Using Word Choice to Establish Place

imageI love writing about my home state of Michigan. Although I’m new at writing fiction, I’ve been very consciously trying to place my writing in the places I know best. As far as I’m concerned, it’s some of the most amazing scenery this country has to offer, and I’m proud to call myself a Michigan writer.
True though that may be, I find one of my biggest challenges as a Michigan writer to be word choice. Now, don’t misunderstand me; I’m great at using a thesaurus judiciously and have a vast vocabulary (just ask my dad who spent years trying to make me talk a little less). My problem lies in trying to come up with original ways to describe the things I love best about my state—namely the weather these days.
The old joke used to be that Eskimos had a thousand (or whatever number your version of the saying included) words for snow. Well, I wish I had that kind of vocabulary when trying to describe the different ways the snow has appeared outside my office window just this winter alone. Right now, for example, there’s a fine but persistent snow coming down, making the sky appear more gray than clear. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a word for that kind of snow—something like “smist”?  I’d also take a great new word for the kind of snow that comes down in big feathery flakes, twisting and twirling on the wind—maybe “sheathery” would work for that. Then I could just write, “What had begun as a sheathery afternoon soon turned smisty” and dig on into the plot of my story. Instead, I have to puzzle over words, searching for the perfect accretion of adjectives to convey just the right atmosphere. Words can be so confining!
Or can they be? As any who have suffered through a high school English class might remember, Shakespeare had a knack for inventing new words. Scholars pore over his works, marveling at the ways he changed grammatical structures, added prefixes or suffixes where they hadn’t been before, and even created words no one had ever used before. Did you know, for example, that Shakespeare created the word “friended” long before Facebook made it popular? And I think Shakespeare may have met my husband a time or two before he crafted the word “forgetive.”
Similarly, who can question the preeminent word creator Dr.Seuss’s use of words like “zizzer-zazzer-zuzz” and “fiffer-feffer-feff”? Where would the world be if we didn’t have the lorax and the grinch? Seuss certainly never let words constrain him.
Perhaps the lesson here is that if the sky is looking smisty, then that’s what I need to write. I’m not Shakespeare or Seuss (or Geisel either), but I know my setting better than anyone else. If I own the word, maybe someday my readers will be looking up at the sky remarking on the lovely sheathery snow.
What are your favorite new words from things you’ve read or written? What is your greatest challenge when it comes to word choice?