Monday, July 5, 2010

Hidee Ya'll, Jeet Yet? Bending the Rules of Dialect

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 get by with letting people hear our characters accents with their eyes.

Here are three important tips to help you ‘bend’ the rule a bit and get that dialect in your fiction as great characterization. (examples from my novel, A Twist of Faith)

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 guy’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 thangs yet. When Mama told me you’d got here 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.

3. Vocabulary choices:

In my novel, Here To Stay, 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) make those 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 seem to encourage her health.” He winked. “Not fond of London morning traffic, I’m afraid. How was your flight?”
Eisley shrugged. “Okay, I guess. It would have been nicer if my seatmate hadn’t been so annoying. He kept flirting with me.”
“And that was an unpleasant?”
“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?


Krista Phillips said...

NICELY done, Pepper! I love me some good dialect, but it CAN get annoying when overdone. When you have to read a sentence 3 times to understand what they are saying... ha!

My characters are all mildy southern... meaning that they have the little lilt in their voice but they aren't deep southern with the twang... except for the mother, and I use vocabulary to show that.

My ONLY exception where I used a bit of dialect is with a character that is scene only one time... he's the worker at a run down hotel in the middle of TN that has a couple of teeth missing and smells quite badly. He's only on spot for a page or so, and I figured it'd show is character more with a bit of dialect. I would NOT have done that, however, with a main character, or even an important minor character. And even then, I toned it down a bit more than Mark Twain:-)

Suzanne said...

I actually had no trouble in the first dialect example you gave. ;-)

I just love dialect, I love language in general. Dialect studies was easily my favorite section of my Intro to Linguistics class. So I thought, for my new novel (Science Fiction) I'd create a new dialect for a specific subset of people. First it was, the low life war vets, or more specifically, one of my characters. It involved putting S on the end of first person verbs. I never wrote out the rules for it, but it always sounded cool in my head. "I sees whatcha talkin' bout."

But it quickly got irritating. I remember all those people who HATES dialect in my past stories. (I had a brief southern accent in a novella, and readers complained.) So I rehashed the war vet's dialect, and gave it to a poor, beat up dirty guy who is only in the novel for two chapters at the beginning, anyway. It worked much better to show him as being not exactly like all the other characters, and yet still in the same general barkpark, as far as the division between people goes in my novel.

I wish I could use dialect more heavily, but it's hard to get around. I definitely take word choice into great consideration. It can even effect how the character's talk about certain things, intimate things.

I'm not a big fan on the first one you suggested, and I suppose it wouldn't work in my novel because I don't want to reference things the characters don't use themselves. But I also don't want to treat my characters like, just because you have some such accent, you're automatically dumber than other characters. A reference to Beverly Hillbillies could easily lead to that though, hillbilly not exactly being the nicest word.

But I'll stop rambling! Thanks for the lovely post!

Pepper said...

Hidee, and thanks for the comments.
It's hard to write effective dialogue and still keep things easily readable. I can't help it though. All of my books take place close to home, which is the Blue Ridge Mountains, and I LOVE the accents here. Fun.
Southern accents are fun and so are Texas ones. The drawl :-)
Mary C. has a little 'accent' in her book Wildflower Bride because the heroine is a white woman raised by Native Americans. It's done well, very fluid.
My problem is adding too much - because I love language :-)

Pepper said...

Linguistics! Oh wonderful. I teach Phonetics at the university near where I live. Since I'm a speech-pathologist, I absolutely love studying different dialects and the way sounds change.
Yes, I'm a geek :-)
And I'm so glad the Beverly Hillbillies comment came off as negative. My heroine has all these preconceived notions about people from Appalachia, so...I love proving her wrong ;-)
Since I'm from the Blue Ridge Mountains (and LOVE the culture & dialect), it's so much fun to incorporate it into my novels.
But I get trigger happy and have to be careful to guard characters' tongues so their accents do not draw away from the story.
Wow, dialect for a sci-fi. Very cool. But I can imagine it would be tough. It blows my mind to think that J.R.R. Tolkien created an entire language for his books.

Mary Connealy said...

Hey Dr. Pepper. Nice scene. No blood sucking though. I had my hopes up, girl.

Pepper said...

LOL...wrong blog, Mary!
HA! I love you!

Mary Vee Storyteller said...

Great play on words in your comment above, Pepper.
"But I get trigger happy and have to be careful to guard characters' tongues so their accents do not draw away from the story." I'm referring to draw (southern drawl? LOL)

I love adding dialect to my stories. I think it adds panache, snobbery, hick, arrogance, style, geek, wimp, emo and etc. It defines the character without unnecessary description. Yet I also agree that dialect must be tempered. I sooooooooooo remember reading Treasure Island out loud to a group of 5th graders. I sounded like I had a stuttering problem. I disintegrated into tears in a short time when they weren't looking--of course.
Great Post

Pepper said...

LOL, Mary - and I didn't even mean to write THAT pun ;-)

Oh gracious, Treasure Island. Man, I should have used an example from it! That's a tough one to read.

A Pen In Neverland: Angela Peña Dahle said...

I love this post! I haven't attempted this yet because including it in a PB might be disastrous! I'll save this skill for much later in my career! LOL. Good tips though. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Wonderful information here. I'm so glad I found your blog. Us writers have to stick together. lol

Pepper said...

So glad you found us too.