Natives talking

On Feb 9, 2012, writeforfun wrote, I’m from Indiana. I’ve read a tiny bit of “the Hoosier Schoolmaster,” which is supposedly written with Hoosier dialect, and it doesn’t seem all that abnormal to me. I’ve read other books, even modern ones, that are a little harder to understand because I’m not used to the expressions they use.
    I write my characters’ dialogue as though they’re ordinary people, so I use ordinary words, like “pretty big,” “you guys,” “gonna,” “anyhow,” etc., in their conversations even though they aren’t standard.
    The problem: Most of my characters aren’t from Indiana, or even the Midwest! Is any of that considered “dialect,” and am I using too much of it? I’ve never noticed if I talk any different from people anywhere else in the country, but I must, right? I want the dialogue to seem real, but I don’t want to be unclear. Should I stop using substandard expressions in their dialogue, or do you think there isn’t any difference? Or should I try to figure out what words are used in other areas of the country – and the world?

Later writeforfun added, I think I’m just a little paranoid because I’ve never left the state, so I have to go on what other people say, and those I’ve talked to who have traveled always insist that we’re very different from other areas of the country. And I remember reading a book series that was written by a British person, and I was baffled by some of the expressions he used.

And the next day E. S. Ivy posted this comment: @ writeforfun – I’m from Texas and we use all those expressions too. But, we do have a few that are different. I started thinking about this when I wanted to write a character with a Southern accent; I found it’s very tricky to do! So one thing I’ve started doing is keeping a list of things we say that I think others don’t. Things such as we say “fixin’ to..” instead of “about to” as in “I’m fixin’ to go to the store.”

    Even if you have never gone out of the state, the fact that you read a lot (and likely watch tv!) probably means you have a pretty good idea of how people talk all over.

    If you want to write a dialect on purpose, one of the best tips I’ve heard… is that it’s not necessarily writing how the words are pronounced, but in the order your words are said. Writing a different spelling can be distracting, such as I just wrote “fixin'” instead of “fixing.” You might consider using words like “gonna” for only one distinct character.

I’m with E. S. Ivy on word order, a great tip, and also on non-standard spelling, which I’m not crazy about. I see gonna and the like routinely in screenplays, where I think it’s fine because the spelling is meant to inform an actor about pronunciation and the audience will never see it.

Going to may seem formal as opposed to gonna, likewise fixing rather than fixin’. But if you establish the tone of a character’s speech, the reader will infer the colloquial form, as in this snippet of dialogue:

“Little Piggy, what ever are you doing?”

“Why, I’m fixing to head on over to the Hair of Your Chinny Chin Chin barber shop, and once I get there, I’m going to fetch my brother home.”

I’m not Southern, and a genuine Southerner might do better, but I hope you get the feel of this. Without the regionalism, Little Piggy might say, “I’m about to leave for the Hair of Your Chinny Chin Chin barber shop to bring my brother home.” Or a different kind of character might answer, “My intention is to sally forth to the quaintly named Hair of Your Chinny Chin Chin barber shop to persuade my brother to return to the family domicile.”

English is marvelous in the choices it offers! I picked family domicile after considering ancestral abode. But there are other possibilities for each word. For family I could have gone with clan or hereditary or, my desktop thesaurus says, patrimonial, and I’m sure you can think of other options. Same with domicile. They’re not all direct synonyms for one another; shades of meaning differ, and the shades you select will color your prose.

It’s all in the writer’s voice and the character’s voice, which I wrote about in a post in September of 2010 and in a chapter in Writing Magic, both of which you might like to look at.

As for representing a region, naturally not everyone in a certain place sounds the same. I often listen to talk shows that beam out of New York City. Some people who call in sound like caricatures of a Noo Yawka or a Long Gislander (hard G, if you haven’t experienced this). In others the accent is faint. I like to think my own is faint but I hear it loud and clear when I’m traveling.

I’m not sure what expressions, as opposed to accent, signify New York. Well, here’s one: if you don’t live in Manhattan but you do live in one of the outer boroughs, going to Manhattan is called going to “the city,” even though these residents are already in the city. And I just googled “New York dialect,” and Wikipedia reminded me that people in the city stand “on line” rather than “in line,” which is absolutely true. There were other New York dialect sites that I didn’t investigate.

And I googled “Hoosier dialect,” and found an interesting blog that said that Hoosiers say they’re “half-tempted” to do something. Writeforfun, or anyone else, is this true?

So if you want to represent a region, I suggest you google it. But don’t believe everything you read. Go through a few entries for confirmation.

Also, and this is fun, try reading whatever you’ve written in a fake accent. If you’re not British, read a paragraph in a British accent. Then try Irish, Australian, Jamaican, Southern, New York, whatever you can. You may discover that the authenticity will be strengthened if you add a word or change the word order. See what happens.

Here are the week’s prompts:

∙ In my fantasies I’ve given characters accents but I’ve never tried an entire dialect. It’s a great idea, and I want to do it, so look for it in a future book. You can try it now. Your main character, Wendlyn, is behind enemy lines, a spy in the land of the Ruille people. She’s been taught their dialect, but she’s not comfortable with it. Write her conversation with two suspicious natives.

∙ Pick a paragraph in a favorite book and rewrite it at least three ways using different word choice. Change the tone of the passage with your revisions.

∙ Find a section of dialogue in a favorite book or in one of your stories and regionalize it. Turn it Texan or Canadian or Californian or more than one. Use Google or some other search engine for help.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Local talk

On December 2nd April posted this comment: What’s your opinion on placing an emphasis on dialect? For example, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

What about the words accompanying dialogue? Some people are sticklers for only using “said,” even with questions (instead of “asked”). Others use quite a variety of words to give more… shall we say, “expression” to the dialogue. And I know some don’t care either way, so long as the word isn’t an adverb/ends in “ly.” What say you?

I love Twain, and I adore The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But Twain, even though his voice is often modern, wrote in a different era. Different conventions applied. I don’t know if anyone today would name a character after a berry, either. Maybe, but the writer would have to have an important reason for doing so.

A writer would also have to have a powerful reason for using dialect, more powerful than simply establishing a regional feeling. Even if you get the dialect exactly right, which is hard, readers are likely to think you didn’t. Speech rings differently for each of us.

You can describe a dialect in narration, and then the reader will know it’s there. If I were introducing a certain species of New York accent (I’m a New Yorker), I might talk about the tortured r and the distorted long i and the attachment of a final g to the next word when that word starts with a vowel, as in Long Gisland. I might even give a sample as I just did and then return to standard English.

Choice of expression also can portray a region. You all is southern and only southern in my experience. Maybe these aren’t New York-isms, but it seems to me I hear Right? and Am I crazy? a lot here. My late friend from Minnesota used to say oofta! frequently. Pay attention to local phrases and use them, but don’t overdo or you’ll shift into parody – unless you have parody in mind.

There are more tools to situate our characters, because locales often live up to type. My books have taken me all over the country. On the streets of San Francisco and nowhere else I have overheard conversations about spirit channeling and fruit fasting. If I’m traveling for a publisher, I’m assigned local media escorts, who take me to schools and bookstores. In LA my escort one time was a starlet, and a car service driver had written a screenplay. When I sign books in southern states the children seem to have three-syllable and hyphenated first names more often than anywhere else. You can use details like these to establish place.

But again, be careful and specific, and use a light touch. We don’t want to alienate readers who actually come from these places. It’s fun – and safe – to adapt these techniques to fantasy, to invent regional characteristics for a fictional world. Make up your own, though. Don’t have your Quachappians saying oofta!

I talk about said and other speech verbs in Writing Magic. I like said because it fades into the background, as does asked. I’m not sure I approve of myself for this, but I use cried a lot. Cried suggests emotional intensity better than yelled, which, to me, is just about volume. I’m fine with speech verbs that convey information, like yelled, shouted, whispered, because I can’t tell a character is doing any of those things unless I’m told. Whispered can be used in a scene where quiet is called for. The word needn’t be repeated, because the reader will assume from then on that everybody is whispering unless told otherwise.

I’m opposed to questioned, exclaimed, snarled, blubbered – because they draw attention to themselves and away from the actual speech. I use blurted sometimes, so I guess I don’t mind it, although if you can convey blurting without actually writing the word, so much the better. I just looked at my latest manuscript and found continued, burst out, called, even squeaked, which I think is okay because the character’s throat was closing on her.

My favorite writing teacher insisted that speech verbs have to involve speech, so it’s wrong to write, She laughed, “That’s funny.” because you can’t laugh words. It should be, She laughed. “That’s funny.” or some other way of putting it. Notice the period rather than the comma after laughed.

About adverbs describing speech, like “That’s awful,” he said emphatically. – I’m sure I’m sometimes guilty of them, and sometimes you need them, but as infrequently as possible.

It’s great not to need speech verbs at all. One way to eliminate them is to break speech up with action like this: “I’m scared.” Sally twisted the ends of her scarf. “Did we step into a horror movie?”

We know Sally is the one talking if she has the paragraph to herself, which is a good way to avoid confusion. Action also lets the reader see what’s going on. It can shed light on a character, too, or heighten tension.

Here’s a prompt: A deli sandwich maker, a retired dress saleswoman, a stay-at-home dad, a college student, a lawyer, and a physical therapist are on a train that gets delayed. One of these characters (or any others you choose) starts a conversation, and the rest join in. Some may speak on cell phones as well. Write down what they say. You may want to try the conversation/debate/argument, whatever it turns into, a few different ways, experimenting with speech verbs, action, and placing the characters regionally. Have fun, and save all the versions.