I’ve had a number of people ask me lately about dialect in fiction. Next week we’ll talk about how to do dialect well, but for today, since I’m at the Oregon Christian Writers’ conference in Portland, Oregon, sitting in a hotel room with my roomie and buddy, Susan May Warren, writer par excellence and the mastermind behind My Book Therapy (pause to take a breath) I figured this was the perfect time to have a talk with said mastermind.
KB: Susie, tell me, what are your thoughts on using dialect in fiction?
SMW: It was used a lot when Christian fiction first got started, in Janette Oke’s books and others, and some people loved it, some were repelled by it. I think dialect can work well, but it’s important to use it only when it adds depth to the character.
KB: So when you say “adds depth to the character…”?
SMW: Dialect can show where a character is from, not just the country, but the region, even—as is the case with London—the specific area of the city where they live and were raised. It can also show the kind breeding the character has. Diction betrays class, especially if they have a higher education.
KB: As does vocabulary.
KB: My blog next week addresses the how-to of dialect, and one of the things I’m recommending is that they just sprinkle dialect in rather than having it overwhelm the book.
SMW: That’s what I do. And dialect is more than just accents, it’s key phrases that a character, and only that character, will say. So one tool is to pick certain phrases or terms used by my character because of where he’s from or the time period, and incorporate that into the story in a light way that shows the inflection.
KB: Any examples?
SMW: Diana Gabaldon does a great job of using dialect in her Outlander series. She has the Scottish hero use words like verra, dinna, wee—the kinds of words that give the sense of inflection. When we read it, we can “hear” the character is Scottish, but the reader’s mind doesn’t have to stop and sound it out.
KB: So, lady of Minnesota, what might someone from your area say?
SMW: Minnesotas might say You betcha, or If guy were—as in, “If a guy were to buy an ax, where would he go?” Oh, and here’s one I use in my books: “For cryin’ in the sink.” Very Minnesotan.
KB: In Southern Oregon, we use terms like just a tad bit—which is more than a scosch, but not as much as a glop. And this confirms what you were saying about dialect showing what part of a city or state you’re from, because in Southern Oregon we sound different from the folks up in Portland. Another example is that in Southern Oregon, though we’re not south of the Mason-Dixon, you will hear y’all.
SMW: Oh! Y’all is a great example, because it’s diction, but it’s clearly regional. No one in the north would use it, not unless it’s an affectation.
KB: So, to summarize, yes, use dialect but only when it will enhance or add depth to your character. And when you use it, don’t overdo. Right, Susie?
SMW: You betcha!
So there you have it. Tune in next week for the how-to portion on doing dialect well!
Until then, why not share some regional words or phrases from your city, state, country?