#WriterWednesday Guest Post by Author Wayne Zurl – Putting a Dialect into Dialogue

Today, for our weekly Writer Wednesday feature, we have a guest post by author Wayne Zurl on writing dialogue with a dialect. Wayne is the author of A Leprechaun’s Lament, A Murder in Knoxville, and other novelettes. Wayne, welcome to This Blog Intentionally Blank!

Putting a Dialect into Dialogue

Writing dialogue with a dialect can generate controversy and debate, and on occasion, even animosity among writers and readers.

I write about a former New York detective working as a police chief in rural east Tennessee. The accents he’s been exposed to are about as similar as a Venezuelan and a Glaswegian both attempting to speak understandable English. Sorry, Scotland.

I live in the same area where my protagonist works. Coincidently, I’m also an ex-New Yorker. And through thirteen novelettes and two full-length traditionally published novels, I’ve used, in varying degrees, east Tennessee accents.

To my ear, there are three separate and distinct accents in and around the Great Smoky Mountains and I write them all. And occasionally I have a “Nu Yawkah” visit Chief Sam Jenkins and we hear them ask for a “cuppa kawfee” or tell him to “open a windah” or cut the grass with a “mowah.” I do that so the residents of southern Appalachia can’t accuse me of picking on them exclusively when some of my characters use the universal greeting of the region, “You doin’ aw rot t’day?” or any of the other appropriate colloquialisms I hear all the time.

Honest folks, I don’t make this up. I only write what I hear—and I have always had a good ear for languages. That’s why I can speak English fairly well, am semi-fluent in two other languages, and can swear and order a beer in five more.

Okay, let’s look at what the experts say. In his book THE 38 MOST COMMON FICTION WRITING MISTAKES (And How to Avoid Them), Jack M. Bickham wrote a   2 ¼ page chapter called Don’t Mangle Characters’ Speech. Jack says NEVER deviate from the King’s English; it may tend to confuse a reader. Prior to his death, Bickham published about 75 novels and taught English at the University of Oklahoma.

Since I didn’t like Jack’s answer, I looked further. Everyone’s heard of Stephen King and may have read one or more of his sci-fi/horror novels. I think we’ll all agree Stephen has done well for himself in the publishing business. I’m not a fan of horror stories, so I don’t read his fiction, but I liked and recommend his book ON WRITING (A Memoir of the Craft). The first half tells the story of a young Stephen King teaching high school English in Bangor, Maine, near poverty, and in danger of having his utilities turned off before he finally sold the famous CAREY. The second half is pure advice on how to write fiction King’s way.

Stephen’s take on writing dialect is, “Write it the way you hear it.”

And he’s got a unique accent to duplicate in “Down East” Maine.

Steve, however, goes on to say, “Don’t substitute apostrophes for the letters you leave out of the words.”

Example: writin’ rather than writing, should simply be writin, according to King.

So, I was looking at a stalemate, one for and one ag’in.

While working on my first full-length novel, A NEW PROSPECT, I hired Bill Greenleaf, a retired editor, book doctor, and author of nine novels.

Bill agreed with King and said, “Write it as you hear it; it’s more authentic when dealing with characters who speak with a unique accent.”

He further stated that new writers probably shouldn’t just omit letters without using the substitute apostrophe as suggested by King. That may only confuse editors, thinking you may be submitting a manuscript with typos.

Sad but true—a guy like Stephen King can get away with much more than you or I.

A NEW PROSPECT was published and the publisher/editor accepted all the dialect without question.

Since I’ve mentioned that book twice and at my age, I no longer have any modesty, I’ll tell you it was named best mystery at the 2011 Indie Book Awards. It is currently a finalist at the 2012 Eric Hoffer Book Awards and has been nominated for a Montaigne Medal. So, I guess the dialect hasn’t been too troubling to the judges who read the review copies.

My second novel, A LEPRECHAUN’S LAMENT, being handled by a new publisher, not only features characters with thick east Tennessee accents, but several with Irish brogues. The folks at Iconic Publishing are comfortable with the accents written as they would like the reader to “hear” them.

Additionally, both the publisher and editor at Mind Wings Audio, where they’ve produced my novelettes as audio books and simultaneously published them as eBooks, have accepted everything written with oodles of Tennessee dialect. The actor who reads the text says he has fun shifting voices. (A novelette is defined as something between 7,500 and 17,500 words.)

Some readers or reviewers of my works say, “I’m from the south and I don’t speak like that.”

Understandable. Someone from Charleston, South Carolina or Paducah, Kentucky sounds nothing like someone from Cocke County, Tennessee. Someone from Nashville in middle Tennessee doesn’t remotely sound like someone from the Smokies.

To these complainers I say, “If you’ve never been in my neck of the woods, don’t comment on how my neighbors speak.” Not only can I state with authority how a resident of east Tennessee sounds (I’ve been here for twenty years) but I lived in New York for forty-six years and know first-hand someone from Brooklyn speaks nothing like a resident of Buffalo and both possess distinct accents.

Recently, a reviewer said, “Writing in dialect never works.”

I’m suspicious of someone who uses absolutes like always or never. When I hear that, I tend to wonder where they derive their expertise on the subject upon which they commented.

This reviewer claimed, “It would be enough to state that the character spoke with a heavy accent.”

Isn’t that telling and not showing? Just the opposite of what good writers are supposed to do.

George Peleconos has written a successful series of novels featuring Derek Strange, an African American private detective working in Washington DC. Peleconos extensively writes dialogue in Ebonics. And it only makes sense. The jive-ass, hip-hop, gangsta-rapping, young drug dealers Derek encounters during his adventures do not speak like little old men from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. In my opinion, it would not sound authentic and it would detract from the story if he omitted the dialect.

Some readers have told me, “Reading dialects makes me slow down.”

So what? What’s the hurry? Do you want to absorb and understand a novel or just knock out another book and add one more to your “I’ve read” list?

Shifting from one writer’s voice to another causes me to slow down until I pick up the cadence and get in tune with a different style. In only a few pages most readers should clique with something new.

Sometimes, I think semi-professional readers (self-styled, unpaid reviewers) cruise through books so fast they really can’t write an honest or intelligent review.

Another opinion (mine), “Everyone should savor a good book. Slow down and smell the printer’s ink.”

Wayne Zurl grew up on Long Island and retired after twenty years with the Suffolk County Police Department, one of the largest municipal law enforcement agencies in New York and the nation. For thirteen of those years he served as a section commander supervising investigators. He is a graduate of SUNY, Empire State College and served on active duty in the US Army during the Vietnam War and later in the reserves. Zurl left New York to live in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee with his wife, Barbara.

For more information on Wayne’s Sam Jenkins mystery series see www.waynezurlbooks.net. You can read excerpts, reviews and endorsements, interviews, coming events, and see photos of the area where the stories take place.

Amazon link: http://amazon.com/author/waynezurl

B&N link: http://barnesandnoble.com/s/wayne-zurl

16 Comments

  1. I love that dialects slow me down – it helps me absorb what I am reading better – after a few chapters, if it is written well, it become a rythm in my head.

  2. Most people seem to want to zoom through books; that’s a measure of “well-written.” However, I think true book lovers want to take their time. I want to be able to hear the character’s voice, and sometimes, dialects are the best way to do that.

    My latest main character was raised by an uncle from south London; I can’t imagine her without the dialect when she gets annoyed.

  3. Wayne Zurl says:

    Hi Bill,
    Thanks for inviting me to your blog to meet your fans and pitch my theory about writing with accents or dialect. And readyto change, you couldn’t have said it better. A well written book comes with its own rhythm that carries you from page one to the end. Wouldn’t it be nice to “hear” every book we read and not just pass eyes over the words.
    Best to all. wz

    1. Wayne, thanks again for writing this. I really appreciate it.

  4. barbara jablonowski zurl says:

    You truly do replicate speech from East Tennessee. It is what is said and heard and for me makes the story all that much more real. Well done.

  5. Very interesting! I have never attempted to write dialect before. I can only imagine how difficult it can be. I found it very hard to read Huckleberry Finn due to the thick accents. But that’s just me!

  6. jennymilch says:

    I’m suspicious of absolutes, too, Wayne. (In my experience they’re ‘never’ right 🙂 I think the key to dialect is to lace it. Give just enough so that the reader begins to hear things as the character would speak them as s/he goes on reading. There’s a thick line between subtle dialog and caricature. When every line contains a missing letter or rich drawl, I personally find it crosses the line. I have read nearly every King novel multiple times and would be hard pressed now to say which characters spoke in dialect, beyond the occasional ayuh. Yet I bet I heard them all in just the right way as I read.

    King also says that a story unread is an unclosed circle, suggesting that reading and writing are interdependent acts. The story is not solely the writer’s production, but a marriage between the work and the reader. Since each reader will have a greater or lesser tolerance for dialect, I think the key is to put just enough in so that it’s there for the taking, but doesn’t overwhelm.

  7. ontheplumtree says:

    A well-written and well-considered post. It is always difficult to write regional accents. In my next book, one of characters is from Northumberland! Really hard to get that one right. Isn’t is always difficult to make such decisions, because it can look like typos.

    1. I’ve worried about the typos issue as well. In fact, I backed off some dialect text for that very reason. It’s a tough balance, I think.

  8. Adam says:

    Deliberately misspelling words to try to reproduce a dialect is very jarring, extremely difficult to do well, and often annoying to read. My last year in college I took a Fiction Appreciation class to fill out my schedule. One of the short stories we read was The Valetudinarian by Joshua Ferris (the story was originally published in The New Yorker, we read it from The Best American Short Stories 2010). In this story, there is a character with a thick Russian accent. Ferris never misspells a single word to try and force the character’s accent, he very carefully analyzed the speech patterns of a native Russian speaker who is speaking English as a second language. It came across beautifully.

    In a similar vein, when you speak in Spanish, the order of the verbs and nouns is switched in the sentence when compared to English. When a native Spanish speaker is then speaking English, they will often construct their sentences differently because of this.

    The extent to which you try to reproduce a dialect in writing is a decision of the author, and there are multiple levels of it. It really depends on what you’re trying to do with the book. I won’t say that a dialect can never be done well, but I would say that it is very difficult to do well, and it’s not something that I would suggest for a young author to try to do.

    1. Adam, I do agree that it takes a bit of skill to do well. I would also suggest people not try it with dialects they haven’t lived with every day. Think of it as speaking with an accent – if it’s not genuine, people will know it right away.

      When I write characters from the South, where I grew up, I’m circumspect about leaving off the last “g” even though most people do in speech. I’ve done so here and there, just to remind the reader the character talks that way. I wouldn’t, however, try to spell out the flat “I” that is used.

  9. waynezurl says:

    Bill, It looks like we generated a bit of interest on the topic. I think those who mentioned moderation are thinking in the right direction. Maybe writing is like drinking. Thanks again for the opportunity to post an essay on your blog. See you around Facebook. Wayne

    1. Wayne, I appreciate your stimulating conversation as you’ve done. Thanks again.

    2. Wayne, thanks again for doing this, and stimulating a lot of dialogue. I appreciate it.

  10. waynezurl says:

    Bill, It looks like we generated a little interest in the topic. I think those who see the need for moderation are loooking in the right direction. Writing must be like drinking. Thanks again for the opportunity to post an essay on your blog. See you around Facebook. wz

    PS: Niamh, I love to listen to those “Noth Coontry” accents. Looking forward to see how you write the parts.

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