February 9, 2012

The Lessons of Petrichor

            Normally, on the entry before Valentine’s day, I try to post something about ways to effectively use love as an element in stories, or at least sex.  The thing is, I haven’t really had any clever thoughts on these topics in the past year (well, not about writing it, anyway).  Rather than bore you all with a straight repost—or a thinly-reworded one—I figured I’d just put up a few links to the old stuff and move on with something new.

            So, Happy Valentine’s Day.  Enjoy the love.  Or at least the sex.
            Moving on…
            I’ve talked more than once about the dangers of writers using flowery language and obscure words for no other reason but to show off their vocabulary.  It alienates and often frustrates readers because they can sense there’s no point to this except the writer trying to act superior.  After running into archaic words six or seven times they’ll just put the story down in favor of doing something productive like folding laundry or watching episodes of Chuckon DVD.
            This week, I thought I’d give an example of how you can use obscure words in your story in a way that not only makes them natural, but will make your readers love you for it.
            So… biology lesson.
            “Petrichor” is an extremely specialized word that was coined by a couple of botanists back in the sixties.  It’s so rare and uncommon it won’t show up in most spellcheckers.  It has to do with plant oils that get absorbed into dry soil and then released into the air when that soil gets exposed to moisture.  Simply put, petrichor is that unique smell you get just as it starts to rain somewhere that’s been very dry.
            Over the past year or so, I’ve seen this word cropping up all over the place.  I don’t think I’m out of line by giving all the credit to Neil Gaiman, who used it in a phenomenal episode of Doctor Who called “The Doctor’s Wife,” and the word carried over later in that season as well.
            So, how did Gaiman get away with using such an obscure, specialized word?  Not only that, how did he do it in such a way that hundreds of other people immediately added it to their vocabularies and began using it?
            Here’s how, in three easy steps.
            First, within the context of the story, it makes sense to use an obscure word at this point.  This is supposed to be a password to a locked part of the ship, and it makes sense that a password wouldn’t be a common word or one that could be deduced without much effort.  So on this level, the audience (viewer or reader) can accept that there’s a valid, in-story reason for the writer to be using a word they’ve never heard before.
            Second is that it’s a real word that’s explained within the course of the episode.  It isn’t just a jumble of syllables I need to reason out through context.  It gets defined, which means its no longer an obscure word the audience doesn’t know, it’s a word they just learned.
            Finally, it makes sense within the story that this obscure word is introduced and then defined.  It isn’t just mindless exposition to justify the vocabulary.  The TARDIS is so advanced that its locks are telepathic.  Amy and Rory need to know this word and what it means in order to open the door into the old control room.  So when Idris explains “petrichor” to Rory, there’s a perfect in-story reason for this bit of ignorant stranger-ism.
            That’s the kind of thing I need to do when I want to randomly toss a rarely-seen, little-known word into my writing.  I don’t do it at the expense of the story, I do it in a way that strengthens the story.
            Next week I plan to blather on about birdhouses.
            Until then, go write.

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