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Authors, how do you make sure your story turns out true to life?

'Research, research, research...'

says Doris Pannell

I am retired and live in the San Francisco Bay Area of California. I've written for about six years. During that period of time, I've had the good fortune to be published in close to twenty magazines and to win recognition in five writing contests. I'm an avid horsewoman who has owned and ridden horses since the age of ten, almost fifty years.

researchSome time ago, I perused a book on riding techniques. The author's final remark struck a chord with me. To paraphrase that sentence, a horse lover is a person who loves to look at horses, ride horses, or, if all else fails, watch horses on television or in movies. An author needs to know his or her subject with that same intensity. Without knowing it that well, it's impossible to make it come to life for the reader.

A good sense of place is an essential part of a well-written story. No matter what genre, there is no substitute for a first hand visit to the area to get the "lay of the land." Place is more than visual images, though. Authors need to describe the smells, sounds and attitudes of the time and place they are writing about if they hope to engross the reader.

If possible, plan a trip to the locale of your story. Talk with the people. Get a feel for their mannerisms. Don't be afraid to ask about regional legends and stories. These give your work an authentic, down home flavor.

Physical facts must be accurate, also. Don't put your ignorance on display by mixing topography. There are bound to be some readers who will know it's impossible for your character to go from point A to point B. That will make the read less enjoyable, and could cause them to put your story down in disgust. You don't want that to happen.

How, then, is it possible for an author to write about a time other than the present or a place they have never visited? They can't jump into a time machine to revisit a forgotten era, or climb aboard a space ship and travel to some distant planet. The answer, of course, is research.

Good, thorough research is the backbone of any story. You shouldn't have your Indian fighter astride a modern roping saddle. Those individuals rode the high-backed McClellan saddles that the government provided. Denim wasn't in use before the California gold rush of eighteen forty-nine. Don't clothe your early eighteen hundreds mountain man in blue jeans. Find out when matches were invented before you have your character use them to start a bonfire or light a cigar. Even small details must be accurate.

The Internet is a valuable research tool. I find it helpful to keep an Internet connection up as I write so I can switch back and forth between my story and my research at will. After saying that, I will caution you that while the Internet is an important part of research, don't rely too much on it. There is a wealth of information in cyberspace, but when a writer attempts to ferret it out, he often finds his patience taxed to the limit.

Research Books such as Candy Moulton's The Writer's Guide to Everyday Life in the Wild West are written for the specific purpose of educating authors on a particular time and place. They include such facts as dress, slang of the time, money, current events, plus a cornucopia of other valuable facts. A western author shouldn't ignore these books in their search for authenticity.

Museums, too, provide a lot of information. When the author can see long sharp spikes on a six-inch rowel, or how far a ten-gallon hat reaches into the sky, the objects become much easier to describe.

Of course, a writer cannot survive without a good dictionary and encyclopedia. I find the encyclopedias on CD to be a bit brief but don't reject them altogether as a source of knowledge. Since Spanish has become intertwined with cowboy lore, a good English-Spanish dictionary is helpful, also.

On your search for authenticity, don't neglect the abundance of knowledge available at your local library. Although less glamorous than the Internet, a library remains the best place to find that special little tidbit you're hunting for. Hidden within the stacks of books or folded between the pages of a periodical will be that certain fact you needed to make your western story come to life.

To most of us, research is a boring, time-consuming drudgery. Most writers yearn to skip that phase and get on to the creative part of their work. Research, however, is the framework upon which your story will hang. Take the time to do a thorough study of your subject and see how much easier it is to create a page-turning success.

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India's evolving relationship to English

by David V. Appleyard

India's 'Taj Mahal'Opinion pieces from the sub-continent suggest some Indians may be trying to Americanize their English in order to make themselves attractive to U.S. corporations, and to find new job opportunities created by outsourcing. This is especially true in the hi-tech field, and is most prevalent among those in their 20s and early 30s — a burgeoning age group keenly concerned about future employment prospects. They are now taking advantage of special courses designed to familiarize them with American vocabulary, pronunciation and spelling.

This is a significant development because ever since colonial times British English has been the language of officialdom and the elite in India, serving as it has as lingua franca in a country with no fewer than 17 constitutionally recognized national and regional languages. If we then consider the fact that these 17 mainstream tongues are actually spoken in some 1600 dialects, it is not hard to understand why this vast nation has chosen English as its official working language.

What many don't realize, however, is that seen in a longer-term perspective the linguistic influence has not been all one way. Especially UK English has enriched itself with Hindi words such as 'guru' and 'juggernaut', Hindustani words such as 'bungalow' (derived from 'Bengal') and 'gymkhana', Tamil words such as 'mulligatawny', and Urdu words such as 'khaki' and 'pyjamas'. Nowadays, however, if one is to believe these latest trends, ambitious young Indians are probably learning to say 'ranch house' instead of bungalow, and to write 'pajamas' instead of pyjamas.

They are, no doubt, also having to unlearn a whole host of expressions still commonly used in India but now perceived as quaint or antiquated elsewhere in the English-speaking world — words like 'needful' and 'felicitations', or the 'fooding and lodging' seen on signs outside cheaper hotels.

Indians appear comfortable with the easygoing conversational style of American English and perhaps see it as a welcome departure from the rigid grammar adherence of the British English learned in their schooldays. Nowadays more and more of them can afford to make the odd mistake and expect to get away with it. British English, too, is far from static. Once sacred grammar rules are becoming less strict, and even die-hard conservatives are having to face up to challenges posed by internationalization of the language.

Despite the recent flurry of interest in American English, the BBC is still said to attract a larger following in India than any of the U.S. networks, and I doubt this will change any time soon.