Whadda Ya Talk?

by | Oct 23, 2006 | Approaches to Writing, The Great American Desert, Writers

Advance readers continue to report back.  The latest one has warmed the cockles of my heart by telling me that I have done a good job of capturing Midwestern speech patterns.

Getting characters to sound like real people can be a struggle, especially when you’re dealing with dialects.  Do you change the spellings of words to reflect the pronunciation?  There’s a limit to how far you can go with this, unless you want to start spelling with phonetic symbols.  Even Mark Twain, who has a very fine ear, reserves it for only the most extreme dialects, and still depends on the ear of his reader as well.  All I’ve done is give some general hints.  A few of my characters, for example, consistently drop the last letter from words with ‘ing’ endings.  What I do try to pay attention to are word choice, word order, and regional locutions.

I was a dialect coach recently for a local production of Arsenic and Old Lace, which is set out in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn.  I actually lived in Flatbush many years ago.  The thing about dialects is that they’re not just a matter of pronunciation.  People in Brooklyn use different speech patterns than people in Colorado, and they have a whole different attitude about them.  Even pleasant New Yorkers seem obnoxiously in-your-face to the average Coloradan.  After I’d adopted my Brooklyn ‘neighborhood’ persona for a time, and assured the actors that I was not angry with them but was only acting, we focused on the script.  It is a fabulous script, by the way, and we soon found that many of the lines that had been giving them trouble sounded perfectly natural when the proper accent was applied.

Here’s a bit of narrative from the ‘Cyclops’ chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses:

So anyhow Terry brought the three pints Joe was standing and begob the sight nearly left my eyes when I saw him land out a quid.  Oh, as true as I’m telling you.  A goodlooking sovereign.

Try saying this with anything but an Irish accent and it will sound flat-out wrong, though the only word that stands out as being particularly Irish is ‘begob.’  It’s not the words, but how they’re used, and in what order.


When I was in eighth grade, back when dinosaurs still roamed the earth, I was working my way through the classics of American literature and had arrived at James Fenimore Cooper.  I was partway into the fourth volume of the stuff when I realized with a shock that Cooper was a horrible writer and that I could not read another word of such drivel.  I had been reading uncritically up until that point, taking it on faith that anything that had stood the test of time must be worth reading.

A few years later I came across Mark Twain’s wonderful little essay “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.”  He takes Cooper to task for a number of failings, a major one of which is his failure to make his characters sound like human beings.  The pro-Cooper camp takes umbrage at the fact that more people seem to have read Twain’s essay than have read Cooper himself, and if that’s true, which I don’t doubt, it is certainly a shame.  It is only after slogging through The Deerslayer that you will truly appreciate Twain’s highly entertaining send-off.