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