Rhonda Browning White
Nothing sinks the reader deep into a story like using all available senses in your writing. We want to smell the wood smoke from the fireplace, taste the buttery crust on the apple pie, feel the well-worn softness when we snuggle under Grandma’s lap quilt, see the crinkles at the corners of her eyes when she smiles, and hear the Southern twang of her voice. But how is the best way to convey Grandma’s Southern dialect, without having it backfire on you? Here are few rules you can follow that should keep you out of trouble.
Be personally familiar with the dialect you’re trying to convey, unless you want to be considered a thoughtless classist or racist. At one time or another, we all share the same emotions and many of the same experiences, so use caution when conveying those emotions and experiences through regional dialect. This isn’t to say one should be ashamed or afraid of dialect. In fact, nothing makes me happier—more proud, even—than to hear people speak using their own local speech patterns. If we all spoke a homogenized language, what a boring world this would be!
Don’t overdo it when writing dialect. A few well-chosen words and phrases sprinkled throughout your story will do an amazing job of allowing your reader to hear the character’s speech inflections. Paragraph after paragraph of phonetically written dialogue will fry your reader’s brain. Who has time to interpret an entire novel of “foreign language,” when we simply want to read a good story? Overuse of dialect will take away from the plot and action, because it pulls the reader away from the story and makes them think about the words, instead of the meaning they should convey.
Take it easy on misspelled words. I strongly recommend avoiding what Jerome Stern, author of Making Shapely Fiction, refers to as “eye dialect.” Substituting misspelled words such as enuff for enough does nothing to change the pronunciation of the word (dialect), but instead suggests inferiority on behalf of the character and arrogance on behalf of the author. Misspellings and overuse of apostrophes also wear out the eyes of your reader. For example, read the following sentence:
All dis tawk ‘bout die-leckt is ware-in’ on my onlyest nerve.
Can you imagine having to read an entire book with a character’s dialogue written in this manner? Instead, you can express the same character’s speech patterns in this way:
All this talk about dialect is wearing out my last nerve.
By the phrases “all this talk,” and “wearing out my last nerve,” we know that the character has a strong regional dialect.
Don’t be afraid to use slang. Each region has its own set of words as phrases, as does each generation. Think about the phrases your parents used and use, compared with those used by your teenager. “Man, he’s one cool cat,” transports our character into the seventies. “That’s what I’m gonna did,” tells us the speaker is an older Cajun. “Y’all come back now, you hear?” Well, we all know Grandma Clampett’s voice. Again, the key is not to overdo it. In addition, words like gotcha, gonna and probly are such common pronunciations of their correctly spelled counterparts in American English that it’s not necessary to misspell them in your writing, at all.
Study some of the masters of regional dialect before you begin to write. Two who quickly come to mind are Toni Morrison and Ron Rash, and here is an excerpt from each one’s work:
“You think I’m going to let him put me in the poorhouse so a slick lawyer can stay rich?”
“You been watching those Watergate lawyers?
“No, ma’am. Yes, ma’am.”
“Well, then. Don’t say another word about it. You want some supper or not?”
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
“You ain’t got need for a granny-woman, have you?”
“No,” I said. “I’m the high sheriff, and I’m looking for Holland Winchester. I was wondering if you’d seen him?”
“Oh, I’ve seen him,” Widow Glendower said. “I seen him twenty-odd years ago when I brung him into this world.”
One Foot in Eden by Ron Rash
From each of these powerful examples, we have an idea not only of what these characters sound like, but what they look like, as well. Though we don’t know the exact setting of the story (location, year, and so on), from each brief paragraph, we can guess that the first is set in the Deep South and the second in the Appalachian Mountains. The characters aren’t portrayed as ignorant, because two have knowledge of politics, another is a law enforcement officer, and yet another is a successful midwife.
Dialect is influential and commanding, when used correctly. Take care to use it as you would a potent seasoning. Sprinkle it lightly and occasionally throughout your story for the best flavor.