Divided by a common language: Writing American and British characters – Elizabeth Blackwell

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By Elizabeth Blackwell

One of the greatest things about being a native English speaker is that you can read books from the United States and Great Britain and Ireland and Australia and Canada — all in the original language. Although I’m American, I watch a lot of BBC TV shows and read a lot of British writers. I thought I was pretty good at switching between American and British English.♥

Then I started writing my latest novel, On a Cold Dark Sea. I’ve been fascinated by the Titanic for years (long before the movie!), and I’d always wanted to write a book that explored how the tragedy affected survivors’ lives afterward. To represent the wide range of passenger experiences, I decided to focus on three main characters: Esme, a rich American socialite; Charlotte, an Englishwoman traveling under a false identity; and Anna, a Swedish farmgirl.

It was shortly before I turned in the finished book to my editor that I re-read sections of Charlotte’s story and began to worry. I’d done my best to make Charlotte’s dialogue “British.” But had I gotten every little nuance right? I knew readers would be immediately taken out of the story if I’d unintentionally used American words in Charlotte’s dialogue. And they would definitely share their complaints in online reviews!

So I turned to an old friend, a woman I’d met more than 25 years before. I was living in London as part of a six-month work exchange, and Kim worked for the head of our department. She made me feel welcome from the very beginning — the kind of person who was always up for a chat and a tea break.

But we didn’t really socialize outside the office, so it wasn’t the kind of friendship you’d expect to last. Yet somehow, it did. I moved back to the U.S. and Kim stayed in England, but we stayed in touch through all the events that followed: marriages, kids, job changes, new houses. For old times sake, we sometimes still write each other letters.

If one of my characters needed to be checked for Britishness, Kim was the one to call on. I emailed her the manuscript of On a Cold Dark Sea and she went through it page by page. Based on her recommendations, I changed some words and phrases, but what she gave me most was peace of mind.

Crime writers often depend on experts like policemen or lawyers to make sure they’ve got their facts straight. Who’d have thought that a friend I made at my very first office job would turn out to be just the expert I needed, all these years later?

Elizabeth Blackwell is a writer who lives in Chicago with her husband, three children and an enormous pile of books she wants to read. She is the author of While Beauty Slept (2014), In the Shadow of Lakecrest (2017) and On a Cold Dark Sea (2018).


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