Highway to Hell, Writing

Writing tip of the day: Dialogue and Dialect

So, I was watching True Blood on HBO. (I seriously, highly recommend the books by Charlaine Harris. Go buy or check them out now.) And I’m thinking: Wow, they are really over exaggerating the rural Louisiana accents. Not one really talks like that. That’s almost a caricature.

Then I was in the mall on Friday, and there were three girls, possibly two girls and their mother, and they were talking about finding their way around the department store. And I swear, hand to God, they sounded JUST LIKE the TV show. I mean, accents so thick you could cut through them, and that weird way that Louisianans sort of half swallow their sounds. East Texans do that, too. (They may have been refugees from Hurricane Ike.)

The thing about dialect (fancy word for accent) is that it can convey a lot about your character without your having to TELL the reader. It can show if they’re educated, casual, precise, slow, smarmy, proper and formal… all kinds of things. If the way they speak changes in a certain situation, that tells us something, too. It’s a very useful tool.

But in the case of a distinct accent, how do you handle this without driving your reader crazy or coming off like a stereotype?

The book I’m rewriting now is set in rural Alabama. The Alabama placement is more in the center of the mouth, which is why “I” sounds like “Ah” when they talk. (As in “Ah’m goin’ t’the store.”) To produce a Texas accent aloud, all you have to do is smile when you talk, and run most of your words together while still talking real slow. Also, it’s “real” and never “really.” In fact, you can discard the “ly” from most adverbs. i.e., run real quick, sneak real quiet, dance real graceful.)

As a writer, you don’t really convey the pronunciation of things in your dialogue–at least, I don’t. It’s one thing when a character is first introduced, you might have your POV character note the way they talk by spelling one line phonetically. (I’ll do that for any unfamiliar word, actually. In Highway to Hell, Lisa uses the word “bruja” (Spanish for “witch”) and Maggie says (in narration): “It sounded like she said ‘brew-ha’ but with more spit in the ‘h’.”)

But what you do instead is reflect the dialect through the grammatical idiosyncrasies. For instance, the “ly” thing in the Texas accent. In dialogue, you dispense with it, and you can say something like “We was going real quick to the store, and then coming right back.” Your eye reads it in an accent without your having to spell it out. If I had to write (or read) a book full of dialogue like “We wuz goin’ reel quick tuh thuh store, an then comin’ raht back.” I’d drive a spike through my eye. It would be like reading a book written in LOLcat.

So, that’s your writing 101 lesson for Monday. How to convey dialect without driving your copy editors and readers crazy.