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Monday, April 10, 2017

Writing Characters Who Speak Another Language by Sarah J. McNeal

Pennytook as I pictured him on my story board.

Pennytook is one of my favorite characters. He appears in all three of the novels in the Legends of Winatuke trilogy, and he also has a story of his own in the 2016 fall anthology, Myths, Legends, and Midnight Kisses. I have a fondness for Pennytook because he is funny, generous, and knows the secrets that will help his friends defeat the evil that persists in the world of Winatuke (a place forever caught in a medieval time.)

But Pennytook was a complicated character to write. He is a Gypsy who speaks Romanian. Those two characteristics required a great deal of research. I had to look up the culture and beliefs of the Gypsies, their history and their language. Because they are restless travelers, they incorporate their language into the language of the place in which they live. The language becomes their own hybrid over time. They refer to themselves as Romany. It is believed Gypsies originated in India or Egypt and spread out to other countries.

While many countries see the Gypsy as thieves and con artists, the Gypsies are loyal to those they call friend and to other Gypsies. They have their own sense of right and wrong. As far as religion, they are a mix of Christian and their own esoteric magical beliefs.

 We had a Gypsy man die in the ER some years ago. When the relatives came, a whole lot of them, we found there were certain customs involved with preparing the body for burial. They were very secretive about it. Because the body was going to the morgue to be picked up by the funeral home, the relatives had to give us certain instructions. The hands and feet of the deceased were tied with ribbons. We were told, under no circumstances, were those ribbons to be removed. They placed something inside the man’s mouth which I later learned from research was a ball of rice. The mouth is held shut by tying a cloth around the head and over the mouth. In my research I found the reasons for these two customs: the hands and feet are tied to keep the deceased from following or touching the living, and the mouth is filled and tied to keep the deceased from calling out to the living. When a Gypsy dies, his or her name is never mentioned again. It is believed by saying the deceased’s name, a person will call the dead to them. Kinda scary, don’t you think?
Most often, when I wrote Pennytook using Romany, I tried to explain what he was saying in a way that would seem natural. Here are some snippets of Pennytook using Romany language:

(From Dark Isle, Book 1)
1. "I am the vaida known as Pennytook, chief of the Gypsy." He laughed again. "I see you are gadgi, not Gypsy. You look for me. You look for Pennytook?"

(From Lake of Sorrows, Book 2)
1. "No one knows. Her heart is sour like green persimmon." Pennytook looked at his two friends smiling. "You know chi, is always about love." 
(chi means woman)
2. Peregrine laid his violin down and hurried to Izabelle. He pulled her into his arms and spoke to her in Romany. "Your papa walks the lungo drom now to amaro baro them." He kissed her cheek ever so gently and added, "O ushalin zhala sar o kam mangela."
Pennytook supplied the translation for Emma in a quiet voice, "Mulopani say, your papa walks the long road now to the ancestral home. The shadow must move as the sun commands."
(From The Light of Valmora, Book 3)

1. Pennytook settled beside him and gave him a solemn glance.  He touched Falcon’s arm and pointed to the untouched food.  “Bi kashtesko merel I yag.”
“I don’t understand Romany,” Falcon replied.
“It’s an old Gypsy saying.  It means, ‘without wood the fire would die,’” said a familiar female voice.                                    
2. “You understand this, yes?”  He laid his cheek on top of her head.  “The fate of the nations of Valmora lies with us.  We must not fail.”  He braced her face between the palms of his work rough hands so that she would look up into his dark eyes.  “Courage now, coramora mea.  Remember your purpose.”
(Coramora mea means my heart)

Legends of Winatuke

All 3 novels for 99 cents!

From the short story, “Pennytook”, in Myths, Legends, and Midnight Kisses anthology.

1. "Nais tuke. I appreciate it." The two men rode away from the camp toward the hills to hunt rabbits with their eagles.  (Nais Tuke means thank you)
2. Squeezing her hand hoping to reassure her, he continued. "I, on the other hand, am filled with regrets. Sako peskero charo dikhel. Everybody sees only his own dish, or so the saying goes. Aye?”

I used broken English for the most part to establish that Pennytook was a Gypsy rather than relentlessly using Romany.

Myths, Legends, and Midnight Kisses

Buy link: Amazon

A writer can distinguish a character by using language in other ways such as using words associated with southerners like “y’all” or mispronouncing words like “I kin handle that thar scoundrel on my own.”

There is the colorful way in which cowboys speak that sets them apart as well.
From the book, Cowboy Lingo by Ramon F. Adams:
Something to be avoided was “go ‘round it like it was a swamp.”
Something fragile was expressed with “wouldn’t hold no more than a cobweb would a cow.”
Confusion or becoming mixed up, “he got his spurs tangled.”
Stubborn, “chuckle-headed as a prairie dog.”

And so many more delightful expressions come from our western cowboys.
Using special language for some of the characters makes them authentic, vibrant, unique, and memorable in our stories.

Have you written or read about such a unique character? Did the memory of that character stick with you long after you read the story. Was it difficult for you to write a story with a character who spoke in a different way from the others? Could you share what that was like for you?

Sarah J. McNeal is a multi-published author of several genres including time travel, paranormal, western and historical fiction. She is a retired ER and Critical Care nurse who lives in North Carolina with her four-legged children, Lily, the Golden Retriever and Liberty, the cat. Besides her devotion to writing, she also has a great love of music and plays several instruments including violin, bagpipes, guitar and harmonica. Her books and short stories may be found at Prairie Rose Publications and its imprints Painted Pony Books, and Fire Star Press. Some of her fantasy and paranormal books may also be found at Publishing by Rebecca Vickery and Victory Tales Press. She welcomes you to her website and social media:


  1. I love learning about different cultures and their beliefs. Quite interesting about the gypsies and the way they prepared their loved ones after death.

    In Lost in the Mist of Time, the main character spoke Gaelic so I sprinkled a few words here and there within the story. :) I like that in the novels I read too. Enjoyed your post, Sarah.

    1. I like the way writing a touch of another language here and there in a story brings me up close to that character.
      Thank you so much for your comment, Karen.

  2. Really interesting post, Sarah, thanks! I've been to Romania a couple of times, and it always fascinated me that the Romanian language is reminscent of Italian (unlike other East European countries).
    I used a few Egyptian words in 'Her Only Option', struggled to remember my school French for 'Dream of Paris', and frequently refer to on online site of Irish words and phrases for my Irish novels. Sometimes my Irish characters sound too 'English' so I then have to listen to the 'Irish voice' in my head, and adjust the word order - so, for example, 'You have a devious mind' becomes 'It's a devious mind you have' which immediately sounds more Irish!

    1. That's very clever reversing the words to make it sound more Irish, Paula.
      I was lucky enough to work with a Romanian doctor in the ER. He and his father had been imprisoned there once and managed to escape and come to America. He gave me so much great information about his country.
      Thank you so much for coming by and sharing your experiences, Paula.

  3. Wonderful blog, Sarah. I, too, found the information about the gypsies fascinating. I admire the thorough way you have researched the language and customs of other times and places to make your books authentic. I've not been as adventurous as you, as most of my books are set in Civil War days to the present. A small sprinkle of French and 16th Century English that was necessary for Maid of the Midlands is as far as I've deviated. And I am in awe of you and other authors who delve into other make-believe worlds. I am amazed at the names of people and places that you can create. Maybe I find this such a mystery because I'ved read few books in this genre. I suppose it does give one's imagination unlimited freedom, doesn't it?

  4. Linda, I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed reading Maid Of The Midlands. You don't have to worry because you have found your special niche for your stories and they are wonderful.
    Writing paranormal IS fun because I can create the world the way I want, but it isn't easy to get all the pieces of society together and make up the rules and laws by which they live. A great deal of thought goes into creating unique characters who are not human...but it's also fun or I wouldn't do it.
    Thank you for dropping by and commenting. It means so much to me.

  5. Thank you for thanking me, Sarah, and for your kind words about my stories. I meant to ask how you came up with Pennytook's name. It intrigues me.

    1. In answer to your question about the name, Pennytook, Linda: I looked up names of Gypsies and I saw how creative and clever they were. I wanted a name for my Gypsy that would be memorable and a bit clever, too. It took many attempts before I put together the name Pennytook. I appreciate you asking me about that name.


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