Thursday, May 16, 2013

#2 Critique Partner Series - On Regional Dialect in Dialogue

I am in no way a professional.  I don't have a fancy education to back up writing (that is reserved for mathematics), but I do know what I like to read and I do know when I read something that doesn't quite jive for me.  So WELCOME to my CRITIQUE PARTNER SERIES!  It is minus the partner, because I don't actually know any of the writers whose work I am reading, but here I will offer my advice.  Much of my advice you can find everywhere else on the internet.  None of it is professional.  All of it is...I can't think of anything to finish this sentence with.  I liked the whole "Much of it, none of it, all of it" thing I had going on at the start of each sentence, but I'm far too lazy to spend time thinking how to end that sentence, especially when this is only a blog developed for my personal enjoyment.  I digress!

#2 Critique Partner Series - On Regional Dialect in Dialogue

The manuscript I am critiquing is set in small town Massachusetts.  Reading through it at first, something felt...wrong.  I couldn't put my finger on it right away, but when I did, it was an aha! moment.  The characters didn't feel genuine.  When I finally pinpointed the flaw in the writing, I discovered the characters didn't use the right words in the right way. 

So today I want to focus on dialect.  Not dialect in the they-have-a-funny-accent way, but dialect in the why-did-they-use-that-word way.  Here's how I discovered the flaw:

Having lived all my life in small town MA, I have a fairly good idea what these people -- my fellow Massachusites -- sound like.  Within the small state of MA, there exist regional dialects.  Yes, most locals can do a decent job determining if someone is from Boston, Worcester, or Western, MA* by listening to that person's accent, but we tend to use words differently too.  

There are small things you wouldn't necessarily notice if you've never spent much time outside of your town.  For example, when I worked in Worcester, all my students would call me Miss instead of Miss Rose.  The moment I moved twenty miles west, it was all Miss Rose all the time.  Go west one hundred miles and wicked cool turns into mad cool (although this is falling out of favor), and one hundred miles to the south-east we have wicked pissa (because people like to drop Rs).  And, depending on where you are, a pisser is definitely a bad thing.

Geographically, Massachusetts is small, but we still maintain many different dialects.  I imagine there are states out there in which the same thing occurs.  When you are writing dialogue, you'll want to make sure you pay attention to dialects.  Now, I know the majority of my readers aren't going to be centered in MA, and yours probably won't either, but if you set your novel in MA, you want to be sensitive to how people from MA talk, just like if you set your novel in Great Britain, you'll want to be sensitive to their dialects.  I'm not saying you need to change all your going to's to gonna's (in fact, I find that annoying), but you want to make sure your dialogue works for the setting.**

This goes for what your characters discuss too.  Again, I'm not talking about making an artistic point.  I'm talking about making sure that, if your characters discuss a topic, people from the region would speak about it and speak about it in the way your characters present it.  For the manuscript I'm reading now, this is where my little red flag finally stuck in the ground. I found myself saying, "I don't know a single girl who would ever say that," and yet all the girls talked that way.  Also, "Wait a minute.  He said what?  Did I read that right?  What???"  

Instead of going into particulars about the manuscript, I'll summarize my thoughts.  Sex and swearing were the two big examples that stood out to me.  The characters didn't sound like any people I know -- they didn't hit home for me -- and it was because of how they talked about sex (although, I'm sure you can insert any other topic and it would still be relevant).  In some regions, the locals would be offended to discuss sex, or they might discuss sex in a very different manner from someone living in another region.  Also, people of different ages discuss sex differently. They name body parts differently.  They use different words.  When my first reaction to the dialogue is, "This nine year old would never say that," it means the words aren't right.  If you are looking to write something genuine, you want to be aware of this.

Take two moments to read the following lines.  Try to picture a middle-aged woman in a suit saying each of these things:

"Pass the peas."
"Hand me the peas."
Reach over and grabs the peas without asking.
"Will you pass me the peas?"
"May I have more peas?"
"May I pretty please have more peas?"
"Peas...pees. Ha ha ha!"

It doesn't always work.  The same goes for fitting a region to your characters' words.  If you're not careful, your readers will notice something doesn't fit.  Maybe they won't be able to pinpoint what is wrong.  Maybe they will know exactly what is wrong.  Maybe, just maybe, they will become offended.  Just saying.  It's important.

*Many of us, myself included, don't own any particular "Massachusetts" accent. **I especially love when, in Veronica Rossi's Under the Never Sky series, Perry is aware of Aria's use of the word champ.  It fits.  It shows how different they two are.  It builds their relationship.

My question for you:
How do you maintain authentic regional dialect in your dialogue?  Or, do you try to avoid it altogether?