I had an interesting experience writing my latest short story. I had intended to make one of the characters a New Yorker. I won’t say why or how it relates to the story because I don’t want to give anything away but more than making the person from New York, I wanted to write his dialogue in the accent and dialect i.e. I wanted to write how it sounds to the ear, not how it is really spelt. I thought I would share with you some of my thoughts on this in today’s blog post.
Before that if you don’t mind too much I’ll quickly update you on some of the issues I brought up in my last blog post.
Well, importantly… I secured a job! It’s a huge relief because it is exactly what I was after. A part time position in the organization I had at the top of my wish list. It gives me enough time to focus on my writing and my company but it is also a really interesting role in a meaningful area so I feel happy that I can put my skills and experience towards something worthwhile.
Getting a job means getting some money and if you recall I mentioned one of my priorities would be to start exercising again… I have kept to my word and I start training tomorrow morning at 11am. I’m really looking forward to it but I know it is going to be painful and embarrassing. I haven’t trained properly for a good few years now and what is more I have put on over a stone and a half (10kg more or less) since coming back from Spain… that means a significant number of near-death experiences over the coming weeks as I am put through my paces.
Anyway, what that all means is that I am close to being back into a routine again; I am sure it will take a little while to adjust to working for an organization again after nearly a year and a half on my own but that’s to be expected. The most important thing is that I can schedule my week again and ensure the balance between the different aspects of my life are in harmony. Cross fingers the next few weeks go well!
Okay, back to writing in an accent.
As I had the idea I immediately thought of one of my favourite books, Sunset Song. It is written in a Scots dialect and I remember the difficulty I had when I first started it and how I really had to persevere. I also remembered how much I loved the book and how deeply I got into it and how after a while I had adjusted to the language and it became part of the wonder of the story.
Now, the writer of that book (aside from being a genius) knew all about the language because it was his and he had such a masterful control over the phrasing that you could just tell it was written with an authoritative hand. Of course, I am an amateur writer and not for one second comparing myself but there is also another reason why just because it could work for him it may not work for me. I am not a New Yorker. I do not have New Yorker friends. I do not live in New York.
Also, I am not writing the whole thing in the same dialect. It is just one character who doesn’t say a whole lot. I don’t have the time to embed the way he speaks in the readers’ minds. It runs the risk of sticking out and if something sticks out unless it is good it can pull the whole thing down with it. It becomes a major distraction and does a lot of harm.
The answer always seems to be research doesn’t it! If you look something up and learn about it then you generally get a feel of whether you can use it or incorporate it into your work. In my case I visited several websites all dedicated to explaining how to use accents in writing and the tricks involved in bringing a word to life. I also spent hours watching YouTube video after YouTube video of people explaining how their accents work, and specifically, how to speak with a New York accent (there are several distinct geographical areas each with their own way of pronouncing words so excuse me just saying, ‘New York’ as I appreciate there are variations) and giving examples how to change vowel sounds, drag this letter longer, omit this sound, emphasise this letter… and so on.
It was an interesting bit of research. I don’t know about you but I have friends who are good at impressions and impersonating people. I am terrible, I have no talent for it at all. I am just as bad at mimicking another city in the UK as I am any accent across the world so it wasn’t the case I could rely on any natural ability to practice a New York accent out loud and scribble down ideas along the way.
As I watched and read it dawned on me how difficult a task this could be. It’s all about authenticity isn’t it? You can’t attempt something like this half-hearted because it will seem very shallow and poor quality. You have to keep a constant high level of realism so that people believe in the character and it doesn’t become a timewasting folly that is easily seen through and makes me look stupid… not to mention insulting everyone in the north east of the USA!
If I were to do it I had to make sure every word that was used twice or more was spelt in the same way and used in the same context.
This is only talking about spelling! What about using phrases and terms of reference that a person from a certain part of the world would use? It wouldn’t make much sense if I had gone to all the trouble of making the words read in the right way if the words were of a slang or informal nature that he couldn’t possibly know. Yes, you could argue that someone who lives in a country for a long time can learn all the colloquialisms and sayings but I really wasn’t doing that for this character. First of all it’s a short story and he wasn’t the focus of it so I couldn’t devote any decent amount of time to building awareness of his background and situation. So that would mean looking up sayings and phrases that he would have known and trying to incorporate those into my story.
To be honest. I was too afraid to do it. Before I explain why, here are just a few very simple examples of what I am talking about; changing:
- Father to fatha
- Morning to mawning
- Idea to idear
- Those to doze
- Want to wan
- Calling to callin
- Bar to baw
It doesn’t seem that difficult does it? But I found it so. In fact, I was so afraid of making the story look ridiculous due to a poor result in my attempted spelling that I decided against going for it. I felt that it was more of a distraction than a benefit. After all, one of the beauties of reading is that you can create the characters in your mind; you imagine them how you want them to be. Yes, you can have very detailed descriptions but a lot of the time you still imagine your own version of that person. I thought that the story would benefit more from allowing that freedom and giving the reader the chance to talk in their own voice (or imagined voice) and I’m glad I did. The truth of it is that I am not yet skilled enough to do accents and dialects justice. I didn’t want to spend more time on it and that would have shown.
If I think of other books I have read where the writer employs tricks to convince you of a character’s language I can see where it works and where it doesn’t. I won’t list the ones I’m thinking of as who am I to criticize someone but for now I know I am not on a par, or anywhere close, to being good enough to pull it off.
For now, I am happy that I looked into it and gave it a go. It was a good lesson and I am equally happy that I chose to leave it for another time.
There are some excellent resources on writing in specific accents and dialects and I think I need to do more studying before I am ready.
To end, I’d like to draw your attention to some news. It’s been a busy month and I haven’t been updating my social media platforms as much as I should have been so here are some highlights of what the Thinking Plainly team are up to:
- Alfred Duff has released book two in The Warspite Series, ‘The Witch and the Dark Arts’.
- We are working on creating paperback editions of Alfred Duff’s and Rufus Garlic’s novels.
- Alfred Duff has started a new blog: https://inspirationforstory.wordpress.com
- We have filmed two more ‘Literary Drinks’ videos for our YouTube channel and will be posting them soon.
- Rufus Garlic is nearly finished with his latest ebook, a short story collection, ‘Of Fat Cats and Small Fry’.
Thanks for your time everyone,
Have a great week,
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