January 13 – 19: “What About Language?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5In On Writing, Stephen King tells the story of asking Amy Tan what’s the one question she’s never asked in a Q&A. She responded, “They never ask about the language.” So, we’re asking ITW members David William Pearce, Bryan Gruley, Jess Montgomery, Bonnar Spring, Lynette Eason, Ann Parker and C.S. O’Cinneide: What about language? How much credence do you give it? What does it do for your story? Characters? Dialogue? Setting? The reader? How important is it?


An engineer for 40 years, David William Pearce, following open heart surgery, decided to pursue his muse and write. After completing a debut novel, Mr. Pearce so enjoyed the experience that he began writing the Monk Buttman series. When not writing, Mr. Pearce is the accomplished recording artist Mr. Primitive. He and his wife live in Kenmore, Washington.


Bryan Gruley is the award-winning, critically acclaimed author of five crime fiction novels, including the forthcoming PURGATORY BAY, which Michael Connelly says is “impossible to put down.” Gruley also wrote the Starvation Lake trilogy: Starvation Lake, The Hanging Tree, and The Skeleton Box. When he’s not making things up, Gruley writes long-form features on a wide variety of topics as a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek magazine. He also shared in The Wall Street Journal’s Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the September 11 terrorist attacks. He lives in Chicago with his wife, Pam.


Jess Montgomery is the author of the historical Kinship mystery series, inspired by Ohio’s true first female sheriff. She also writes the “Literary Life” column in the Dayton Daily News (Ohio). Jess lives and writes in her native state of Ohio.



Bonnar Spring writes eclectic and stylish thrillers with an international flavor. A lifelong traveler, she hitchhiked across Europe at sixteen and joined the Peace Corps after college. She divides her time between tiny houses on a New Hampshire salt marsh and by the Sea of Abaco. TOWARD THE LIGHT is her debut novel.


Lynette Eason is the bestselling author of Protecting Tanner Hollow, as well as the Blue Justice, Women of Justice, Deadly Reunions, Hidden Identity, and the Elite Guardians series. She is the winner of three ACFW Carol Awards, the Selah Award, and the Inspirational Reader’s Choice Award, among others. She is a graduate of the University of South Carolina and has a master’s degree in education from Converse College. Eason lives in South Carolina with her husband and two children.


Ann Parker is a science writer by day and fiction writer at night. Her award-winning Silver Rush historical mystery series, published by Poisoned Pen Press, is set in the 1880s, primarily in the silver boomtown of Leadville, Colorado, and more recently in San Francisco, the “Paris of the West.” The series was picked as a “Booksellers Favorite” by the Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association.


C.S. O’Cinneide (oh-ki-nay-da) is a Canadian writer and a blogger on her website, She Kills Lit, where she features women writers of thriller and noir. Her debut novel, Petra’s Ghost was a semi-finalist in the Goodreads Choice Award for Horror in 2019. The Starr Sting Scale, a tongue-in-cheek noir and her first book in the Candace Starr crime series will be published in February/March 2020.


  1. For me, language is what sets the tone for the entire book, whether the reader is conscious of it or not. This is particularly important when writing in a specific period or genre. Dialogue, description, and mood are set by how the writer chooses to present the story. I think you’d have to be a mighty fine writer to produce a gritty detective novel in the florid language of a bodice-ripper romance. I believe, certainly when the POV is first person, the language used will define the character and hopefully how the reader will react. Is the character verbose, taciturn, buoyant? Is the story dark or light? Is the violence vivid or alluded to? All of that succeeds or fails in the language the writer uses.
    Whether it’s important or not, for me, is how dependant the stories and characters are on the narrative. I want more than cardboard or caricature. I want to be pulled in, and the language used is the key to that.

    1. What David said — Language underlies every character description, every scene we write. It’s not surprising to me, however, that readers don’t often comment on language. If a writer does her/his job well, language is a seamless underlayment to the actions unfolding and the characters coming to life on the page.

      1. I agree… language is key to pulling readers into “the zone” and keeping them there. I guess that, when the writer is successful, the language then becomes invisible and doesn’t call attention to itself. (?) As I typed that last, I realized that even those beautiful sentences that make me stop reading and say, “Wow!” and want to re-read and ponder… in a sense, that language pulls me out of the story. Hmmm.

        1. Interesting about the Wow! comment, yes. The first time it happened to me as an author, a reader said that she’d stopped to ponder a couple of long, dense sentences. It was offered as a compliment, and I took it as such (long! dense! smart!)
          Now I wonder if I shouldn’t tone it down. Just tell the f**ng story. Any thoughts co-panelists or others reading our posts?

          1. I agree, Bonnar… anything that causes people to “exit” the story, even if it’s to admire a phrase, a sentence, etc., is probably undesirable. Yet, I’ll admit that if I pause in reading to admire, it encourages me to keep reading. However, wen the language is so clunky it’s painful to get through, that’s a definite “no go” for me. Time to find something else in my TBR pile…

  2. I’m in a discussion group which was started about 35 years ago by a couple of local mums to stop our brains going soft. We recently did a course on Russian culture which looked at Pushkin and Turgenev amongst other things. I knew of them but hadn’t read their work. We discovered that Pushkin wrote in verse and there are numerous English translations of his famous work Eugene (Yevgeny) Onegin and were able to compare extracts. It’s an extraordinary task to translate and capture the essence of the original and one I think must be almost impossible. Language is so subtle and full of meaning.

    Shakespeare is very popular the world over particularly in Russia. How is he translatable? Native English speakers appreciate the rich layers of meaning and the genius in his use of language, his invention of words to describe something for which there was no suitable term. Does this really fully translate? I don’t know but I do know that any language is a rich resource for its writers and should be treasured and protected and we should always search for the best, the perfect way of expressing ourselves.

    1. That sounds like a fascinating group, Elisabeth. Shakespeare is popular in Russia? I wonder why. I’d imagine translation has its own set of challenges when it comes to trying to reproduce the meaning/language of a work. I have a nephew who is stepping into the world of translation (Russian–> English, English–> Russian). I’ll have to talk to him about this sometime.

  3. Film and television account for so much of our entertainment. In any genre of show, music sets the mood and pulls the heartstrings of the audience–or pushes the levers of fear, anticipation and so on.

    As fiction writers, we need to do solely with language what entire soundtracks do for for film!

    Still, we must labor on with thoughtful word choices and tools borrowed from our poet friends–carefully crafted similes, alliteration, and so on.
    I think the trick is to offer *just enough* description of emotion without ruining pace or, (shudder), flopping over into purple prose.

    Of course, showing fear, sorrow, love or other emotions through characters’ actions is even better. The trick is also to avoid cliches–no hearts in throats, or pearl clutching.

  4. Here’s a question for all members of the panel: When your story is first forming in your mind, before you’ve committed a single word to the page, are you thinking of it in words? Or in actions or images? In other words (no pun intended), does the language come first, or is the language a tool you employ to describe the images or actions in your mind?

    1. With the caveat that some idea/theme has been ricocheting around my head for a while, the story coalesces when the words come. It might be a description of a character or a sentence that tells me exactly where the story begins.

      1. For me, it starts as a scene, as if I’m watching a movie. Just as in a movie scene, language (i.e., dialogue) is part of that, as is action, characters, setting. (Referecning Jess’s comment above, I don’t “hear” any background music, though… 😉 )

    2. For me, I start with a scene. Usually the first one, then the characters who will be in the scene start to take shape. Once I have that, I can start writing. Much like Ann said, once I have the scene and the characters, then the language starts to flow. Language that often has to be “cleaned up” or “fixed” in order to make everything gel, mind you, but at least it’s there in rough draft form waiting for me to fix.

    3. For me the language is born out of the POV character,even in the third person. When I start to write I find the language, both for external and internal dialogue, matches that character’s voice.

  5. It’s oddly true that reviewers rarely comment on and interviewers rarely ask about language. But it’s so crucial to how a plot unfolds and characters develop. I mean, you don’t have plot or characters or conflict without language. David put it very well above: language sets the tone for the entire book.

    The language teaches me: I learn about the people I’m writing about less by what they might look like or how they might act than through the language they use to express themselves. Reflecting on the different types of language I used in my first novel, STARVATION LAKE (first person, past tense) and my new one, PURGATORY BAY (multiple POV, present tense), I can see and feel how different those books were, plots aside.

    1. And with multiple POVs, there’s an additional layer of complications: making certain that each character has a distinct “voice.” It all comes back to language, I guess.

  6. Good morning! At least it’s still morning here on the West Coast.

    Language is a fascinating subject… a slippery creature that changes over time. As a writer of historical mysteries, I do a lot of pondering about language as it pertains to the times, places, and characters I’m writing about (mid- to late-19th century U.S. West), as well as how to pertains to the present-day readers. How much 19th-century verbiage is “too much?” For instance, much as I admire the work and style of Wilkie Collins, I don’t dare write like him. Few readers will grind through the language of those times: the flowery prose much less the drawn-out sentences, some of which can run half a page long. The language of the past doesn’t always resonate with the present, but tip too far in the other direction, and that way lies disaster. (No 19th-century character would utter, “Whassup?” A 19th-century equivalent—”How hops it?”—might yank readers out of the zone as they try to figure out what it means.) And then, there is language that was “acceptable” in the past, but not in the here-and-now. I sometimes wonder if readers a century from now reading an historical novel written today will be able to tell when the novel was written, simply by the use of language. All that said, I admire writers who can transport me to another time and place through their use of language. I’m very much looking forward to this discussion, and hope to learn from everyone here.

  7. One of the things I do, mostly for fun, but also as a ways to use different languages, if you will, is to write short stories with characters from various periods in time. For instance, a mystery that involves characters from late 19th century England mixing it up with hard-boiled detectives from the 30’s and beatniks from the 50’s. It’s as absurd as it sounds, but is a fun way to play with language and see how it affects the story and readers.

  8. One of the most important aspects of language for me is that it sets tone and voice. It’s the fabric on which character, plot and setting are stitched. The language of the first few paragraphs of a story or novel signal to the reader what the upcoming experience may be like: poignant and moving (lyrical language), fast paced and edge of seat thrill ride (rat-a-tat, snappy language), side-splittingly funny (sharp, quick-witted, wry language), and so on.

    1. Good point, Jess… and it can be disconcerting when the tone abruptly switches in a book (unless it’s a POV switch, that is). I think one can vary the pace of language when there’s a change of scene (from lyrical to a faster pace in an action scene, for instance), but there needs to be some kind of reason.

  9. When it comes to language, I like to play with idiom and dialect. It can not only communicate the genre, but bring the characters and setting to life. A fabulous example of this would be The Help by Kathryn Stockett where she phonetically communicated the speech of her African American characters. I tried something similar in my first novel, Petra’s Ghost, where an Irish ex-pat is walking the Camino pilgrimage in Spain. I used Irish idiom though rather than trying to replicate the speech phonetically. In this way, I hoped the reader could hear the accent without me having to spell it out.
    There are examples where authors have used this tool well and others where I think it made the work more difficult to read.
    Do you have any favorite (or perhaps, not so favorite) books that used idiom and dialect in a deliberate way? How did it affect your enjoyment of the story.

    1. This makes excellent sense to me. I really like the use of language in “Petra’s Ghost” and it makes the setting more real. I could point to any of Dicken’s books that use “Cockney” to set the scene of poverty and the slums of London as examples of similar usage of language and idiom to provide context

      1. So glad you enjoyed Petra’s Ghost. I tried to throw in a fair bit of Spanish to also convey the setting.
        You are right about Dickens using dialect to convey social class. Kathryn Stockett did that beautifully in The Help as well.

  10. I think idiom dialect in particular can say much about a character’s origin and derivation and provide context without the writer having to indulge in what might otherwise be rather laborious and tedious context setting asides. It strikes me that this is as true in real life as in literature and as such is essential for authenticity. In the English context who among us is not aware of the prejudices and preferences that accrue to individuals in the British class system simply from their accent and language? The “Cockney”, “Geordie” and “Posh” accents and idioms are as familiar to us as concepts as are the Welsh, Sottish and Irish and immediately place characters and often settings in context for us.

    1. That begs the question of whether we expect a certain kind of language from a writer based on where they’re from, either by country or region. I think that also is akin to genre writers spreading their wings, so to speak, to other genres and how much of an effect that has on the acceptance of it, perhaps especially, if they radically change the style and language of their writing.

      1. I’ll admit that I’ve become a little more… nervous, maybe is the word, or careful, in the use of dialect. It seems that it can begin to sound stereotypical if overused. Anyhow, it’s something I struggle with.

        1. I agree. Overuse of any type of language in writing becomes cliched and contrived. Luckily, I’ve lived with an Irishman for over 20 years. He keeps me honest on idiom for my Irish characters. 🙂

          1. Oh, that’s awesome! You have an expert right there for consultation! 🙂
            When I’m looking through historical accounts, newspaper articles, letters, etc., I always have to remind myself that the viewpoints expressed and the language used is “of the time” and may not translate well for the contemporary reader.

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