Sunday, July 08, 2012

How to Write Southern - Part I - Dialect

Received this email from a Lowcountry Bribe reader, and she made me stop and think.

I’ve been writing several books for a few related series and struggle with wanting to accurately portray my southern roots without bringing obvious attention to it.  I cringe at nearly every movie I’ve seen, because they portray “Southerners” as slow, not knowing proper grammar, or talking as slaves spoke fifty years ago – it’s the lifestyle that moves at a slower pace, not the Southern people in general. We say our words with feeling, not with cotton in our mouths; we make contractions wherever they seem logical, but we speak English as properly as any other part of the country; and our language has evolved with time.  Attempts in literature can sometimes be more accurate, but can be annoying to readers who aren’t familiar with the sounds, rhythm, and pacing of the southern language(s).   

Kudos to you for doing a  pretty damned good job.  I’m going to have to go back through your book and dissect just how it is you achieved this – in dialogue, in setting, in character development – and how you did it so indirectly.  Thanks for giving me a good example to use as a guide. If you have a “Hope’s Notes” version of “cultural guidelines” for writing character and social environment/setting that sum it all up without my dissection of your (fabulously entertaining, by the way) book, I’m sure a lot of writers would be appreciative.

Her comments gave me pause. Did I even try hard or was this Southern thing natural for me? Did I just write what I knew or did I make changes to give the dialogue authenticity? So I thought hard and came up with a few ideas, and I think they apply to most dialects and geographic regions when we write. However I, my dear, focused on the South that Carolina Slade and I love so very much.

I stared with one post, then it grew. Ideas kept popping up to the surface. Then they became too many to cover in one blog post. So I've put together a series for every day this week. 

What I hope you don't do is take this as an effort to compare the South to the North, Northwest, Midwest, Southwest, or anywhere else. It's my take on incorporating authentic culture into a story, and without much maneuvering, you can use these thoughts to work on your story wherever you are, wherever your characters live.

Hope you enjoy it!

Dialect rationing is a sleight of hand effort that takes little thought on your part as the author, but it carries a powerful wallop for the reader.

Writing Dialect

All born and reared Southerners have accents. I not only can recognize a South Caroline accent but can usually tell what part of the state you're from. In a book, however, that's difficult to depict, and in most cases, that much detail isn't needed to perpetuate the story. Use a light hand in showing intellectual differences, cultural opposites, or strong/weak personalities. It doesn't take much.
In Lowcountry Bribe, Jesse is a high-school educated farmer and poses the most challenging in terms of showing through dialogue. He lives in serious country on a farm with hogs.

(Jesse) "Listen," he said, with a face like stone. "I ain't jokin'."

(Slade) "I'm not joking, either, Jesse. I'd hate to see you lose your place  because you don't pay your bill. What would Ren do?"

Slade uses proper English. Now, in reality, she might have said ain't, to be on Jesse's level and communicate better. Someone educated will force the use of ain't, but someone less educated will use it as proper grammar. The simple difference between "ain't jokin'" and "I'm not joking" speaks volumes. Again, it's a slight of hand effort that takes little thought on your part as the author, but it carries a powerful wallop for the reader.

Doesn't Everybody Say Y'all?

Take y'all, for instance. Sure, we say y'all down here, but write y'all into dialogue every time one person greets another, and you might start seeing y'all's all over the place if you used them realistically. Additionally, too many y'all's from your educated characters, and you start to lose their intellectual bearing. That's why the occasional sprinkle is all you need. You might even consider using y'all only when the person is thrown into a rustic situation, or exposed to lesser educated characters, or talking with family where guards are let down. Just be aware of when and how you use such flavorful words, so that they have value.

Southerners can read non-Southerners trying to write Southern. There's a huge difference between Southern comfort, redneck, trash, good old boy, and gentile, and I'm sure I missed a few others. Like any part of the world, we have degrees of culture. Here, in the dialect, you get to subtly denote the variety without stereotyping. You just have to do it so the reader can't readily tell what you're doing. It just works.

He said I could strip away the tags in my dialogue and could still tell which character was speaking.

When Dialect Speaks Instead of Tags

In Book Two of The Carolina Slade Series, a character has an ethnic sense about him, with a Gullah history but an educated upbringing. He speaks without contractions. I had a member of one of my critique groups comment on my use of dialect, as well as selective non-use of it. He said I could strip away the tags in my dialogue and could still tell which character was speaking. One of the biggest compliments of my writing life. That's what you want. . . identifying dialogue so that you don't need support devices when your characters start chattering away.

Dialect and accents are heavier in real life, but in writing, you only drop hints about it, or the reader's eye trips on the crazy spellings and hidden meanings in abbreviated or unique wording. Write it verbatim at first, if you like, then read it aloud. I guarantee you will find it difficult to do without verbally stumbling. Like salt in a recipe, a little dialect goes a long way, and too much ruins the stew.

Like salt in a recipe, a little dialect goes a long way, and too much ruins the stew.


Sioux Roslawski said...


I doubt I will ever write something with a southern character (athough I'm not saying "never"), but nonetheless, this was informative and entertaining.

Clarissa Johal said...

Love this post and looking forward to reading more. I moved to NC from CA and found that I REALLY had to pay attention to people when they spoke, it was like another language sometimes, lol. I've lived in so many places and you're right, a slight tweak is all it takes to let the reader experience the culture.

ConnieReadBurris said...

How true we often overlook something that comes so easily to us. Thanks for your analysis of writing dialect! Perfect examples to demonstrate how your dialogue illustrates your slight of hand.

Barbara Drewry said...

Hope - The phrase is 'sleight of hand' not 'slight.' Just a tiny fyi....not trying to be too much of an English teacher. :-) Very good article! I enjoyed it very much. I haven't read your book yet, but only because I'm unemployed (read: broke). Guess maybe I SHOULD have been an English teacher, rather than a social worker. Lol. :-) Can't wait to read the book! You are truly inspiring. :-)

Hope Clark said...

What slight of hand, Barbara? LOL Seriously, thanks for catching that typo. Fixed!

Marie Gilbert said...

This was not only entertaining, but very helpful.

Mahala Church said...

Keep them coming, Hope. The novel I'm in revision hell with right now has often caused me to "pause and think" about the use of dialect - the Southern dialects of two distinctively different people in the South of the 1950s. Your salt analogy is perfect; I tend to salt everything far too much.

Shawn Spjut said...

I appreciate the advise. I am working on a novel where one of the character's was born and raised in Ireland and is currently living in the US. After reading this article I realized how I had over used the dialect. Thanks.

pibsquared said...

In your example of Jesse and Slade, depending on what is occurring in the story line will depend on whether the educated person will pick up the dialect or speak properly. In my experience if you need to get something done around the house or if you want to be on equal footing with someone you will respond in their accent (especially if you are from the area) whether educated or not. They might not be extreme but there will be a slight change in the words used. (I do this a lot, I will use different words and accents with different people). If you want to create a distinction between you and the other person or you are the type of person who feels the need to be an example of proper grammar than the educated person will use basic American (or midwest American, I do not know the equivalent term to Queen's English and Hoch-Deutsch for American English.) Depending on the type of educated character you are portraying will depend on how much of a southern dialect they will have. They might not rearrange the words like the southern dialect would entail but they might add an ain't and a drawl on certain words to seem as an equal. If not they will emphasize correct words (for instance responding 'I am doing well' instead of good as the other person might of said) or they just communicate normally.