comes from a French word.

    • My mom’s side of the family is really blue-collar, so swearing is in my blood. But ironically I’ve tried to avoid swearing in the story too much. She says “Goddamnit” a couple of times, though additional irony, she doesn’t believe in God. Of course in the ’30s-’40s you couldn’t swear a lot either, just the occasional “bitch” or “bastard” or maybe “damn.” In the Chandler short stories they usually use a line to indicate nasty curse words. In “The Maltese Falcon” Hammett works around it by saying stuff like, “He called me a nasty word.” Not as fun as “Naked and the Dead” where Mailer was forced to use “fug” instead of “fuck” throughout the book–shades of Battlestar Galactica with its “frak.”

      Swearing is a fascinating topic. I should do more research on it.

  8. First, you made me want to watch Funny Farm. Then you made me want to see what Mary Astor looked like naked. I’m not going to get any work done today.

    • Now I want to go type “Mary Astor naked pics” into Google and see what happens. Is that too far back for Mr. Skin to have cataloged?

  9. Well, that’s a swell idea! 😉

  10. Funny, I love period writing period pieces, of course I’ll usually read one non fiction book about the era and take it from there. I used to worry so much about getting everything right until I spent months researching WWII era Germany for a short story and ended up cutting almost all of it out. I loved the research, but if I was doing purely for the story then I wasted my time.

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