Monday, August 9

Posted by Laurel Garver on Monday, August 09, 2010 17 comments
Tomorrow I'm heading to my old stomping grounds for a mid-week getaway, so I'll be posting Monday and Friday this week.

While it will look like "vacation," I'm hoping to do some research while I'm noshing on cotton candy and riding the Merry Mixer at Knoebel's, one of America's last old timey amusement parks. My book in progress occurs largely in north central Pennsylvania, where I grew up. However, I've lived my entire adult life in Philadelphia, so I've forgotten some things, especially the dialect.

For a number of reasons, I never really embraced the local dialect in my rural hometown. My urbane older siblings mocked the "hick speak" whenever they visited. My parents are from Montana and Minnesota and their Western and Mid-Western turns of phrase stuck with me far more than localisms. A few I remember: "warsh" for "wash," "redd up" for "tidy," "crick" for "creek." But the other elements of the dialect I can't quite reconstruct from memory.

Here's what I'll be listening for as I eavesdrop like crazy the next few days:

Regional pronunciations
While I'm no fan of badly tortured spellings to represent dialect, a few well-placed phonetic misspellings can be effective. Here in Philly, the locals walk "down the shtreet," for example. (Okay, to my ears, it sounds more like "downa shtreet" but that's hard to read.)

Colorful idioms
My dad's westernisms like "in a coon's age" and "if it was a bear, it would've bit ya" speak volumes about the abundant wildlife in his region. Ask someone from New Hampshire and from Idaho to complete this sentence: "this winter has been as cold as ____," you'll get very different answers, usually based on local culture.

Word choice
When I moved to Michigan for grad school, I quickly learned that I'd crossed the great "pop" divide and could no longer expect to get anything but carbonated water if I asked for "soda." There's regional variation for all kinds of terms: supermarket or grocery store? Laundry or wash? Water fountain or drinking fountain or bubbler?

And what foreign words have worked their way into common use? Here on the East coast, Yiddish words including "chutzpa" and "schlepp" are common among urbanites. In Louisiana, French terms slip in frequently.

Word order
How grammatically one strings together sentences is determined partly by education and socio-economic status, and partly by region. You know the "rule" against ending sentences with prepositions? The Mid-Atlantic dialect turns it on its head, adding unnecessary prepositions: "Where are you at?" and "Where is she going to?" In parts of England, questions are often doubled: "Having a good holiday, are you?" or "Shall I Hoover the floor, yes?"

Being able to hear and replicate the rhythm of a dialect is perhaps the most difficult skill you need to write convincing characters from a region other than your own. If you're musically inclined or have been trained in writing poetry, you have a bit of an advantage. It still takes a lot of listening to master. Aside from total immersion, it helps to have recordings to revisit and study.

Do any of your characters speak in a dialect that's different from yours? How did you research it? What regional speech variations have you noticed when you travel?
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  1. Yes, I have quite a bit of dialect in my novel With A Name Like Love. It is set in rural Arkansas 1957. but, I made a point to temper it (a little goes a long way) and only have one or two characters that really spoke that way (again, avoiding overkill).

    Also, I never put dialect in the narration..only the dialogue. Have fun on your trip!!

  2. I've found this is hard to keep going through the whole manuscript. I usually have lull periods where they sound normal, and then I have to go back and dialect it up. It's haaaaard :).

  3. I think having the right dialect in fiction makes it that much more worthy to read as we all can't sound like Brian Williams or Barbara Walters. In doing so, we can teach people about our own particular area and if we've done it right, they feel like they've been for a visit.

    That's what I'm trying to do anyway.

  4. I love dialects and accents. I have several characters that speak like the East Coast rural population (Maryland/Virginia for instance) which is fun to write, because I grew up in the suburbs and don't talk that way at all. Since moving to MD from NJ, I'm surrounded by people who speak differently, and I can't help but give their speech patterns to my characters.

  5. Tess: wow, dialect that's set in another historic period! How difficult was that to research? I also use dialect in dialogue. I haven't yet written POV narration that's too dialect-heavy, aside from some East-coast-isms that are probably widely familiar because of TV.

    JEM: Regional voices often don't entirely gel for several drafts. Keep on keeping on!

    Anne: I love books with regional flavor for that reason--it's like being an "armchair tourist." :-)

    Shelley: I think it's very difficult to write one's own dialect well, because who sits around listening to herself talk? I hear my voice recorded and cringe, because my 'accent' is such a weird-sounding mishmash of Midwest and Central PA and Philly. Ugh ugh ugh.

  6. This was a great post, Laurel! I grew up close to Lancaster and we always (okay, still do) make fun of those who pronounce it wrong- to us at least (it does not have a long A people!). We also say crick still in my family, unless out in the "professional" world and say cuss and not curse when talking about profanity.
    Have a great trip!

  7. Great post. I don't think about dialect much except how to keep my American characters from sounding too Canadian. Other than that, I guess I'm always hoping that everyone just talks like I do! :D

  8. Awesome post! Dialect is important, but I guess since I am American and so are my characters it isn't much of a task.

  9. Oh, interesting! You're right that there's nothing like immersion in a certain way of speaking to get your ear attuned. If I ever decide to use a character from Sowf Philly, hopefully I can get that one right....

  10. This is such a fabulous post! I grew up in Upstate NY, and now I live in Georgia. You touched on areas where I have lots of examples in my everyday life. For example, up north we say "have your picture taken." Down south, they say "have your picture made." (You goin' to the mall to have your picture made with Santa?)

    Up north, you "mow your grass." Down south, you "cut your grass." But, did you know you also "cut on the light" down south? Not "turn it on," cut it on. To me, that makes no sense.

    I could go on and on, but won't. Hope you have a great vacation!

  11. This is a great post and something I've been thinking a lot about. Some of my characters are Brits, and I don't want to overdo the Brit speak, so I've mostly asked an expat friend to check for Americanisms in their speech. The rest of the characters are Oregonians, and there's quite a bit of diversity amongst Oregon dialect.

    However, I was surprised while sitting and talking to my kids in a waiting room the other day--in New Mexico--by a local rancher, who asked me if I was from Oregon. He picked up on accent/word usage that I didn't even know existed in my own speech.

  12. Excellent dialect advice. I agree that the cadence, the rhythm, of a region and culture are both hard to write and the most convincing. It's like trying to write about a musical experience.

  13. Elle: As long as you have beta readers from your characters' locale check for dialect, you should be fine.

    Victoria: It's a common assumption that all Americans sound the same and use the same idioms, but really listen to two people from opposite side of your state, or from different economic classes from the same city, and you'll find differences. If your characters sound just like you, be sure to situate them with the same regional and socio-economic background you have.

    Simon: You'd be interested to know that "sowf" is also how they say it in not-so-swanky parts of London. On the Tube, I once heard a mum tell her kid they were getting off at "Sowf Kensington, dahling." :-) And you should totally write a S. Philly character sometime.

  14. Kelly: I giggle at the "LAN-caster" pronunciation, which some Philadelphians use. I've only ever heard locals prononce it the same as the Brits do, "lank-ister," no stressed syllables.

    Nicole: Awesome examples! I know just what you mean--that regional dialect is so much more than pronunciations. Those idiomatic turns of phrase are a huge piece of regional differences.

    Jill: I have Brits in my story too, and it's cadence and idioms that set the dialect apart as much as word choice and pronuncation. I think the overdoing comes in the tortured spellings.

    And it is funny when someone can pinpoint your home turf from your speech. Eyeopening, wasn't it?

    Mary: I think most writers stick to their own region for this reason. It can take a ton of research to get a dialect right when it's an unfamiliar one.

  15. I rarely stray outside my own region when I come up with setting. In my earlier works I'd travel, so to speak, to other regions. I tried too hard and the dialogue wasn't believable.

  16. I love this post! I love discussions of dialect and language use. They can say so much about people.

    I'm a Norcal girl...and dialect here in CA is definitely discussed. SoCal people make fun of us for using "hella" and "hecka." One of my bestfriend's boyfriends says he still can't get used to it, while I find mid/Scal habits of referring to freeways as "the 80," rather than by the freeway name, just plain odd. This was also interesting when in my Intro to Linguistic Anthropology class, our Prof (who was from Idaho)told us we would be placing our tongue just-so to make the "ch" sound. Five of us found our tongues were placed just behind our teeth rather than on the alveolar ridge. This made memorizing IPA interesting...

    And here...Spanish and occasional Chinese enters our dialogue. I think most (at least Northern) Californians know how to say "hi," "thank you" and "happy new year," in Chinese. :P

    I have one project set in San Fransisco, because I don't think I could master the cadence of anywhere else...

  17. My characters are going to be immersed in the world of Paris, and I'm learning each day how to make them more convincing.