Delicious dialect?

One of the things I warn people against is overdoing dialect in your writing, and by this I mean using so much it becomes impossible to follow what characters are saying. You see it from time to time in books and it can be a turn off. I think the last one I read like this was on the Commonwealth short list — but it was written by a South African and it was a great book, I just struggled with the dialogue sections — but perhaps this was more my ignorance. Although it did make me think how sometimes writers get the voice in the dialogue but if the same narrator is there throughout it needs to also be in the thinking parts, right?

I think the trick is to get the natural rhythm of language using key expressions used in the dialect. I used the scouse in Learning to Fly and since I am very familiar with this I think it worked.

When I wrote While No One Was Watching I did a lot of research to get Lydia’s African-American Vernacular right. Initially I didn’t have it quite as strong as it is now, tending to capture more the nuances, but it was on the advice of an agent, who was interested in the novel for a while, if I was going to do it — I had to do it properly. And remember I was using the first person narrator. So that meant not only capturing the rhythm (and not the stereotype, i.e. what I thought it ought to sound like as  British white girl) BUT being consistent in how it was used and using it correctly throughout. She recommended I look at books like The Help and the The Color Purple (had read these!) although here the dialect is even stronger as it’s a generation or two back, and I tended to use this for when Lydia quoted her parents or when she was in moments of greatest tension. I also had to listen (and there are some great dialect libraries where people read the same quotes from a book in different dialects across the US) to the nuances specific to the Dallas accent and here I tended to use expressions from that like ‘I’ll be fixin’ to’ to mean I’ll get ready to … etc. It was something I had to work really hard on, seriously!

It’s amazing the amount of work that goes into trying to get this right.

So, I read with interest this morning the first 1 star review (yay I now have a full house! But out of 42 reviews, since 32 are 5 star and 7 are 4 star) I ain’t complainin’!!! And her comment was how she found it impossible to read Lydia’s sections because of the dialect. Interesting. Luckily no one else felt this way, but it just shows how varied opinion is and of course we are all entitled to our opinions. I am just sorry she feels that way. I don’t expect she would enjoy The Help either (or maybe she did a lot better?) but given its success (I love the book and the film) I don’t think it hindered it too much! In fact a little ditty here — on an Arvon course I met the commissioning editor at Fig Tree Press who had just signed Kathryn Stocket. I loved the sound of it even then, and looked out for it. At the time I had written Colourblind so was interested more in the handling of the subject matter.

Anyway that side I appreciate all feedback — I just find it interesting how varied it can be. And so I thought I’d mention dialect in today’s post.

What have you read where the dialect was a hindrance?

I did critique a short story once what was very Manchurian but so much so I needed a phrase book and I advised to rein it in so the reader felt the great qualities of it but didn’t wonder what it meant. I think sometimes dialect is easier to hear than see on the written page. That said I think we are so familiar with the US accents we don’t have a problem with that, listening to it that is. I can see how it’s written form might not be so easy.

As I am sorting the Hollywood book shop that seem to be interested in a book party in 4 weeks’ time I am wondering how my reading of Lydia will go down. Since most people there will be friends I think I will bite the bullet and just go for it!!!

Interesting thread about dialect in this Goodreads discussion:


Have a great week y’all!

Abiline Quote from The Help

Abileen Quote from The Help



Filed under African American Vernacular in FIction, being a successful writer, Blogging, Dialect, Learning to be a writer, Living the dream, Mainstream Fiction, Novel writing, Passion for writing, Publishing, Reading, Writing

4 responses to “Delicious dialect?

  1. chloefb

    Hi Debz. I’m about halfway through While No One Was Watching at the moment and really enjoying it (I think you must have stumbled across that fact on my blog as you’ve just added me on Twitter, which would be a big coincidence if not!) It’s a gripping story. I remember reading a blog post years ago about the original short story and thought the premise sounded brilliant so I when I saw you’d made it into a novel I had to get it. I think it’s fab.

    The one thing I wasn’t sure about is the dialect – it must be a really personal thing! I love reading all the unusual phrases people use in different dialects, but I get distracted by words being spelled phonetically – like with leaving the last letter off “somethin'” and things like that. I kind of feel that if the words and turns of phrase are right for the character (and with Lydia they are perfect!) then I don’t need to be guided as to how they are pronounced every time, I can hear the character speak in my head without that – I’ve been shown, I don’t need to be told as well. I find it merely a distraction though, rather than a big turn-off.

    Having said that, I think John Steinbeck probably writes the same way and he is just tremendous, so I expect I’m being fickle! It certainly won’t be what I remember about your book anyway…

    • Hi thanks for this! Yes somehow I found your blog and saw you were reading the book so decided to follow you on Twitter! You may have been hating it of course, but I like to make connections and I appreciate you buying a copy and your comments here!

      I know what you mean about it might be distracting which is why I didn’t use the things like somethin’ all the way through until I was advised by more than one editor to do it and to be consistent — so I had to add in the ‘in’ rather than ing! I guess it depends who looks at your work, but for this one it came from advice. And something to think about in the future for sure! It’s easier in the new novel there isn’t this — sure the characters are American, but I used more rhythm and no one is African-American!

      Thanks so much for the comments and I am pleased you seem to be enjoying the novel never the less!

      I look forward to hearing what you think when you’ve finished it!
      Thanks! Debz

      • chloefb

        Yes, I was interested to see it was your editor who suggested it. They are probably right – if you’d been inconsistent I probably would’ve noticed that as well! Writers can never win!

        I’m usually complimented on my dialogue, but only when the people talking are people like me – British and vaguely middle-class. When I have to try to write somebody from a completely different background I can’t do it at all! So difficult!

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