Monday, March 2, 2015

Writin' Dialect - Bending but not breaking

Pepper here, and I love writing dialect. But it’s a tricky sort of thing.

The trend in today’s fiction is the less the better. Unlike when Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn.

“You wants to keep 'way fum de water as much as you kin, en don't run no resk, 'kase it's down in de bills dat you's gwyne to git hung."”

How many times did you have to read that to get the idea? Lots of popular fiction steers clear of such thick dialect clues, so what’s a writer to do?

If you’re like me, and you write lots of fiction with various accents, then you might find yourself in a pickle. With the rule being no dialectical writing or not phonetic markers, then how can we help people hear our characters accents with their eyes?

Tricky, tricky.

Here are three important tips to help you ‘bend’ the rule a bit and use dialect as a means for characterization. (examples from my novel, A Twist of Faith - summer 2015)

1. Simply explain it:

The strange, safe feeling dissipated once he opened his mouth. She looked away. The poor man could mutilate more vowels in a single word than all the Beverly Hillbillies combined.

(Here I give the reader the clue into the hero’s accent by talking about the vowels and comparing them to the Beverly Hillbilllies – no one has to decifer code or Elvish to figure out what the hero is saying :-) It's a simple description of what the reader should be hearing as they read.

Another way I say it is, His words had more twang than a banjo.

2. Go for ‘sound’ not ‘phonetics’.

If you want to show an accent, you don’t need to go into the detail Twain does. Sound-for-sound changes make it really difficult to follow the 'meaning' of the sentence. The important thing in popular fiction is to get the ‘feel’ of the speech.

In this example I use two VERY important rules for writing effective dialogue: Grammar and Regional Phrases.

“I didn’t mean no bother. Shucks, you ain’t even had time to unpack yer things yet. When Mama told me you’d come in already, I didn’t figure you’d just got here. I’ll come on back when you git settled.”

Other terms in Appalachian culture could be ‘gracious sakes’ or ‘land sakes (but that’s not used as much), ‘jeet yet?’ is another way of saying “Did you eat yet?’ And to draw out some vowels, I might write ‘naw’ for No.

Having a little bit of creative spelling is a stretch on the rule, but if the meaning is still EASY to decifer, then most of the time it will be okay. The most important thing is to keep the reader 'in' the story. If your dialogue pulls readers 'out' of your story, then it's time to simplify or change your strategy.

3. Vocabulary choices:

In my novel, Just the Way You Are, I show the dialectical differences between my British hero and my Appalachian heroine through vocabulary. There are just some things a Brit will say that an Appalachian girl wouldn’t.

Endearments such as ‘luv’ and ‘darling’ are more prevalent in England than the U.S. Vocabulary like ‘per chance’, ‘ring someone’ (instead of call someone), or fewer contractions (unless it’s a certain British dialect) are subtle differences that not only show the voice of the characters, but heighten their characterization too.

Here’s an excerpt:

“Isn’t your wife supposed to be here?”

“Ah, yes. Eleanor was feeling peaked this morning.”

Peaked? Sounded serious. “Is she okay?”

His smile crinkled at the corners of his eyes. “Oh, I’m certain she’ll be fit as a fiddle for the gala tonight. Social events always encourage her health.” He winked. “Not fond of London morning traffic, I’m afraid. How was your flight?”

“Okay, I guess. It would have been nicer if my seatmate hadn’t been so creepy. He flirted with me for the last two hours of the flight.”

“And that was an unpleasant?”

Eisley cringed, remembering. “I’m not interested in real-life romance. Really, all the best men are fictional, apart from my family and present company, of course. In fact, I wore my black suit just because I wanted to avoid romantic possibilities all together.”

Mr. Harrison crooked a brow and his moustache twitched again.

Eisley leaned forward and lowered her voice. “There’s an old sayin’ from my neck of the woods. ‘Black attracts everything but a man’. I’d rather have a closet full of lint.”

Mr. Harrison’s brow furrowed, and he delved into an obvious battle with his grin. “If you were in mourning clothes, perhaps, but otherwise I’d say that particular notion is quite out of date. I’ve always thought black looked appealing on redheads.”

So that’s all from me. Dialect is LOADS of fun and can really add to your story. But be careful. It’s like the perfect blend of spices – too much is…well….hard to swallow :-)

Are you using dialect in your story? What do you find helpful or distracting about writing or reading dialect?
Pepper D Basham has been telling tales ever since she was a little girl. When her grandmother called her a “writer” at the age of ten, Pepper took it as gospel and has enjoyed various types of writing styles ever since. A native of the Blue Ridge Mountains, mom of five, speech-language pathologist, and lover of chocolate, Pepper enjoys sprinkling her native Appalachian culture into her fiction wherever she can. She currently resides in the lovely mountains of Asheville, NC, where she works with kids who have special needs, searches for unique hats, and plots new ways to annoy her wonderful friends at her writing blog, The Writer’s Alley. She is represented by Julie Gwinn, and her debut novel, The Thorn Bearer, arrives on May 7th 2015.


kaybee said...

This is a good post Pepper. I use a lot of accents and dialect, chiefly Western and Irish. Irish characters always seem to find their way into my stories! And you can't do Western without, well, sounding Western. What I do with the Western is to limit myself to one or at best two dropped "g's," "aint's" or double negatives in a sentence, and try to make up for it with simile and metaphor that reflects the Western experience. It's like our mothers told us about accessorizing, always look in the mirror and take one thing off before you leave the house.
Kathy Bailey

Jessica Lynne Martin said...

Great suggestions. I can read the examples you provide with no problem, but the Mark Twain sentence was almost impossible (at least on first pass). I also like the idea of explaining the dialect (such as " His words had more twang than a banjo.") and using regional phrases.

Pepper Basham said...

Oh Kathy! I love this quote;
"it's like our mothers told us about accessorizing, always look in the mirror and take one thing off before you leave the house."

Fantastic visual reminder of how to use dialect!!

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