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Flat Out Like a Lizard Drinking and other Australianisms

Mr. T in DC

Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches had a post about Australian lingo and last year I asked Sarah Mayberry if she and her Down Under pals would be interested in writing a post about what it’s like writing for an international audience. Sarah spearheaded this effort and I am greatly appreciative. You can visit Sarah at her site,, and read some of our reviews of her books here.

Update: Our winner is commenter Alex.  Congratulations Alex and thank you to all the contributing authors. 

If you’re writing romance, it’s a given that you want to be published in North America and have a North American readership. The UK readership is also very attractive! For Australian and New Zealand writers, reaching these readers means you have a shot at making a living from the words you put on the page. But there are decisions to be made once you go this route. Do you set your books in the US or the UK and try to “fake” it? Do you set them in your native country and Americanize or Anglicise them? Do you try a mix of the two – an Aussie in New York, a Brit in Sydney or vice versa? Fortunately for many Australian and New Zealand writers, Harlequin/Mills and Boon has long recognised that its readers like to visit far flung destinations when they read – something mainstream or single title is yet to cotton on to. Many a Down Under writer has been rejected by a New York publishing house because editors didn’t believe Americans would buy and read a story about an Australian or Kiwi set in Australia or New Zealand, or even an Australian or Kiwi character in a US setting. Personally, I think readers are a lot more adventurous than these editors think – but I don’t have access to their spreadsheets.

Often when an Antipodean romance is featured on Dear Author there are comments about “cultural editing”. Jane approached me to muse on the subject, and I recruited a few writing buddies to offer some different experiences and perspectives. Our joint thoughts follow, but I am sure that there are as many different experiences as there are writers.

1. If you write for more than one line, are there different considerations/sensibilities in regard to Aus/NZ content? Are some lines more relaxed or welcoming than others, in your experience?

Marion Lennox: Australia has a disproportionately large romance author base, and I believe in part it’s because our voice is relaxed and easy to read. And because a lot of our entertainment is sourced from the US and UK we have constant lessons in removing Aussie jargon and becoming more or less an international voice. Having said that, we do have problems. A reader likes comfort-reading about what she knows, so home and hearth stories based in Australia will obviously have a smaller market. Our Medical titles are notoriously difficult to sell in the US, and a major reason must be the fact that our health systems are so different.

Joan Kilby: My Superromance editors are concerned that my stories not sound ‘too foreign’ especially if there’s another Aus/NZ author’s book in the same month. My Carina editor’s attitude was more relaxed. If my Aussie heroine would use a certain word then that’s what she should say. The editor figured (rightly) it would be understandable in context even if unfamiliar to American readers.

Carol Marinelli: I write for Medical Romance and for Presents and MIRA. I think in the Medical line I would tend to use more Aus-isms than I would in Presents or MIRA. I have never really been told to tone down or tone up, it is something I am very conscious of though and I do a lot of work in that department myself before I send any work in to my editors.

Sarah Mayberry: I had the same editor when writing for both Blaze and Superromance and her concerns didn’t change from one line to the other. There was a request to change the setting of my Secret Lives of Daytime Divas Blaze trilogy from Melbourne to LA, however. My understanding is that there was a concern that readers wouldn’t find it as convincing as having the show set in LA, the home of TV. Apart from a novella and a continuity book, these are the only books I have set in the US.

2. Do you consciously self-edit for Aus/NZ-isms when writing or do you leave it up to your editor/the copy editor to suggest changes?

Marion Lennox:: I do self edit, not because I’m required to, but simply to make things easy on my readers. For instance, I use imperial measures, miles instead of kilometres, pounds instead of kilograms. That’s because readers still seem to have an easy visual of a mile, but maybe not of the metric equivalent. Saying my hero is one eighty centimetres could jerk a US reader out of the story and force her to do a quick conversion, whereas if he’s six foot tall, as far as I know, no one has a problem.

My bottom line is to make my story flow, to as many readers as possible.

There are some words I’ve learned to avoid – ie my farmers never drive utes, but I avoid pick-up trucks as well. Using pick-up trucks would haul my Aussie readers out of the story, so my guys just drive trucks.

Oaths are tricky – cultural nuances her are important. Australians have a rich history in swearing, but as far as I’m aware in no other country can a guy call a friend a bloody bastard as a term of deep, admiring affection. It’s true and we can. Leaving swearing out of an Aussie farmer’s vernacular might end up jarring the Aussie reader, making speech seem unnaturally stilted but again I don’t want to jar overseas readership. I get round it mostly by inference. For instance … What the hell do you think you’re doing?’ would become `What the… what do you think you’re doing?’ The way it’s written is as if he’s cut off the swear word. Or I’ll simply say “He swore”. The Aussie reader might read `hell’ into it – an overseas reader can insert whatever she likes.

Often when I’m writing I’ll include oaths simply because that’s the way my dialogue flows, but I’ll edit them out later and find they’re remarkably easy to take away. The dialogue’s strong enough on its own.

Joan Kilby: I definitely self-edit for spelling. Although I did go to the mat once for a book set in Canada. A scene took place at the Whistler Recreation ‘Centre.’ The copy editor changed the spelling to ‘Center.’ I insisted that since it was a real place that the spelling should be accurate. I won that battle! Then in an Aussie set book I referred to the Chadstone Shopping ‘Center’ and totally forgot about the correct spelling.

For words I self-edit sometimes. I know I won’t get ‘boot’ and ‘bonnet’ of a car past my Super editor so I don’t bother trying.

I also fought for ‘mum’ over ‘mom’ and won. Luckily my then-editor thought that particular usage was ‘charming.’

My situation is complicated by the fact that I’m originally from Canada where spelling and word usage is a mixture of Canadian and American. To use the previous example, Canadians pronounce the word ‘mum’ but write it ‘mom.’ We put the ‘u’ in colour, neighbour, labour, etc. But I don’t even try to get those spellings. Occasionally I’m not aware of the Australian word. For example, sectional versus modular furniture. If I haven’t encountered a term before then my default is what I grew up with.

For certain words I’ve rebelled in my personal life. For years I tried to be a correct Aussie and say ‘biscuits’ instead of ‘cookies.’ More recently I’ve said to hell with it and just say cookies. It’s easier and clearer than having to specify sweet biscuits as opposed to cracker biscuits.

Sometimes I forget what’s Aussie versus Canadian versus American so I just write the word that comes to my head and let my editor sort it out.

Karina Bliss: Aside from spelling (eg: labor/labour, empathize/empathise) I write what I want to write. Sometimes I’m not even conscious I’ve written a Kiwi phrase until it’s pointed out. Here’s a recent copy editor query: “What isn’t clear is what her mom means by “she lives on her nerves”: Is this a New Zealand turn of phrase?” Um…is it?

Do you Aussies have it? I’ve worked with the same Canadian editor for ten books now. Her rule of thumb is that as long as she can interpret meaning from context a colloquialism stays, otherwise I reword it.

As a reader I love the ‘otherness’ of foreign locations but I also think there’s a fine line between giving Americans the flavor of my culture and constantly dragging them out of the story with benches, torches, boots, gib board, jandals, car parks, longdrops and jam. (Respectively counters, flashlights, trunks, drywall, flip flops, parking lots, outhouses and jelly). I don’t sweat the small stuff because ultimately my culture/world view is an inherent component of my voice. I believe it will flavor my writing regardless of whether I spell Mum with an ‘o’ or a ‘u’.

Carol Marinelli: I am very conscious of it – I am English and though I have lived in Australia for 20 years I am sometimes hauled out of a romance if it has too many Australian-isms in – and I don’t want to do that to my readers. I also don’t understand things that are said here at times, so I don’t want the same confusion for readers. One example – there is a saying here that “he lives out past Whoop Whoop” – it actually means he lives miles away, or in the middle of nowhere – ( I didn’t know that) and about five years ago, chatting to a friend who, in our conversation, used that saying, I said “Where is Whoop Whoop?’ She laughed so much and, when I found out what I had done, so did I, but it is another thing that has made me aware of how something that is normal to us might confuse a reader.

Sarah Mayberry: There are a bunch of things I change automatically now because I know they will be changed by my editor in the line-edit – words like “kitchen counter” instead of “kitchen bench” and “hood” for “bonnet” etc. There are others words I try on for size, to see how my ed responds. Mostly her rule, I believe, is if the word or phrase is understandable in context, then it can stay. But if it’s too jarring and throws the reader out of the emotion of the scene, then it goes. And to answer Karina, yes, we have that saying in Australia. At least, I certainly understand what it means.

3. Have you ever been surprised by something you were asked to change or that the editors changed on your behalf?

Marion Lennox:: I do get some strange changes, often out of left field. Early on I refused to allow editorial to change Tim Tams to Oreos. That was my line in the sand – a girl has some cultural pride. And Outback is the big Aussie compulsive inclusion. According to many editors, Australia has a ten mile radius around Sydney and Melbourne, and the rest is Outback. I’ve set stories on the very soggy dairy farm where I grew up – and yep, it’s become Outback.

It works the other way as well. Because my voice has become international I’ve been asked to write books set in the States. In Tell No One my hero and heroine parked under oaks. Back came the correction – they parked under live oaks. Huh? What other kind are there? So I’m learning all the time.

Joan Kilby: Can’t think of anything.

Karina Bliss: My favorite query asked why I’d described a color as ‘cowpat green.’ Don’t you mean brown, said my editor. Here in NZ our cattle graze year round on grass and their pats have an olive-green tinge. In the States, mixed feed (particularly over winter) makes them brown. Hey, you asked. We didn’t want rural readers puzzling over the color of cowshit when they should be worrying about the heroine’s breaking heart so we changed it.(Hey, I just noticed I Americanized my spelling for this article. Now I’m going back to check whether anyone else did).

Carol Marinelli: No.

Sarah Mayberry: The one that stands out in my mind was when I was working with a different editor for a continuity story and they queried the term “sticky beak”. In Australia (and I suspect NZ) this means a busy body, someone who is sticking their nose into someone else’s business. I had no idea that this was only an Australian term. Ditto for the term “shout someone a beer”, generally used as “It’s my shout.” This means you’re treating them to a beer – ie paying. I thought that was universal, too, and was really surprised when I learned it wasn’t. I think there are quite a few little idiosyncratic sayings we have that we tend to pepper our stories with that are unique to Down Under but that we don’t realise are unique. If you know what I mean.

4. Has there ever been something you really didn’t want to change because you felt it altered the sense of the scene/story too much?

Marion Lennox:: Tim Tams have been my only major cultural battle, and I believe I won for us all : )

Joan Kilby: No. Maybe because I consciously try to write scenes/stories that have a universal appeal. This isn’t about appealing to a particular market but appealing to what it means to be human.

Karina Bliss: Only tongue in cheek. In my next release the heroine drives a BMW stationwagon and my editor queried: “Do station wagons even exist?” Excuse me, I drive one! We laughed about it and the car stayed in the book. It’s a great example of a subtle cultural difference. At the bottom of the world we pay ridiculous prices for imports so we keep our cars way longer than most Americans. Anyone in the US want to pay $15,000 for a 2002 station wagon? It’ll only cost you $120 to fill the tank with diesel (propane I think it’s called in N. Am)

Carol Marinelli: No.

Sarah Mayberry: Not that I can think of. I still get a little toe-curl when I see the word “biscuit” changed to “cookie”, however. Especially when it’s referring to a brand item, like a Tim Tam as mentioned by Marion above. I understand that in the US a biscuit is a Southern thing, a very specific food. For Australians, cookies are very specific things – round, with chocolate chips. Everything else is a biscuit, and that covers both sweet and savoury (although sometimes savoury can be called a “cracker”). It jars for me to see a Tim Tam biscuit referred to as a cookie. The pictures just don’t match in my mind! (As you can see, if this is my biggest concern, it’s not enough to lose sleep over. Also, couldn’t help noticing a minor biscuit/cookie obsession amongst many of us….)

5. Have you ever had letters from readers complaining about this sort of “cultural editing”?

Marion Lennox:: If I did I wouldn’t have done my job. I need to give my readers a seamless love story, and if my readers are made aware of my Australian accent or lack of it, or jarred by my jargon or lack of it, then I’ve failed. I set most of my books in Australia, but the Australian background should be the setting for the romance, not something that interferes with the flow.

Joan Kilby: Yes, and I don’t blame them. I’m an Australian author writing Australian characters and settings. I think we disrespect and underestimate our readers on both sides of the pond if we change too many Australianisms to Americanisms. It’s a kind of dumbing down. However, it’s a fine line we have to walk. I also don’t want a reader to throw my book against the wall because something I’ve written is completely outside their experience. I once had a very frustrating telephone conversation with a hotel employee in Saint Louis when I was booking a room for an RWA conference and had to give my contact details. She flatly refused to believe that my 8 digit telephone number was real.

Karina Bliss: Not directly, but I’ve seen blog comments where readers express disapproval of ‘too much’ or ‘too little’ editing, which makes me feel bad for my editor because it’s a decision we usually take together. Everything that drags the reader out of the story must go and that includes colloquialisms. Obviously, there’s some subjectivity in the call but it’s a fluid process and cultural cross-pollination works both ways. I notice she’s started answering email queries with ‘No worries,’ (a Kiwi colloquialism for ‘No sweat.’)

Carol Marinelli: No – I do try to keep the feel in there and some words – often my characters are English, so, say I am writing a Medical I might get the patient etc to explain to the heroine a particular *ism* so that the reader can understand. There is another side to the coin though – I am currently writing a book now that is set in England and the heroine is English and I will ring my sister in the UK, several times through the writing of this book to check that I am not saying something she would consider Australian :-)

Sarah Mayberry: Yes. It’s probably hard for North American readers to understand exactly how saturated Australian culture is with US product. So many of our TV shows, the majority of our movies, the music we listen to… It’s everywhere. So when readers buy something labelled as “Australian author”, I understand how there might be a frustrating element to finding that inside there is a mix of Australian and US English, and that some uniquely Australian things have been Americanised. (See Marion’s comment about “ute” for “truck”. A “ute” is short for “utility vehicle”, by the way, and is exactly the same as a pick-up truck. Australians love to give things nick-names or abbreviations.) I’ve also seen complaints from readers about my US set books – someone complained that I had used the word “soda” and the book was set in California, where the term would be “pop”. Or I might have that the other way round. One of the many reasons I will always feel nervous setting a book in the US. And I understand that down south, soft drinks (Aussie term) are called colas, even if they’re not Cokes. It’s a potential minefield…

Sarah asked the writers if there was anything they specifically wanted to add. Their comments are below:

Joan Kilby: Over the years I’ve been living in Australia, Australian speech has become more Americanized. I think that’s sad as our language reflects culture and it’s important to keep individual cultures alive and thriving. That said, I notice some Aussie-isms creeping into American speech on the Internet loops. Such as ‘lovely man’ or ‘cheers’ to sign off on a letter or email. So maybe with the advent of internet we’re all getting more universal. Not sure that’s a good thing. Growing up in Canada I read a lot of books by British authors and although many words were unfamiliar I figured out what was meant in context. Same with some American regional words and phrases. Reading those books expanded my horizons and made me realize there elsewhere in the world people wrote, thought and did things differently. (Hah! I just now wrote ‘center’ automatically.)

I can’t speak for other lines but when I first began writing for Superromance virtually all the books were set in the U.S. or Canada. When I wanted to set a story in Australia the only way my senior editor would allow it was if I wrote an ‘outback’ book with a cowboy hero because that would appeal to American readers and make up for the foreign setting. Well, we don’t call them cowboys here but I wrote that book and paved the way for more Australian settings. Now, of course, we have half a dozen Australian and New Zealand Superromance authors who set all or most of their stories in their home country. I think as long as the story is about universal themes readers don’t have a problem with ‘exotic’ settings.

Karina Bliss: I do think Aussie/Kiwis authors veer toward writing competent heroines, which I think is a marker of DownUnder women. Even the ditzy heroines have a strong streak of pragmatism. I’ve also learned to study my heroines carefully because what I see as direct and frank can come across as strident and shrill to an American reader. (Their stroppiness is overlaid with a veneer of politeness). It took me a while – and many “unsympathetic heroine” comments as an unpubbed – to get the difference. Now I channel ‘steel magnolias.’

A quick glossary of terms and phrases to (hopefully) amuse you:

Speed hump – A speed trap. Called a judder bar in NZ.

Esky – A cooler. In NZ, a chilly bin

Thongs – Flip-Flops, in NZ jandals (conversely, in NZ, a thong is underwear…nice footwear!)

Stubby holder – neoprene sleeve for keep beer bottles cold. Named after the individual sized bottle, known as a stubby (short for stubby bottle!)

Mad – crazy

Feeling a bit crook – feeling sick

Ankle biter – a small child

Bludger – a lazy person, often used as “dole bludger”, to suggest they take a Government pension under false pretext to watch Oprah all day.

Flat out like a lizard drinking – very busy

Kangaroo loose in the top paddock – mentally deranged

No worries/No drama – everything’s cool, not a problem

Up at sparrow’s fart – awake at the crack of dawn

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She self publishes NA and contemporaries (and publishes with Berkley and Montlake) and spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com


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