By Kevin G. Chapman
A bowler hat nearly sunk my newest thriller. All British businessmen don’t wear them, I discovered.
No writer is perfect, and once I have completed a second (or third) draft of a book which I think is pretty well finished, I look for help in the form of beta readers, people who agree to read a manuscript and provide comments and suggestions. This is feedback you can only get from the perspective of different eyes.
As I worked on book #4, Fatal Infraction, I had my usual batch of beta readers. But I also had a specific issue with which I needed help. I have a character in the story who is British – an investigator from a London insurance company sent to assess whether an NFL quarterback’s death occurred in connection with criminal activity (or was caused by the beneficiary – his team), which would void payment on a $20 million policy.
The character provided some comic relief because he was clueless about American football, which allowed the other characters to explain things to him – and by extension explain it to any of my readers who were similarly ignorant about football issues.
My British character seemed pretty simple at first. He would be very proper and buttoned-down. He would be a bit of a fish-out-of-water trailing along with my New York City homicide detectives. I pictured him as John Cleese in A Fish Called Wanda. I gave him a bowler hat and a series of pressed suits with matching silk handkerchiefs. He wipes the New York grime off chairs before he sits.
He was fun to write and was a hit with my early readers. But one of them, originally from London, flagged some issues. You see, my ear for British dialogue is based on watching movies, mostly comedies. It seemed that I had neglected to consider the language a posh English insurance inspector would actually use in dialogue. If I wanted to keep my UK readers from rolling their eyes at the stupid American author, I needed help.
I sent the manuscript out to three fellow authors in the UK and asked them to critique the dialogue – to let me know if anything sounded off. Boy, did I get back a lot of comments! It turns out that my character was a total caricature of an Englishman–and an offensive one at that. I got so much wrong, from his title to his wardrobe to his word usage. To an English reader, he was a joke – and not in a good way. It was an education.
As an example, there is a scene in Fatal Infraction where my detectives and my British inspector are watching security cam video as the suspected murderer puts a body in an elevator, then transfers it to a delivery truck and drives away.
It never occurred to me that an Englishman would never say elevator – he would say lift. And he wouldn’t say truck, he would call it a lorry. Small issues, perhaps, but it would drive an English reader crazy, and likely result in a negative impression of my writing (and a negative review).
Those little details can really make a difference and I was totally blind to them. At one point I had my inspector putting milk in his cup of Earl Gray tea. Egad! (Brits use milk in tea, of course, but not in Earl Grey.) There were a dozen (or more) such errors in my draft. Thankfully, I had time to fix them. (And when I narrated the audiobook, I had one UK listener tell me that my British accent did not make her laugh – which was high praise!)
The lesson here is that as much as I like to think I have a good ear for dialogue, my personal experience is limited—especially when it comes to British English. So, admitting what you don’t know, and getting help, can keep you from being gobsmacked.
Kevin G. Chapman is the award-winning author of the Mike Stoneman Thriller series. Perilous Gambit, the fifth book in the series, will be out this winter. Chapman is an employment lawyer for a major media company. In Fatal Infraction, controversial quarterback Jimmy Rydell’s body is found naked—on New York’s Central Park carousel. Who killed him? How did he get there two days after he disappeared? Rydell’s football team just wants to move on, but NYPD homicide detectives must find answers to the bizarre facts of the case.