Saturday, October 06, 2018

Guest Post: Margaret Dumas

Sybil here. Please welcome Margaret Dumas to Type M. I met Margaret at Left Coast Crime in Reno where we had a nice chat about our books and writing. Margaret is a new addition to the Henery Press family (HP is my publisher) and I'm very much looking forward to reading her book, Murder At The Palace, when it comes out in February. You can visit her at

Eavesdropping for Fun and Profit (or What I Learned from the Kardashians)


 By Margaret Dumas 


I am all about dialogue. There’s nothing I like more than quick exchanges, revealing conversations, and banter, banter, banter. Because I’m all about dialogue, I have zero tolerance for a tin ear. It drives me crazy when a writer misuses slang, gets anachronistic, or puts wooden words in her otherwise lovely character’s mouth. And since I’m zero tolerance, I agonize about my character’s words.

This is why I eavesdrop.

I am a woman of (mumble) years, living in California. Which means I can write dialog for west-coast women of (mumble) years all day long. They’re easy. There are usually several of them in my books. But for my new book, Murder At The Palace, I had a couple challenges. Two characters, both women in their early twenties. One is modern-day while the other one died in 1937. So, how to get them both right?

For the ghost, the one who died in 1937, I had only one reliable source: movies. This research was not a hardship for me. I’m a huge fan of classic movies. That’s why my new series is set in a classic movie palace, where the ghost in question hangs out. So I started revisiting 1930s and 40s movies and paying particular attention to the speech patterns of young women.

My character is an average middle-class girl, who had lived in San Francisco. This meant eliminating Jean Harlow (too brash New York), Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis (too posh, too New England). Rosalind Russell was too sophisticated. Greta Garbo was, well, Greta Garbo.

But Ginger Rogers—yes, please. And Jean Arthur – delightful. I can listen to Joan Blondell’s wisecracks any time, any place. And then there’s Judy Garland. Always and forever, Judy Garland. She was perfect. Or to be more precise…Gee, she was grand.

So I felt like I had a rough handle on my 1937 ghost’s vocabulary and speech patterns. Then it came to the modern-day young woman. How could it be harder to write a contemporary—a live—person than it was to write a ghost? But it was. So I had work to do.

In addition to my writing, I work in tech in Silicon Valley. There are a fair number of young women around. (Not as many as there should be, but that’s a rant for a different blog.) I started listening in on conversations in the cafeteria line, and in meetings, and while waiting for the coffee robot (I work in tech—we have a coffee robot). But I found myself wondering if these highly educated and—let’s face it—proudly nerdy women were truly representative. My character is a film nerd, not a tech nerd. So I widened my sample.

I take an evening class at Stanford University. (What kind of class, you ask? Film History, of course.) I started hanging around at the campus coffee kiosks (coffee was turning into a theme) and the bookstore. I’d follow young women who were deep in conversation on the walking paths. (Note to male writers—don’t try this at home.) I listened, and the language was fascinating. I learned that (and I’m generalizing) they literally don’t say totally very often, but they literally say literally all the time. “Very” is never used when “super” is just sitting there as a perfectly good modifier. And literally everything needs a super modifier.

I listened to young women podcasting (about movies and books, usually). I scrutinized my niece when she visited me from Southern California. (Sorry, Katie.) I felt like I was getting there, but something was missing.

That’s when I discovered the Kardashians.

Yep. I admit it. I started watching the Kardashians. And I found that you can pretty much find at least one of them on at least one TV channel at any time of the day or night. They’re ubiquitous. But you knew that already.

And (cue sounds of angelic choirs) they sounded like my modern-day character sounded in my head. They were exaggerated, with their lazy drawls and their vocal fry and their seeming inability to begin a sentence without saying “I mean…” Their speech was as overblown as their hair and bank accounts. But I could pare it back to non-reality-star levels while still keeping the flavor. Or at least I thought I could, and I think I did. The Kardashians, bless them, gave me the last big push to put words in my character’s mouth that sounded right for who she would be.

So thanks, Kim. Thanks, Chloe. (I know there are more of them, but you get the idea.) And thanks to Ginger and Jean and Joan and especially Judy. There is nothing more fun in this new series than having my protagonist (a woman of (mumble) years) converse with both of these young women at the same time. At least there’s nothing more fun for me to write. I hope it’s as fun to read.

When the book comes out in February, you can tell me if I got it right.

Margaret Dumas lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she reads and writes books when she isn’t watching old movies.

1 comment:

Sybil Johnson said...

Hi Margaret! Thanks for stopping by. You're a lot more dedicated to getting dialog just right than I am. I do a fair amount of eavesdropping though.