Author Guest Post
Dialect in Dialogue: A Little Goes a Long Way
Do you ever pick up a book and seamlessly fall into the rhythms and idiosyncrasies of characters from a part of the world you’ve never visited? I do. I loved Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood for drawing me into rural Louisiana and The Last Picture Show for pulling me into a small Texas community in the mid-20th century. With both books, effective use of dialect played a huge role in my enjoyment of the setting and characters. But the opposite can happen, too. A hyper-focus on authenticity can make the book inaccessible to readers from outside that region, because it’s just too dang much work to read. I want to turn pages, not turn backflips trying to work my way through.
So how do the good writers immerse us in the sounds of a culture without making us work for it? I had to answer that question for myself when I wrote a series of books set in Texas and the Caribbean. I’ve lived in both places. I know exactly how people sound and talk. In early drafts, I wrote dialogue just like it sounded to me in my head. And when I wasn’t quite authentic enough, my island-boy husband corrected me.
Here’s an example from an early draft of Saving Grace:
“Dese hills are steep. Da sun is brutal. Dere are centipedes as long as me foot.” Someone laughed. “I not jokin’ you, ladies. You will see beautiful trees, blossoms and vines, but dey can reach out with dare t’orns and stickers and tear your soft skin. Dey grow t’ick togedder, at times I will be using dis,” he patted the machete strung across his hip, “to clear a path for us to get t’rough. You aine gohne make me sad if you decide dis hike is not for you. I can only carry one of you out if you get hurt or are overcome with our tropical heat, so leave now if you gonna be leavin’.”
I’ve seen worse phonetic patois, but this is still hard to read. Compare it to dialogue from the final version:
“These hills steep. The sun rough. There be centipedes as long as me foot.” Someone laughed. “I not jokin’ you, ladies and gentlemen. You will see beautiful trees, blossoms and vines, but they can reach out with their thorns and stickers and tear your soft skin. They grow thick together, so at times I be using this,” he patted the machete strung across his hip, “to clear a path for us to get through. You ain’t gonna make me sad if you decide this hike not for you. I can only carry one of you out if you get hurt or fall to our tropical heat, so leave now if you gonna be leavin’.”
It’s the same, yet different. I had the honor of Jane Friedman’s edit on this passage back when she was with Writer’s Digest, and she felt the first version was too phonetic. She encouraged me to focus on grammar, not spelling, to create the sound.
It only took me three more years to figure out how to use her suggestion, but I am very happy with how it came out. Reviews from Caribbean readers are that the dialogue in Saving Grace is authentic. Reviews from non-Caribbean readers are that the book is a page-turner.
So here’s what worked for me in creating dialect; I hope it helps you craft authentic and accessible regional dialogue for your characters:
1. Explain it early on. Think of movies that switch out of subtitles after the first five minutes. What is the point of having everyone speak in Russian in the first place if you’re just going to go change it to English? The point is to show the viewer what it sounds like. So, writers, use your words to explain what makes the sound unique. Here’s an example of how I tried used this technique:
His Calypso accent was thick, much thicker than Ava’s, with his “th” sounding like “t” and all the g’s and d’s dropped from the end of his words, but he was understandable.
2. Focus on grammar. To create the lilt of the tropics, I stripped out “be” verbs (mostly) and had my characters speak in the present tense. It worked like a charm. Is it 100% accurate? Of course not. But does it capture the essence of the sound? I believe that it did.
3. Go light on the phonetics. Nobody wants to be sounding out the big words, right? It slows the reader down. If they stop turning pages, your book is about to be shut. So pick the highest impact phonetic spellings, and then back off. I used “bahn yah” several times, once I described how it sounded.
4. Let your setting do some of the heavy lifting. By describing setting with specificity and detail, you can get your reader’s imagination to fill in your dialectical gaps. If my character drinks a Red Stripe beer instead of just a beer, what sounds do you hear around you in the bar? Remember, the reader wants to think and imagine. Those are fun things to do. Working to sound out words isn’t.
5. Drop in a few colloquialisms along the way. “Yah mon” and “irie” worked for me in Saving Grace. I’ve had a lot of fun working simple yet lyrical colloquialisms into my Caribbean-based books. This is also a great way to show something about who your character is. Is she a worrier? Is he funny? Does she cling to the old ways? Is he a sports-nut? All of these traits can be shown through regional expressions.
I hope these suggestions help you paint a picture, no matter what region or culture you’re trying to illustrate in your work. If they do, drop me a note and let me know at Pamela@PamelaHutchins.com.
Happy writing, y’all.
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Saving Grace - Book Trailer
Saving Grace by Pamela Fagan Hutchins
Book 1: Katie and Annalise Series
Publisher: SkipJack Publishing
Publication Date: September 24, 2012
Format: Paperback - 278 pages / Kindle - 439 KB / Nook - 2 MB
Genre: Mystery / Romantic Suspense / Women's Fiction
BUY THE BOOK: Saving Grace
BUY THE SERIES: Katie and Annalise Series
Book 1: Saving Grace
Book 2: Leaving Annalise - Publication Date: August 2013
Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book from the author / publisher in exchange for my honest review and participation in a virtual book tour event hosted by Pump Up Your Book! Virtual Book Publicity Tours.
Katie escapes professional humiliation, a broken heart, and her Bloody Mary-habit when she runs to the island of St. Marcos to investigate the suspicious deaths of her parents. But she trades one set of problems for another when she is bewitched by the voodoo spirit Annalise in an abandoned rainforest house and, as worlds collide, finds herself reluctantly donning her lawyer clothes again to defend her new friend Ava, who is accused of stabbing her very married Senator-boyfriend.
My Book Review:
Katie Connell is a Texas attorney whose life is in a tailspin. Her career has suffered a major setback when she lost her first criminal case. She hates her job, she drinks too much, she has a failed office romance, and she lost her parents in an auto accident on the island of St. Marcos. Stressed out and needing to get away, Katie returns to St. Marcos where she hopes to uncover information about her parents' mysterious deaths in the auto accident. Once there she becomes friends with Ava, a young island girl who is having an affair with a married Senator. When the Senator ends up dead, Ava is accused of stabbing him to death, and Katie decides to defend her. While on the island, Katie falls in love with an abandoned estate called Annalise, which is rumored to be haunted. Will she be able to fulfill her dreams of refinishing the house, save Ava, and solve the mystery of her parents death?
Saving Grace is a fast-paced entertaining mystery that has just the right amount of drama, suspense and romance that keeps the readers intrigued and turning the pages. Author Pamela Fagan Hutchins weaves an exciting and humorous tale told in the first person narrative by sassy Katie Connell. Katie takes the reader along for the ride on her journey in search of answers, while transporting them between Dallas and the island of St. Marcos. This story has clever subplots, action and suspense that entices the reader to follow along as the mystery unfolds. And if that isn't enough for you, it has some heartfelt and emotional romance and friendship thrown in the mix.
With an engaging cast of characters who are realistic, have flaws, and who are easy to relate to; witty dialogue and interactions; and a richly descriptive island setting; Saving Grace has it all: mystery, romance, drama, suspense and laugh-out-loud humor. This exciting whodunit is one heck of an entertaining read!
Saving Grace is the first book in the Katie and Annalise Series.
RATING: 4 STARS ****