Monday October 17
Subscribe to RSS Feed

Write Like a Native

September 21, 2015 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified September 21, 2015

The idea for this article came courtesy of a comment on the article Numbers in Fiction. The question—

For narrative, if you have already named a highway, say highway 67, if you were to then write He pulled the car back onto the 67, is that correct? Or should the number be spelled out, considering the word “highway” isn’t in front of it?


Our topic has less to do with the full question than with one element of the question—back onto the 67.

In order for your viewpoint characters and narrators to sound like natives of the fictional world (land, country, or era) of their stories—and in order for you to sound like a native yourself—you need to be more than familiar with the way the locals speak. And that means you need to use the words and speech peculiarities that locals would use. (Exceptions, of course, if your character is an outsider and wouldn’t know the local lingo.)

Including accurate local details can keep those familiar with your real-world settings from tripping over inadvertent errors. Encountering errors can ruin an otherwise enjoyable read. You should find these kinds of errors before your readers do.

What caught my attention in that question was the pairing of the word the with the highway number. While that pairing is a common practice in Canada, Great Britain, and in some areas of California and Texas, it’s not a universal practice.

We Don’t Say It That Way

When you feature real towns, cities, municipalities, counties, states, territories, counties, or regions in your stories, you want to be as accurate as possible with local details. After all, you chose your locale for a reason. Your town or city has quirks and peculiarities that make it unique, so you might as well play up the local color and flavor.

To examine this issue, let’s look at our article prompt in more detail.

You would only say the 67 if that’s what the highway (freeway? expressway?) is called. So if locals use the word the, you’d want your characters to say the 67 as well.

We’ll use the greater Washington, D.C. area as a data source for examples of ways to refer to roadways. Imagine that you’re writing a story that takes place in D.C. What might you need to know about the surrounding highways?

Interstate highways in the Washington, D.C. area don’t have the added to the number. And they’re typically called by the number only, so locals wouldn’t say Interstate 95 (although that’s the official designation) or even I-95. (There are exceptions for certain phrases that include the highways, so a traffic announcer might mention an I-95 traffic backup.)

The major highways in D.C. are 66, 95, 395, 495, and 695. Easy enough. But add another complication—495 isn’t called 495. The Capital Beltway (I-495) is D.C.’s perimeter highway. It’s referred to as the Beltway. So while signage might announce an exit for I-495, locals would say they were stuck on the Beltway when they call from their cellphones to say they’ll be late.

(Cellphone is another location-specific word. We use cellphone in the U.S., but mobile phone in the U.K.)

To make matters more confusing, some roads have multiple names. For example, D.C. Route 295 is called the Anacostia Freeway in general but is known as the Kenilworth Avenue Freeway along one stretch.

Other state and interstate highways pass through the general area and most have multiple names.

There’s Route 50, which is called Arlington Blvd. in once section, Lee-Jackson Memorial Highway in another section, and John Mosby Highway in still another section. And Route 50 is actually called Route 50, not 50. And while Route 7 is called Route 7 (except where it’s referred to as Leesburg Pike), Route 234 is simply called 234 and Route 123 is called 123.

You might have the most fun with Virginia State Route 267. This route actually refers to two tolls roads—the Dulles (airport) Toll Road and Dulles Greenway—plus the Dulles Access Road. The Dulles Toll Road is officially named the Omer L. Hirst – Adelard L. Brault Expressway.

But what do regular people call this mess of names? The Toll Road.

You no doubt know of many highways and other roads known by multiple names, especially roads and highways that change names when they pass from one municipality to the next. And that’s my point—the characters in your story should know their environs as well as you know yours.

Characters who actually travel through their story world should refer to its places and features just as real people living there would.

Characters should know the proper local terms and nicknames for—


ballparks and ball teams (for a while a few years ago, U.S. ball fields seemed to change names every other week)

cities and towns

foods (sub, grinder, hero, hoagie, etc.)

parks and museums

waterways (popular beaches, bends in a river)


popular attractions

activities (would your characters go bar-hopping or on a pub crawl?)

local colleges (the schools themselves as well as the sports teams)

major local companies

radio and TV stations

airports or train stations

festivals (do locals really call it the Downtown Leadville Annual Parade to Remember the War Dead or do they call it the War Parade?)


I mentioned Washington, D.C., but the locals don’t call it by the full name. And they definitely don’t call it the District of Columbia or the District. They usually don’t even call it Washington.

Those in the suburbs would likely say they’re going into D.C. They might say they had to go into the city. They might say they had an appointment in Washington. Yet they’d typically only say Washington, D.C. when talking to someone who didn’t live in the area and then only in certain circumstances.

So they wouldn’t likely tell someone from outside the U.S. that they lived in D.C. They might not even call it D.C. to others who live in the United States but far outside the middle Atlantic region. It’s at this time they’d probably say Washington, D.C. in full. (If they said only Washington, people might think they meant Washington state.)

What’s important for your stories is that you learn and use the local designations.

Where to Find Information

Your first source for local information should always be a native or two if you have the contacts. If you don’t know someone local to the area you’re writing about, try listening to a local radio station, especially talk radio and/or drive-time programs. Listen to local news reports.

Listen to a ballgame.

Local newspapers might be helpful, but it’s likely that they refer to places using “official” names rather than names the locals would use. Still, the op-ed pages and old newspapers might have just the details you could use.

Use the Internet for research, but recognize that some sites might provide only official names and/or only positive nicknames. A local nightspot known as the Down and Dirty might not be mentioned by that name on a city-sanctioned website. On the other hand, city sites and Wikipedia might give you a history of notable points of interest and might include a timeline of changing names and other interesting tidbits.

While you’re looking for local color, you’ll also want to be aware of dates when nicknames started being used or when they went out of vogue. You wouldn’t want to refer to them in your stories at a time when those names weren’t in use.

Local Details You Could Include in Your Stories

Consider including light touches of local color—the status of a professional local sports team during the season, fights between local politicians, local news, traffic woes, the announcement of new businesses moving into the region.

Let local details bring veracity to your stories.

But don’t think that you have to overwhelm the reader with such details; I’m talking background and grace notes here. Include a light touch of authentic local flavor without drowning your plot in incidentals. But whatever you do include, make sure that you get the details correct.

If your locale had an especially snowy winter or exceptionally hot summer without rain, those details should probably show up in your story in some way. Have a character replace snow tires. Have a character have to change clothes three times a day because he sweats so much in the heat. Or have him worry about getting close to a woman because he knows his antiperspirant couldn’t hold up.

Weather details are easy to check. Make sure yours match the actual weather events and conditions of real locations you use in your stories. For example, you wouldn’t feature New Orleans in a story in September of 2005 and not mention Hurricane Katrina.

Put local details to work in ways meaningful for your story.

Imaginary Story Locales

And even if you created your story world, you can make it seem real by adding the same quirky and realistic details included in stories that take place in recognizable towns and cities.

That is, have your locals call their cities, sports teams, and newspapers humorous or nasty nicknames.

Have your characters get ticked off by bad traffic at rush hour.

Have your characters weigh in on the news they heard on the radio while driving home.

Have a character complain about new taxes going to pay for a new bridge that no one wants or to pay to have a new park built in honor of the previous mayor, the one hated by everyone.

Again, you don’t want to divert attention away from the main thrust of your story. But you can use specific details to make your story worlds seem like real places.

Include those extra-fine touches that complete your story’s setting. Yet make sure you understand that setting so that your details are accurate. Make sure you write like a native.



Tags: , ,     Posted in: Craft & Style

17 Responses to “Write Like a Native”

  1. This was very helpful, full of good ideas. Thank you.

  2. Beth, this is a very timely article. I am in the process of starting a new book and this article serves to establish a baseline of places, people and things I need to continue researching. The is a period piece (before and after the Civil War (or the War Between the States) and I am including the State and Federal archives as sources to collect my facts.


  3. Pam Rauber says:

    As usual, valuable information here. Can you provide the answer to the question? Use numerical characters or spell out numbers? Seems awkward spelling out.

  4. Question about adding a town’s name to a short story. I just wrote a short story (approx. 3,800 words). I did not include the town’s location. Do I need to add a name?


    • Patricia, this is going to be one of those it-depends situations.

      Short stories don’t allow a lot of time or words for details, but readers like and need some sense of time and place. Some sense of setting. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the name of a town.

      How do you convey place in the story? Is the era clear? The general setting?

      Is it a contemporary story set in a modern office? Does it take place on a farm? Do other details of events or characters give away the time and place?

      Will readers want to know where the story takes place?

      A town’s name, unless it’s a well-known town or city, won’t reveal much on its own. So instead you might want to imply where the story takes place in more general terms.

      A tiny crossroads in northwestern South Australia.

      Along Italy’s pilgrim trail (the Via Francigena) near the Po River.

      A small college town in rural Maine.

      A family farm long ago parceled off from another farm and hidden well off the back roads of Herzegovina. Or maybe today, off the back roads of Bosnia.

      You have a lot of options. Decide whether or not the name is important. A geographical location might better suit the story.

      Does that help any?

  5. Your supply of good advice seems to be endless – and always timely. I have a book on my rearmost burner that will require extensive research. It is entitled, “The Troubleshooter.” It begins in 1944’s Germany, then moves to post war Los Angeles. The main character begins as a military intelligence officer in Germany, then – in post war Los Angeles finds work as a LAPD homicide detective. Colloquial language, geographic features, cultures of the day, all play into the story line. But finding a department store that existed in Los Angeles in 1952 can be tricky.
    I especially appreciated your advice on “background;” using locations to set the stage without drowning the reader with mundane detail.
    Thanks, Beth, for another great post.

  6. Roy says:

    What do you think of the similar problems with writing scenes in job settings? I used to work for the local telephone company here, and of course we had very specialized terminology–that often even changed from region to region across the country. Usually when a writer uses the phone company in a scene, they get this part really, really wrong. My thought was that if it’s just in passing, it doesn’t bother me, as a reader, too much, but when the plot relies heavily on it, it gets almost (unintentionally) comical.

    • Roy, writers typically have to make adjustments with terminology and slang in character thought and dialogue. Rather than using word-for-word slang or even using word-for-word representations of real speech—Um, and then he . . . he, uh, said that he’d go . . . um—writers are always adjusting words to make them both palatable and entertaining for the reader while maintaining the flavor of the characters.

      Duplicating the exact wording of characters working a particular job would likely make a scene seem unreal to readers, no matter how real the actual wording.

      You want to get the flavor and color of the words—maybe through the use of a few key words or through the rhythms of the speech or through what the characters are doing (or even by omitting words or topics certain people would never talk about while at the job). But you usually wouldn’t try to mimic word for word for long stretches in a story.

      But as you discovered, those intimate with professions depicted in a story will often find the discrepancies or the weaknesses of not writing characters completely as they’d be if they were real.

      As a writer, think about it as getting the details that you do include correct without including all the possible details that you could include. So characters should reflect the truth of their professions, but at the same time they should be more than a person who works in a particular profession.

      Thanks for the great observation. The topic is definitely worth consideration by writers trying to by truthful as well as entertaining.

  7. Cindy Cromer says:

    This is a great article. My first novel, Desperate Measures, takes place on the beautiful Caribbean Island of St. Kitts. During the suspense I also wrote a few historical scenes about Brimstone Fortress and the rain forest. The second book, Desperate Deceptions, primarily takes place in New York City with some flash backs to St. Kitts.

    Both of these books are entered in The Romance Reviews Readers Choice Awards. Nominations are still open until September 30.

  8. I am English. I write in English, using English words, phrases and slang. In case readers don’t understand, I have other characters in my books asking what the words mean and the English character explains them. But I still get many complaints from readers because they don’t understand the English slang/ phrases. What is the answer to this problem?

Leave a Reply

Pings and Trackbacks

  1. […] help flesh out your story locale, use local slang for roads, landmarks, etc. For example back in Fort Walton Beach there was the “Taj […]