Monday, July 27, 2009

Careful Word Choices

As a writer, a fiction writer, I’m always looking for the exact word or phrase that will telegraph immediately to the reader what is happening in a scene. Ideally, I want the reader to be enthralled by the action, not left scratching her head or reaching for the dictionary to check the definition of my choice.

Usually, with enough rewrites and tweaking back and forth between the two halves of Evelyn David, we settle on the perfect word for the situation.

Here’s the dilemma. Irish wolfhounds, like Whiskey, the adored and adorable character in Murder Off the Books and Murder Takes the Cake, don’t bark. Or at least, they don’t bark like Lassie. They rumble, they boof, they definitely communicate, but bark, like Benji or Beethoven, or any of the other big screen canine idols, nope, that’s not how an Irish wolfhound sounds.

But when we use the verb, bark, despite full knowledge that it’s not exactly accurate, we’re trying to use a common term that the reader will understand. Whiskey is talking – we’re less concerned about the sound she makes, than about her efforts to communicate. For example, in Murder Takes the Cake, we wrote:

"Whiskey?" Rachel sighed and stroked the dog's head. "Okay, I know your first loyalties lie with him, but it doesn't feel very good to always be an afterthought. Don't you think I deserve to be more than a minor character in this little drama Mac calls his life? If he survives, we're going to have a serious discussion."

This time Whiskey's bark sounded much more like agreement.

On the other hand, we want to acknowledge, as several wolfhound owners have pointed out to us, that these gentle giants sound different than other dogs. It would be as if we called the Chicago rapid transit system the Metro instead of the L. For most readers outside of Chicago, it probably wouldn’t matter. But for those who do know exactly what the train system in the Windy City is called – it breaks the action, takes the reader outside the story.

Our solution – we think – is, in the next book in the series, have Rachel comment to Mac about the timbre and tone of Whiskey’s “voice.”

Any other ideas?

Evelyn David

Murder Takes the Cake by Evelyn David
Murder Off the Books by Evelyn David


  1. Ah, you just brought to mind one of my favorite Mark Twain quotes:

    “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

    So true!


  2. The older I get the harder it is to find the right word. Sometimes it's hiding somewhere in my brain, but I can't quite reach it.

    Sign of old age--darn.


  3. On the question of expressing the bark: I would go with using any word besides bark, maybe sometimes having to use more than a single word, maybe making up words (like the great one: "boof"). I think that because most people when they read "hear" the words and story in their heads, they will "hear" the sound for the bark that you put there and understand it, believe it. So, I say use the boofs, the aroohs, the owhms, etc. as necessary.

  4. I love stories with dogs in them. I have two chihuahuas and they also have their own "vocabulary" that's part of their breed. Perhaps you could have another character comment on the dog's distinct sound. Work it into a conversation with the owner.

    "Does your dog have laryngitis?"
    "No, Wolfhounds have their own kind of bark. We call it a 'fill in the blank'. He's trying to tell me something."

    From that point on, you can refer to your coined phrase for "bark" and the reader won't be confused.

    If that doesn't work, you could also say "Whiskey looked at me with his intelligent eyes, talking to me in his distinct Wolfhound voice, more of a grunt than a bark.

    Would either of these ideas work?