Pinning Down the Details

Category: Writing

In July, my novel The Girl in the Bunker will be published by Cargo Publishing. To say that this has been a long process would be an understatement - right around the time I began working on the novel, I was on a train from Birmingham to Edinburgh, reading in a tabloid that Prince William had split up with some girl named Kate.

Part of the reason for the extensive writing period was because I took a long time to find the right narrative voice.  At one point there were six different narrators, and at another, the twelve-year-old daughter of Joseph Goebbels sounded like a demented Chalet School girl.  However, I managed to get the manuscript into good shape, and thus we are now at the point where the phrase 'launch party' has been invoked. I may never have lived in Berlin, and certainly not in 1945, but I'm fairly confident that the voice in the novel sounds consistent enough to pass muster.

One of the tasks of my wonderful editor at Cargo was to catch all the not-so-consistent bits of the text - particularly the Americanisms.  Now, I've lived in the UK for over a decade, and I consider myself fairly fluent, and I was deliberately writing the protagonist as speaking British English (because I'm not giving her a German accent, no matter how much 'Allo 'Allo says I should).  Even so, I received plenty of editorial notes for things that should have been obvious.  (Candy/sweets?  Trash/rubbish?  Argh, I do actually know this stuff!)  However, both of us completely missed something until I did a full run-through of the text.

I kept using the term 'hairpins'.  'Bobby pins' would have been a blatant Americanism, but I'd automatically assumed that hairpins were the British equivalent.  Then it struck me...what about these 'hair grips' I'd heard about? Should I change to that? Or what about 'kirby grips'?  Who is Kirby, anyway?

I could have ignored this and called the novel done, of course.  There's a school of thought which argues that a piece of writing is never finished, only abandoned.  (Google it and you will find this thought attributed to half a dozen people, so take your pick.)  If you spend your time agonising extensively over word choice in poetry, that's part of the deal, because in a sonnet (say) you're likely to have relatively few words and a Very Bad Choice will disrupt the entire poem, but in a novel you need to let some things slide, or you'll never finish the damn thing.

Contrariwise, I think it's part of the bargain you make with the reader, if not with your attitude towards your chosen profession and/or your God, to make sure that the abandonment happens after you've made the work as good as you can make it at that point.  (In a year, you'll be better - but you'll also have moved on to new projects, one hopes.)

In the end, I decided this was important enough to spend some time on, even though it turns out I actually discuss bobby pins [sic] scarcely a dozen times.

Turns out that kirby grips and hair grips are the same thing, though hairpins are not, and that kirby grips (or even 'kirbigrips') are derived from a brand name, which explains why the term never caught on in America.  (Isn't language fascinating?)  I also learned, from a forum mostly populated by British women, that most people generally know both terms even if they only use one themselves.

I didn't do enough research to determine whether geographical location and/or age determines whether you describe them as one or the other, but that wasn't really the point.

So thanks to the magic of search-and-replace, my character is now possessed of hair grips.  This has the added advantage of giving a clue to readers who wouldn't say 'grips' at all but who can more easily figure out from context what's going on.  It's a tiny thing, but if I can't get the vocabulary right, I can destroy in a mere moment the sense of character and place I've spent such a long time constructing.  The reader doesn't want to be jarred out of the narrative by stopping to think, 'What does that mean?'

Of course, if I'd really been doing my homework, I would have asked someone royal what they are called in proper circles.  Perhaps a certain princess-to-be would fill me in, but I expect she's a bit busy right now.





Tracey S. Rosenberg

Tracey S. Rosenberg received a New Writers Award in 2010.