It’s a dangerous business, writing in a foreign tongue, no matter how familiar it may be. I lived and worked in England for five years, partly as editorial assistant at a publishing house, and partly as staff writer for a magazine. I know the idioms, I know the grammar and usage, and I definitely know the spellings; but I am still woefully inadequate to the task.
My favourite scene in my second novel, Unbound, featured the pattern of a mockingbird’s song in Alex Plumtree’s garden. It made him think about possible patterns in the bad guys’ actions, and he figured out their plan. Well, the manuscript came back marked up that there is no such bird known in the UK. I had to rewrite it to use an owl’s hoot, but it’s nothing like what it used to be.
The most dangerous thing about it is your sub-conscious. For instance, when choosing a name for a character in my first novel, Unsolicited, the name Romney Marsh came to mind. I was so surprised to get my first novel published that I hadn’t had my friends in England edit it, and so the book was actually published with a character named Romney Marsh. It must have been in my subconcious somewhere that such a name existed, but not that it was the name of a well-known town – in Kent, I think, or Surrey.
There’s also the issue of the British psyche. I continually ask myself: would my English friends do this? As it is, I know I miss the subtleties of native Britishness. There’s a worldweariness about it that’s just not natural to me; I can’t create things with that tone. So I never expect to sell to UK readers, who require a less determinedly upbeat view. But I do make my novels as authentic as I can by trying to keep myself immersed in all things British. Several of my measures are going back to England as often as possible, reading novels set in England, eating scones regularly, and purchasing the Sunday Times of London on Tuesday mornings when it finally arrives.
I had some help with my continuing research this Christmas, when my English friend broke her leg skiing with us in Colorado. As Sally spent nearly two weeks on our sofa, poor thing, I was able to do a little extra probing into issues of all sorts. For one thing, she tried to teach me how to say “water” with an English accent – a fruitless but hilarious effort. Turning to more concrete research, the next book on the horizon then was Unprintable, a very political book. I turned to Sally for some of the subtleties of politics, which can be difficult to grasp. My publisher asked me if I had forced Sally into that tree to force her to stay and talk about English politics…but to tell the truth, the most revealing insight over those weeks was provided by our continuous viewing of Absolutely Fabulous episodes.