Thursday, July 29, 2010

PLAYING WITH LANGUAGE: Alchemy and Meggy Swann (Post # 5 of 6)

Dear Heather and Allyson,

What you said about details and about every word counting, Heather, got me thinking about the specific words that Cushman selected in writing Alchemy and Meggy Swann to (1) convey the historical time/setting, and (2) develop the characters.

Some of the unusual words, like “gallimaufry” (p. 4), “fishwife” (p. 4), and “kirtle” (p. 60), were in use in Elizabethan times but are not in common use today, while others, like “dampnified” (p. 4), “annoyous” (p. 10), and “tipsify” (p. 59), seem to have been created out of familiar words. They convey a feeling for another time by sounding old, even though they aren’t “real” words. They sound as if they could be real, though, because we recognize the root of the word, but the added syllables or suffixes are decoys Cushman has used to create the illusion of past usage.

Cushman also uses familiar words in unusual combinations to convey a feeling for the past and to delineate characters, such as Meggy’s repeated exclamation, “ye toads and vipers,” which opens the story and introduces Meggy:
“Ye toads and vipers,” the girl said, as her granny often had, “ye toads and vipers,” and she snuffled a great snuffle that echoed in the empty room. (p. 1) 
Cushman uses the phrase “ye toads and vipers” to individualize Meggy while also filling in part of her backstory--noting that “the girl” had learned the phrase from her granny establishes the connection between them at the outset. And each time “ye toads and vipers” is echoed throughout the novel we get a familiar jolt of recognition.

During a presentation that Karen Cushman made to the Western Washington Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators in May, when asked how she came up with some of the unique words that she used to push the story back to Elizabethan times, Cushman said that the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary was a rich resource, as were Shakespeare’s plays, “especially for the insults.” Also, she said, “I sometimes made the structure of the sentence a bit odd” to give the story a sense of both familiarity and distance.

Cushman’s message was to be creative and stretch the limits—but not too far. I can imagine her chortling over some wonderful constructions as she wrote Alchemy and Meggy Swann. One of my favorites is this enraged outburst Meggy addressed to Roger when he turned his back on her and began walking away during one of their altercations:
“Go then, you writhled, beetle-brained knave!” she shouted. “You churl, you slug, you stony-hearted villain! May onions grow in your ears!” (p. 124)

Storysleuths’ Tip # 89: Tackle the challenge of language like a giant jigsaw puzzle, searching in reference materials (and your own imagination) to find pieces that fit together to delineate characters and clarify setting, while avoiding overloading the text with arcane, awkward words and phrases.