How to use Spanish in your novels

Hemingway, like many other authors, used foreign expressions to enrich his novels.  He was notorious for sprinkling Spanish sentences throughout his works, and he did it in a way where readers didn’t need to get their dictionaries out of their dusty bins.  Oftentimes, writers use Spanish terms, sentences or expressions to add a measure of spice to their novels.  We may have a Hispanic character bursting out a sentence, or a plot that takes us to a destination in Latin America, where our characters have to fend for themselves.

Spanish, and the varied Hispanic cultures, are intertwined with our own.  After all, with over 38.3 million of Spanish speakers, the US is one of the largest Spanish speaking countries in the world (Wikipedia).  Amazing, isn’t it?  It is not surprising that, at some point, we may require a few sentences in Spanish – or at least a basic understanding of the culture – to make our novels and characters more believable.

Adding this type of salsa to our work  is not as difficult as it may appear.  The trick is to ensure that readers capture the meaning of the term or the sentence by way of subtle, clarifying descriptions that do not read like entries in a dictionary.  Would you like to describe a character?  What about using terciopelo? Or expand on the meaning of un encanto?    Here are some terms and examples to get you started.


terciopelo [noun and adjetive] – velvet,  de terciopelo, velvety.  A beautiful word in Spanish to add texture to your story.  Denotes softness.  Susana had skin de terciopelo.  Soft, warm to the touch and cuddly, like a velvety sheet you could sink into and never wish to leave.

un encanto [noun, masc.] – 1.  A charm, spell or enchantment.   María knew the old crooner was a witch; she felt it in her guts.  She must have put un encanto over Jonathan because he was acting really weird.  2. In the figurative sense, the meaning alters to delight, fascination.  She was such an encanto – a delight. –  ¡Qué encanto!  What a charm!

tereré [noun, masc.] – A type of tea.  It’s actually a word from the Guaraní  indigenous language (Argentina, Paraguay).  Drink made infusing, in cold water, yerba mate and other medicinal herbs.  There were floaters on her tea.  The healing lady cupped her hand and made a motion for her to drink.  “Tereré,” she said.

compadre/comadre [noun] – close friend, buddy.  Compadre for males, comadre for females.  The literal translation is co-father/co-mother.  Juan called every man at the Tapatío Bar compadre.  And they were.  They were his best, and only, friends.

¿Quién es ése? – Who is that (guy, man)?  ¿Quién es ésa?  Who is that (girl, woman)?  For example, your character has traveled to Colombia to rescue her brother.   Two creepy men see her hiding behind a shack on the beach.  “¿Quién es ésa?”  The taller man pointed to Elena.  Oh, no!  Where can I go?  I can’t reach my car from here.


César [first name, male] – César Chávez was a hero for Hispanics in the US.  He fought for the rights of agricultural workers (not to be confused with César Millán, the wonderful dog whisperer);  Julio César, Roman general.  And yes, this is the guy we honored by naming a salad after him.

Aracelis [first name, female] – typical name for a female in Perú and Venezuela.  Of indigenous origin, well known yet an original name for a character in your novel.

caluma [place, geographical formation] – A term of Inca origen used in Perú.  Each one of the gorges in the Andean sierra.  Also a habitat on the native Andean mountains.  There are some cities called Caluma (Brazil, Ecuador).


Spanish is the official language for over nineteen countries, and for at least seven others, it’s their secondary language.  Is Spanish the same everywhere?  Nope.  A good correlation is to compare with the English in the US, Australia and the UK:  same language, different flavor.  It is the same with Spanish.  Some of the vocabulary and many of the expressions are different in each of the Spanish speaking countries.


ch, ll, rr, ñ [ABCs] – Four distinctive letters of the Spanish ABCs.  That´s right, each one is considered a single letter, even if you swear you are seeing two.  The ñ is not an n with a funny hat; it is a completely different character.

á, é, í, ó, ú [accent marks] – There is only one type of accent mark in Spanish, and it can only be placed over vowels.  There are some basic rules on when and where to use these marks.  A missing accent mark is considered a misspelling error.  They are also used with capital vowels.  Not to be confused with the dieresis, which are two dots over the u (ü).   Dieresis give sound to the u in the syllables gue or gui, otherwise, when the u appears after the g is mute.  Cigüeña (stork), vergüenza (embarrassment).

More on our blog next month about using Spanish in your novels.  I’ll be happy to answer questions in the meantime.  So go ahead, spice your novels with a touch of salsa.  Here are some links that can help:

Huffpost Latino Voices (events)

Matador – techniques for writing bilingual dialog

There are many books on Spanish quotes – here is an online list

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