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June 21, 2011 / theoldsilly

Professor Old Silly’s Tutorial Tuesday – Using Dialects in Dialog

Welcome back to Bloggyversity, English Comp Class 10001.3b, “Writing With Power in Fiction”. Have a seat, as in pronto, por favor. I need your total and immediate attention. We are, as usual, on a maximum 5 minute blog-hoppers’ attention span time limit. Plus I have a very important luncheon date with the lovely Ms. Flanders in just a few minutes, so …  desist with the silly shenanigans, turn off your ipods, cell phones, black and/or raspberries, stop with the twittering, get your faces out of Facebook, boot up your monitors, adjust your undies, scoot your bums into your seats and be still. If you’re especially good little devils, I have some fresh-baked “Devil’s Food Fudge White Chocolate Chip Cookies” for you all after class, courtesy once again of Ms. Flanders … god bless her.

Now then. Thank you. Today we’ll discuss using characters who speak in different dialects in your books, and making them sound, look, and feel real.

As writers of fiction, oftentimes we can add some variety, spice to a story, by having characters—whether main or supporting—who speak in dialects different than the majority of the characters in our books. Could be a foreign exchange student who is just learning English (or whatever the main language you are writing in), or a person from “the other side of town,” or perhaps your protagonist winds up in a different segment of society, ethnic group surrounding, or country other than his or her own and has to communicate with people who speak in a ‘foreign’ manner. Depending on your own life experience, this can be easy to do—assuming you’ve had exposure to and have some skill in talking with the dialects/languages you are going to incorporate—or it can be challenging to get it ‘right’ … sounding realistic enough that anyone reading the book who is from that culture, country, ethnic group, etc., will nod their heads and think, Pretty good. This author knows what he/she’s doing.

If you do not have the familiarity to write in differing dialects, it can still be fun to do, it just requires some research … and here we can thank God for Google! In my last novel, Beware the Devil’s Hug, I had a main character who was from the ghetto—inner city Detroit—an African American woman, and her father and mother, who spoke fluent Urban Street Slang, southern black style. Also there was a Spanish King, a terrorist group of Muslims, and a Jewish Rabbi. With the urban black talk, that was easy for me. I’ve been around black people all my adult life, hung out enough in the inner city, to speak that dialect fluently, and can translate it to the page so it reads and sound right. I also studied Spanish some in high school, used to pick cherries with Mexicans in summers when I was a teenager—where I picked up the ‘real’ way to say and inflect phrases, and spent a couple months as a young man living in Mexico. So while I still would not call myself even a capable Spanish speaker, I know enough of the language to write a Spanish speaking character who is communicating with English speaking people.

It was the last two, the radical Muslims and the Rabbi (and his two personal attendants in the story) for whom I had to do some boning up. So, when I started writing them into the story and felt, well … the lyrics to the song, “Ghostbusters” came to mind …

“If there’s something weird, and it don’t look good … who ya gonna call?”


It was a snap. First I located a free site that translated any language into any other language. Boom. Then I found forums where I could ask questions of people speaking those languages about how accurate, how ‘real’ my translations were. Bam. Then I was able to search for cultural customs and manner of dress, speech, familial and religious practices, holidays observed, etc., which enabled me to incorporate appropriate dress, common vernacular pet phrases, foods likely served and eaten, and on and on. Pow!

It all added up to an enjoyable learning experience for me, and I’ve received several comments, reviews, and so forth, where the ‘realism’ of the characters in Hugs was lauded as quite notable. So, time well spent, and story well served.

Your assignment for today. Please leave in the comments, all you writers, what your favourite ways of writing characters of differing cultures and dialects are. Firstly, do you like to add that kind of variety to your stories, and why, and secondly, if so, what are a couple good ideas, techniques for doing such, that you’ve come across and employed in your novels?

Okay, that about wraps it up for today. I must say you all have been very good. We’ll dimiss blog now. The lovely Ms. Flanders is back from vacation, and she provided us with these scrumptious goodies, so …

Help yourself … Devil’s Food Fudge White Chocolate Chip like you just don’t get every day! Just don’t overdo it, now … we don’t want get all sugared up and feel like playing hookie, hmm? And leave your assignments on my comments desk … Chow, class!

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  1. John Standish / Jun 21 2011 11:10 am

    I’m not a writer, but having read Beware, I can say that the “different” characters did come across as very real sounding. Kind of cool to get the inside scoop on how good writer pull that off!

  2. Cactus Annie / Jun 21 2011 11:28 am

    Wow, I had no idea what or how you made all the “Hugs” characters sound so real, but you certainly pulled it off! I fancy myself writing a book one day, and I know Google will be one of my best friends, lol!

  3. Alex J. Cavanaugh / Jun 21 2011 11:48 am

    Since I had no idea what a Cassan dialect would sound like, I didn’t use one. I figured an alien world with science fiction names was enough of a stretch for my readers.

    • theoldsilly / Jun 21 2011 12:12 pm

      Alex, that’s is one of the beauties of writing sci-fi – you can make up an entire language/dialect! Pretty cool.

  4. Arlee Bird / Jun 21 2011 11:57 am

    You did a great job with the use of dialect in Hugs. I have used some dialect in things I’ve written, but I also like to take care that the dialog is relatively easy for the reader to understand. If the dialect gets too heavy then it can be difficult to follow and understand.

    This problem became particularly evident to me when my wife was reading Huckleberry Finn a while back. Since English is her second language she had a very tough time with some of the dialect. Even I had to slow down to read and reread some of the passages to understand what was being said sometimes. I was rereading the book at the same time she was reading it and this proved very helpful to her.

    Tossing It Out

  5. theoldsilly / Jun 21 2011 12:14 pm

    Hey thanks, Lee, and yes I agree you can take it too far. You have to have a balance of ‘correct’ sounding and yet still discernable to the uninitated in the particular dialect. Good idea for a follow up tutorial, hmm? 😉

  6. Stanley Berber / Jun 21 2011 12:16 pm

    Hugs had great character dialects going on – really enjoyed that (among many others) aspect of the read. I also agree with Arlee Bird that a writer can take it too far for some people to be able to ‘get it’. But Hugs? Spot on, dude. Enjoyed the class as always, and give Ms. Flanders a thankyou hug for the brownies!

  7. Margot Winston / Jun 21 2011 12:17 pm

    I just got my copy of Beware and can’t wait to read it – now I’ll have some insight into your character development. Always enjoy these classes, Prof, thanks – helps us ‘readers’ also, to better understand WHY we like or don’t like a particular book!

  8. L. Diane Wolfe / Jun 21 2011 1:55 pm

    Most of my series is set in the South, however… a Southern drawl drives me batty after a while. I just couldn’t put it into my books. Not even one y’all!

    • theoldsilly / Jun 21 2011 2:24 pm

      Aw, c’mon now, Diane … not even one li’l ol’ down home y’all? 😉

  9. Elizabeth Craig / Jun 21 2011 3:10 pm

    I write a couple of very Southern series…and it’s tricky! I try not to turn anyone off too much with the dialect I use. There are vocabulary choices that are distinctly Southern–buggy instead of cart, tote instead of carry, etc. Then, of course, I use *food*, which is a great way to connect people with a region. So we have sweet tea and grits and fried chicken, etc. And I do use y’all. 🙂 But that’s because I can’t help myself…

    • theoldsilly / Jun 21 2011 3:18 pm

      Liz, yes, good point and I agree – food is a great way to set the tone of a cultural setting.

  10. Barbra Kelser / Jun 21 2011 3:53 pm

    I think adding interesting characters from differing cultures and dialects adds, in a lot of cases, to a book’s overall interest. Hugs had a good blend, and very well done. I agree with some of the others it can be overdone, but just the right amount and written in such a way as to still be understandable lends a lot of realism. Good class, Old Silly!

  11. Ronald Meyers / Jun 21 2011 6:00 pm

    Excellent class, Prof – larnt me sump’n t’day! 😉

    • theoldsilly / Jun 21 2011 6:01 pm

      See? There ya go, ol’ pal – ya done larnt sumpthin’ real goshdarn good there, yessiree Bob. 😉

  12. Ron Berry / Jun 21 2011 7:05 pm

    Now if’n y’all gits ta readin’ ’bout a weddin cake what t’were in the middle o the road, You would have ta read the openin part.

    “Family feuds can be messy and downright bloody. There have been a few well documented ones over the years. But, research has uncovered something even stranger. There are two states with widely different laws that can affect the peace and happiness of the most docile of folk. Now I ain’t agonna tell ya which states what you might all git a hankerin’ to go there and do something stupid. Anyway, let “

    • theoldsilly / Jun 22 2011 3:47 am

      Ah think you’s got the hang of ‘er, Ron. 😉

  13. Hilary / Jun 22 2011 3:40 am

    Hi Marvin .. loved this .. really interesting to learn more about you (surprisingly!) and how you found out about the characters you had little cultural knowledge about … did you get out and meet similar characters – the Jewish Rabbi (would he be anything but Jewish?) and the terrorist ilk Muslims? … and the Spanish King – heavens above!

    Well I should be ordering this week .. I’m unburying my papers from having had friends here .. and the book list will come to light … cheers for now .. Hilary

    • theoldsilly / Jun 22 2011 3:52 am

      Hilary, I have met a Rabbi (even Jewish one! lol), but it was so long ago and such a short visit that I still needed to do some research to portray the character in Hugs. And while I have several Muslim friends, and I know some of the greetings, salutations, in Arabic that they use, as well as some of the tenets of their religion and the sacred days observed, I have never met a radical Muslim in person.

      So you’re getting your Hug this week – cool! Be sure and let me know what you think and feel after Iam embraces you!

  14. Hilary / Jun 22 2011 3:56 am

    Hi Marvin .. will let you know .. re the Hug invasion! I thought you might have made a point of meeting new people for your research .. even if only a few ‘chats’ … no ok I wasn’t asking radical .. just normal people like the rest of us. H

  15. Helen Ginger / Jun 23 2011 6:32 pm

    The closest I’ve come is writing a Texan. They have their own version of English.

  16. Patricia Stoltey / Jun 26 2011 9:31 pm

    Well, thanks, Marvin, I do believe I’ll have just one cookie while I ponder the effectiveness of the frontier jargon I’ve used for the characters in one of my wips.

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