August 9, 2019

Using Slang to Amplify Your Setting

By Liz Johnson, Author of A Glitter of Gold

I love a good contraction, and after living in Nashville for six years and writing about Georgia for the last three, I’ve come to a conclusion: No one uses contractions more creatively than Southerners. Of course, there’s the standard y’all, a contraction of you all. Even born and bred Northerners will begin using this term should they happen to cross the Mason Dixon Line. But the South’s affinity for contractions doesn’t stop with y’all.

Some of my favorite Southern contractions include:
  • y'ain’t = you all are not
  • it’dn’t’ve = it did not have
  • y’all’d’ve = you all would have
  • (and the kicker) y’all’d’ve’fI’d’ve = you all would have if I would have
I saw a meme racing around Facebook recently with a particularly fun contraction and the claim on the image: “Y’all’d’ve known this if you lived in the South.” It made me think about how certain things we say a lot about where we’re from.

The way our characters speak amplifies their setting. It brings their day-to-day to life. Beyond description, dialogue puts a unique stamp on a story to help create a fully-realized world.

I love using slang to enhance my books, and to use it successfully, we have to know four things.

1. Know the characters. Are they local or transplants? Locals will naturally use regional phrases. Transplants may have more trouble with them. They may attempt to use them—but end up using them incorrectly. Or they may end up misunderstanding a local who is using an unfamiliar phrase. Perhaps your character has left the small town for the big city, and every y’all rubs her the wrong way.  Each character should interact with slang differently.

2. Know the location. Not all slang is the same. Terms in Alabama differ from those in Appalachia. Urban Atlanta is a far cry from rural Georgia. And slang is certainly not limited to the South. Northern cities like Boston are known for their thick accents, which translate to the page through slang too. Perhaps one of my favorite discoveries on a research trip to an English-speaking province in Canada was a dictionary of Prince Edward Island idioms. If you haven’t lived in or near the setting of your book, research the specific location. Talk to people who have. Immerse yourself in the dialogue of the area, so you can get it right.

3. Know the timeline. Did you know that Merriam-Webster added more than 1000 new words to the dictionary last year? Worlds like glamping and welp are now officially official. The English language changes all the time, which is why it’s important to make sure the slang we use fits the time period of our books. In my latest book, A Glitter of Gold, I wrote from the point of view of a modern young transplant to Savannah as well as a diary from the 1750s. The language in the journal was much different, and I used resources like to discover how and when English words have been used.

4. Know when to stop. Once you get going with slang, it can be hard to stop. Before you know it, every other line is a local expression. This can be jarring for the reader, who may not be from that area. And when it pulls the reader from the story, it’s doing your book a disservice. Slang is a spice that will add local flavor but shouldn’t overwhelm the meat of the story.
Liz Johnson is the author of more than a dozen novels, including A Sparkle of Silver, A Glitter of Gold, The Red Door Inn, Where Two Hearts Meet, and On Love’s Gentle Shore, as well as a New York Times bestselling novella and a handful of short stories. She makes her home in Phoenix, Arizona. By day Liz Johnson works in marketing. She finds time to write late at night and is a Christy Award finalist and a two-time ACFW Carol Award finalist. She enjoys theater, exploring local history, and doting on her nieces and nephews. She loves stories of true love with happy endings. Find out more about Liz at

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