Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Dialect in Dialogue: A Little Goes a Long Way

By Pamela Fagan-Hutchins, @PamelotH

JH: Join me in welcoming mystery author Pamela Fagan Hutchins to the blog today, to chat with us about chatting it up, dialect style. Finding the right balance between authentic-sounding dialect and a hard-to-read-mess isn't easy, but she has tips to make exotic lingo a little easier to convey.

Pamela writes award-winning mysterious women’s fiction and relationship humor books, and holds nothing back. She is known for “having it all” which really means she has a little too much of everything, but loves it: writer, mediocre endurance athlete (triathlon, marathons), wife, mom of an ADHD & Asperger’s son, five kids/step-kids, business owner, recovering employment attorney and human resources executive, investigator, consultant, and musician. Pamela lives with her husband Eric and two high school-aged kids, plus 200 pounds of pets in Houston. Their hearts are still in St. Croix, USVI, along with those of their three oldest offspring.

Her latest book is the mystery/women’s fiction, Saving Grace. For a full list of tour stops and articles, check out the Saving Grace Blog Tour.

Take it away Pamela...

Do you ever pick up a book and seamlessly fall into the rhythms and idiosyncrasies of characters from a part of the world you’ve never visited? I do. I loved Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood for drawing me into rural Louisiana and The Last Picture Show for pulling me into a small Texas community in the mid-20th century. With both books, effective use of dialect played a huge role in my enjoyment of the setting and characters. But the opposite can happen, too. A hyper-focus on authenticity can make the book inaccessible to readers from outside that region, because it’s just too dang much work to read. I want to turn pages, not turn backflips trying to work my way through.

So how do the good writers immerse us in the sounds of a culture without making us work for it? I had to answer that question for myself when I wrote a series of books set in Texas and the Caribbean. I’ve lived in both places. I know exactly how people sound and talk. In early drafts, I wrote dialogue just like it sounded to me in my head. And when I wasn’t quite authentic enough, my island-boy husband corrected me.

Here’s an example from an early draft of Saving Grace:
“Dese hills are steep. Da sun is brutal. Dere are centipedes as long as me foot.” Someone laughed. “I not jokin’ you, ladies. You will see beautiful trees, blossoms and vines, but dey can reach out with dare t’orns and stickers and tear your soft skin. Dey grow t’ick togedder, at times I will be using dis,” he patted the machete strung across his hip, “to clear a path for us to get t’rough. You aine gohne make me sad if you decide dis hike is not for you. I can only carry one of you out if you get hurt or are overcome with our tropical heat, so leave now if you gonna be leavin’.”
I’ve seen worse phonetic patois, but this is still hard to read. Compare it to dialogue from the final version:
“These hills steep. The sun rough. There be centipedes as long as me foot.” Someone laughed. “I not jokin’ you, ladies and gentlemen. You will see beautiful trees, blossoms and vines, but they can reach out with their thorns and stickers and tear your soft skin. They grow thick together, so at times I be using this,” he patted the machete strung across his hip, “to clear a path for us to get through. You ain’t gonna make me sad if you decide this hike not for you. I can only carry one of you out if you get hurt or fall to our tropical heat, so leave now if you gonna be leavin’.”
It’s the same, yet different. I had the honor of Jane Friedman’s edit on this passage back when she was with Writer’s Digest, and she felt the first version was too phonetic. She encouraged me to focus on grammar, not spelling, to create the sound.

It only took me three more years to figure out how to use her suggestion, but I am very happy with how it came out. Reviews from Caribbean readers are that the dialogue in Saving Grace is authentic. Reviews from non-Caribbean readers are that the book is a page-turner.

So here’s what worked for me in creating dialect; I hope it helps you craft authentic and accessible regional dialogue for your characters:

1. Explain it early on. 

Think of movies that switch out of subtitles after the first five minutes. What is the point of having everyone speak in Russian in the first place if you’re just going to go change it to English? The point is to show the viewer what it sounds like. So, writers, use your words to explain what makes the sound unique. Here’s an example of how I tried used this technique:
His Calypso accent was thick, much thicker than Ava’s, with his “th” sounding like “t” and all the g’s and d’s dropped from the end of his words, but he was understandable.
2. Focus on grammar. 

To create the lilt of the tropics, I stripped out “be” verbs (mostly) and had my characters speak in the present tense. It worked like a charm. Is it 100% accurate? Of course not. But does it capture the essence of the sound? I believe that it did.

3. Go light on the phonetics. 

Nobody wants to be sounding out the big words, right? It slows the reader down. If they stop turning pages, your book is about to be shut. So pick the highest impact phonetic spellings, and then back off. I used “bahn yah” several times, once I described how it sounded.

4. Let your setting do some of the heavy lifting. 

By describing setting with specificity and detail, you can get your reader’s imagination to fill in your dialectical gaps. If my character drinks a Red Stripe beer instead of just a beer, what sounds do you hear around you in the bar? Remember, the reader wants to think and imagine. Those are fun things to do. Working to sound out words isn’t.

5. Drop in a few colloquialisms along the way. 

“Yah mon” and “irie” worked for me in Saving Grace. I’ve had a lot of fun working simple yet lyrical colloquialisms into my Caribbean-based books. This is also a great way to show something about who your character is. Is she a worrier? Is he funny? Does she cling to the old ways? Is he a sports-nut? All of these traits can be shown through regional expressions.

I hope these suggestions help you paint a picture, no matter what region or culture you’re trying to illustrate in your work. If they do, drop me a note and let me know at Pamela@PamelaHutchins.com. Happy writing, y’all.


About Saving Grace

If you're at all inclined to be swept away to the islands to fall in love with a rainforest jumbie house and a Texas attorney who is as much a danger to herself as the island bad guys, then dive headfirst with Katie Connell into Saving Grace.

Katie escapes professional humiliation, a broken heart, and her Bloody Mary-habit when she runs to the island of St. Marcos to investigate the suspicious deaths of her parents. But she trades one set of problems for another when she is bewitched by the voodoo spirit Annalise in an abandoned rainforest house and, as worlds collide, finds herself reluctantly donning her lawyer clothes again to defend her new friend Ava, who is accused of stabbing her very married Senator-boyfriend.



  1. I haven't tried writing a dialect yet but I do have a character in a WIP who would be better served if I did. I'll be utilizing these tips!

  2. Thanks for having me over, Janice!

  3. This is such great advice. There is nothing worse than trying to work out dialects. Sometimes it's an exercise in frustration, but your tips would make all the difference. Loved your example.

  4. Outstanding article in a really nice site. I love the constructive format. The site is packed with practical useful information (and entertaining at the same time. Well done all.

  5. Great article. The book sounds wonderful!

  6. I'm writing an Irish character - but lightly, lightly. Real Irishmen SOUND Irish as much as they use a different vocabulary: it's word choice and word order and utterly charming.

    They think they're speaking English - I want them to keep speaking English to me.

    I mention the accent a few times when setting things up, note that the character is an actor and used to taking up accents as necessary - which is different from personal conversations. Every once in a while I let one of the other characters be emotionally affected by the accent (along with the actor himself).

    And leave it at that. For now. I would love to get someone of the right age to read my dialogue, especially to point out things he would never say.

    I recently re-read Huckleberry Finn - and had a lot of trouble getting into the swing of the way he wrote. Twain must have been writing for the book-buying population, not for people like the characters in the book, but he knew the sounds he was trying to convey.

    It wouldn't work for me to attempt to do the same. So I try for illusion, for now. It is fun.


  7. I am scared to use dialect, but in this book, the old way in which a character speaks is a clue. Thanks for the advice.

  8. I enjoyed this book :)


  9. Great tips on dialogue. Thanks so much!

  10. Thanks! Have been working on dialect for a wee Scottish Brownie in America.