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!