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?