where the writers are
Words

Recently, I was hornswoggled coerced invited to play Words With Friends, which, if you haven't heard of it, is an on-line Scrabble game, where you play against another opponent. As time sucks go, it probably has slightly more redeeming value than Angry Birds.

I also subscribe to the "Word of the Day" from Dictionary.com, and I get a random vocabulary word in my email each day. I post these to my Facebook wall, and some of my readers over there have fun coming up with alternative definitions.

Now, knowing obscure words might help when you're playing Scrabble. (Especially if you're savvy enough to understand the strategy of using all those bonus scoring spots on the board—I'm not.) And what about knowing the meaning of those Words of the Day?
Other than playing Words with Friends, am I really going to get a lot of mileage out of words like Xi, or Qat, or Tench? To be honest, a lot of times I just put words I've "made up" out there to see if the game's dictionary approves them. I've been surprised many times. And how would I work in words like paregmenon, heterotelic, or anamnesis into my stories? (Side Note: I'm typing this post in Word, and it's giving me lots of red squiggly lines.)

As writers, aren't we supposed to know lots of fancy words? Maybe, especially if we're writing literary fiction. And even in genre, or commercial fiction, knowing a variety of words can keep us from having to repeat the same word over and over.

But…

If our readers aren't familiar with the words, we've lost them. If the words aren't appropriate to the characters, we're pulling readers out of the story. I remember very early on when I was learning the craft, I had a young character trapped in a dark basement. My scientific background came into play as I tried to figure out what he would do in that situation. However having him "walk transects of the room seeking a method of egress" brought forth immediate and vehement protests from my beta readers. Transects? Egress? What teenaged boy would know or think in those terms?

Another example: The protagonist in a best-selling author's series had a vocabulary which didn't seem to ring true to the background the author provided--until the 4th book (or so) into the series where the character explained having spent long hours in the library as a child. For me, it would have made the first 3 books clearer had the author tossed that tidbit out there in book 1, because until that point, it sounded a lot more like the author talking than the character.

Lesson learned. Vocabulary has to be true to your POV character. And even if your character is an erudite professor of literature, or ancient history, or physics, if you have him speaking in his own jargon, it's probably not going to fly with your readers unless you make sure it's in context and somehow explained in the scene.