Monday, September 6, 2010

On Writing Accents


"Ye hae a guid Scots tung in yir heid,"  is a Scottish saying which means, "You have a good Scots tongue in your head." In other words, "You can speak up for yourself." 

Could you imagine an entire book where one or several characters speak in such a heavy accent?  It would break the flow of your story each time one of those characters spoke, since the reader would have to stop and try to figure out what's just been said.  No doubt, a trying and tiring excercise for the reader.

Now, don't get me wrong.  I love writing accents, whether they're due to a location, a time period or schooling.  I think they can add character and voice, however, there's a balance that you as the writer need to find, if you choose to actually write out the accent.  There's always the option to mention the character has an accent, and leave it at that, but if you choose to show it on the page, then here are a few things I've found helpful.
  • Pick just a few words that you'll change, or pick a "rule", such as dropping the "g" off -ing words.  You'll get the voice and impact you're looking for, but without sacrificing readability.
  • Try and use phrases or particular words specific to an area.  Every country or locale has it's own way of saying things, and this can be an easy way to get across the person's place of language, without spelling out an accent.
  • Try and find the rhythm of the language.  Each language has it's own rhythm and if you can, through your word placement, capture that, you'll immediately get a feel of that place.  Unfortunately, this might be the hardest thing to nail if you haven't lived in the area (or been in regular contact with someone from there).  One option is to try and find books, articles, movies or shows from the area, and pay close attention to the rythm of the language and placement of words.  Another option is to find a writer who has managed to write the accent, and has done an excellent job of it.
For me, the last two are particularly key if writing a different time period.  Writing steampunk, my story is usually set in the late 1800's, and the language would not only be more formal with a different rhythm, but would also use different words. But again, it's important to find a balance so that a modern reader, used to twitter and text messages, isn't having to wade through wordy, flowery prose.

Have any of you attempted to write accents?  How do you approach it?

23 comments:

Jemi Fraser said...

That first phrase brings back so many memories. My folks grew up in Scotland and I heard that all the time (not always about shy little me though!). :)

Accents aren't easy. You don't want to overdo it and annoy your reader, but you also want to keep it realistic. It's a fine line to walk! I'm writing a YA, so I use some phrases and words rather than too much in the accent department.

Great breakdown!

Terry Odell said...

I've had a Texan and an Aussie show up in my books. I usually pull a phrase or two that add flavor (especially for my Aussie), but I definitely don't try phonetic spelling or anything distracting.

Often, I'll have another character notice the Texas drawl or Aussie accent, and give the reader the flavor of his speech that way.

Terry
Terry's Place
Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

Calista Taylor said...

Sharon, that's fantastic that you'd have the background to draw from if you ever chose to write the accent.

Writing YA, I think you're wise to keep the accents to minimum. I'd think teens would have little patience for deciphering them.

And too funny that you used to hear that saying. : )

Calista Taylor said...

Terry, pulling just a few phrases or commenting on the drawl is a perfect way to keep it in the reader's mind without hitting them over the head with it.

layinda said...

I have a six-year-old with a lisp as a side character, and I do write her dialogue as she would say it. It's not too painful for the reader, though, because she only has a few lines. Much of that story is set in 1929, and I throw in a few "cat's pajamas," etc., to keep the flavor, but I agree that a little goes a long way.

Calista Taylor said...

Layinda, one of my favorite series (Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody series) had a young child with a lisp. I highly recommend the books.

1929 sounds like it would be a blast to write!

Katy said...

Like Terry, I try to stick to a few key phrases and perhaps mention the accent/vernacular in another context. I think this is a real big issue in nonfiction writing (my genre!) and I try to have these sorts of discussions with students all the time, particularly when they want to bog everything down with phonetic spellings. This is a great discussion!

Calista Taylor said...

I never thought of it as an issue in non fiction! Good to know. : )

The writing would certainly bog down if everything was written phonetically. A little tends to go a long way.

Medeia Sharif said...

I use the first point in your list. I find it to be the easiest, and it prevents me from going overboard.

Writing in accents is difficult. I hope I get the hang of it over time.

Sam Ripley said...

Awesome post! I definitely agree with the last tip - although, like you said, it's kind of hard to show that if you've never spoken or heard anyone speak in that accent. That's why I usually stick to either an American accent or a Southern one - I know those both very well!

June Templeton said...

I was just thinking about using accent or not using it. Point no. 1 sounds like a good advice for me. Thank you very much!

Jarmara Falconer said...

Like you I keep to one or two works and think about what words would have been around at the time I'm writing as well as who of my characters is speaking.i.e are they well-educated or not.

Thank you for your interesting posting

Kathi Oram Peterson said...

Great advice, Calista!

I had a tricky time writing characters during 66 B.C. With the help of my editor I think I struck a happy medium.

Great post!

Ezzy Guerrero-Languzzi said...

Hi Calista. I'm currently using your first suggestion with my bilingual characters, sparingly substituting Spanish words for their English equivalents. It's tricky because I want non-Spanish speaking readers to be able to grasp the context of the dialogue. Great post. ; )

Calista Taylor said...

I'm so happy to hear everyone's found a technique that works for them. I think it takes a bit of experimenting, but eventually you can find something that's comfortable for you to do, and gives you the feel you're looking for. : )

Lola Sharp said...

I follow the same basic rules. I tend to err on the side of caution. I hate to be pulled out of the story by awkward attempts at vernacular/speech.

Great post/blog. I'm new here. Nice to meet you. :)

~Lola

Calista Taylor said...

Welcome to the blog, Lola!

TK Richardson said...

These are such great tips! Thanks for sharing Calista! :)

Calista Taylor said...

You're most welcome, TK!!

Cheryl said...

You're spot on re accents being distracting. Once picked up Loretta Lynn's autobiography but couldn't get through it because it was written just like she talks.

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Reb said...

Lewis Grassic Gibbon did it in "A Scots Quair." LOVED that book. No real point to this post, ha ha. Just wanted to praise one of my fave authors.

Calista Taylor said...

I haven't read that one yet. I'll have to add it to my list. Thanks for stopping by, even if it was to paise your favorite author. : )