Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
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)
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.