Dialect, Dawlin’–Avoiding Huck Finn Syndrome

I had gotten roped into reading a couple of chapters of an acquaintance’s manuscript last month, a mystery that tripped over one of my pet peeves.

It was swimming in dialect. The main character  had some ill-defined role as an investigator (separate problem) and was in a feud with the story’s antagonist, whose main outward sign of evil was being overweight (separate problem). And he was Irish.

Jaysus and begorrah! I’ll be having nightmares of bad Irish dialect for months, I will.  A sentence similar to that was used at least three times on every page.

No, I’m not exaggerating. And this hit home for me because I’m in the final throes of revising a novel, three of whose major characters are Irish or English. And the previous manuscript featured some of my favorite characters, twin mermen from Cut-Off, Louisiana. I spent many, many years in Southeast Louisiana, listening to people make fun of how writers tried to do dialect, chere.

How does a writer convey dialect, whether it’s South Louisiana Cajun or Irish vampire, without going down Huck Finn Lane?

I think the vocabulary word for today is “SPARINGLY.” Throw in a phrase every once in a while, have another character note the accent, and try-try-try not to overdo it.

Unless, of course, an editor says: “I like this, but your character needs more dialect.” Jaysus and begorrah! Then I’ll be all over it.

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About Suzanne Johnson

Author of urban fantasy, paranormal romance, and suspense. As Suzanne Johnson, she is the author of the Sentinels of New Orleans urban fantasy series (Royal Street; River Road: Elysian Fields, Pirate's Alley, Belle Chasse, Frenchmen Street (March 2018). Writing as Susannah Sandlin, she is the author of the Penton Legacy series (Redemption; Absolution; Omega; Storm Force; Allegiance; ILLUMINATION); The Collectors series (Lovely, Dark, and Deep; Deadly, Calm, and Cold); and the Wilds of the Bayou series (Wild Man's Curse; Black Diamond).

4 thoughts on “Dialect, Dawlin’–Avoiding Huck Finn Syndrome

  1. Oh gosh, I’ve been in that boat before as well. Too much of the dialect can really detract from the story, can’t it?

    Yanks me right out of the action trying to figure out what they’re saying.

    Great post. I like the new look of your blog, too!

  2. Ha! I know who else you might have in mind …

    But seriously, you can’t avoid dialect, it just happens to be a place where sloppy work sticks out.

  3. Thanks for noticing the new look, Lynn! That white-on-black was hard to read 🙂

    Matt, I had no one else in mind. I swear it 🙂

  4. One thing to consider is that dialect even when well done draws attention to itself every time a character opens his or her mouth. That’s what Mark Twain intended, and being a genius, he was able to pull it off. But it is a terrific burden to maintain credibility though thousands of words of deliberately picturesque dialog.

    Now my character Nellie speaks in a deliberate parody of dime-novel cowboy jargon that is often unintelligible even to her friends. Part of this is her larger than life personality, but it also makes what I hope is a subtle comic point. When baffled by a particularly obscure Nellie-ism, her friends turn to Hector *because he’s the only person who consistently understands her*. This foreshadows and explains later developments in their relationship. Understanding Nellie is a very high priority for him, and he lavishes a tremendous amount of time and energy on it. As a result he can not only follow her dialect where others fail, but also her often enigmatic train of thought.

    So I have a good reason (I think) to use really cheesy dialect, but what exactly is a “western accent”? According to the Harvard Dialect Survey, there really isn’t a distinctive region-wide western accent. The nearest I can tell, the old-time writers of cheesy westerns were inspired by the South Midland American English dialect. That is spoken in a region that stretches from West Virginia, Kentucky, Arkansas, Oklahoma and down into West Texas. So I modeled Nellie’s speech roughly on Will Rogers, even though this doesn’t make much geographic sense.

    Now here’s the point: immediately I run into certain prejudices about Southerners (like they can’t spell “Mississippi”). Nellie is supposed to be very smart, but one reader objects that he went to High School in the South, and everybody who talked that way was an idiot. I must confess that gave me pause. Fortunately, he didn’t say I got the accent wrong, I just got the wrong accent.

    Another craft point: I go full monty on dialect in dialog, not just words like “partic’lar”, and “somthin'”, but also in grammar, for example in the use of double negatives, looseness with subject verb agreement, and the use of the simple past in place of the subjunctive. The difficulty comes in narration from the POV of a character who speaks in dialect. It has to use standard spelling and grammar, yet at the same time still recognizably sound like the POV character. I try to do that by borrowing some of the rhythm and logic of the character’s external speech. Ideally, you should be able to strip a scene of any clues and still tell whose POV you’re following. That’s extremely difficult, and I won’t claim to be uniformly successful.