I’ve had a lifelong obsession with language.
Before I became a mystery writer and freelance editor, I wrote and edited in-house and public-facing documentation for Apple. Prior to that I taught Italian at the University of Texas and translated literature into my native language, English.
The Perils of Perfection
My passion for Italian and translation drew me to the curious case of American author Jhumpa Lahiri. After winning the Pulitzer Prize for her literary debut, Interpreter of Maladies (2000), Lahiri was so overwhelmed by the sudden fame that she abandoned writing in English in favor of an “adopted” language, Italian. After intensive study, she wrote In altre parole (In Other Words), her “linguistic autobiography,” and she had it translated into English!
As Lahiri explains in the book, Italian is both liberating and confining for her—confining because she will never be truly fluent, but liberating because writing in a foreign language gives her “la libertà di essere imperfetta (the freedom to be imperfect).” In other words, she doesn’t worry about the mistakes she makes in Italian simply because it isn’t her mother tongue.
Now, if you have anxieties about your writing, and particularly your knowledge of grammar and punctuation, I’m not suggesting that you learn another language to resolve them. That’s what professional editors are for, and my Edit Your Mystery Novel! mentoring course. But Lahiri’s language identity crisis serves as a striking example of how stifling the creative process can become when we pressure ourselves to be perfect geniuses with our stories and words.
The Freedom of Fiction
As an American of Italian ancestry, I feel a special pressure to get Italian right, so writing professionally in the language wouldn’t work for me (it’s also a far smaller market!). But after writing a dissertation and various scholarly articles in English, I realized that writing fiction is actually liberating—along the lines of the 1960s bra-burnings.
Fiction is precisely the place to take liberties with language. For example, I write comedy mystery, and the other day I decided that my Italian-American PI character didn’t catapult off the couch (in a fit of explosive rage), she Mount-Vesuviused off the couch. Mount Vesuvius isn’t a verb, obviously, but it conveys the action with an Italian theme. So why not go with it?
Inventing words, and not only stories, is an age-old author tradition. Horace Walpole coined the term serendipity to refer to happy accidents in a fable set in Serendip. And Lewis Carroll combined chuckle and snort to produce chortle in his poem “Jabberwocky.” And how many wonderful words did William Shakespeare and Dr. Seuss create, words that made our hearts and minds soar?
As fiction authors, we have creative license not only with ideas but also with language. So when you write, focus on freeing your imagination, and let your words loose too. Maybe you’ll pen the next beatnik, utopia, catch-22, or better, hard-boiled. Then, during the editing process, I’ll help you learn to identify the pros of your creativity with respect to both content and language. And the cons? We’ll lock them up, like good mystery authors do.
Love this? Check out Traci’s Mystery Writer’s Mentoring program starting on January 15th!
A Poison Manicure and Peach Liqueur
It’s Christmas in Danger Cove, and all Cassidi Conti wants is clients. A rival salon owner has come to town and stolen The Clip and Sip’s business. Her holiday hopes go south, however, after someone sexes up the sleigh display at her open house and an incident from the past makes the paper. Luckily, her tough talkin’ Texan aunt rides to her rescue, and she’s madder‘n The Grinch in a gift shop. But when a nail client drops dead at her rival’s salon, and the killer sends unseasonal greetings to The Clip and Sip, Cassidi wonders whether an entire Texas cavalry could save her from the impending disaster. She has to act fast to figure out who the manicure murderer is, or her Noël could be nixed—forever.