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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Writing Dialect

Please welcome guest blogger Marsha A. Moore

In my recent fantasy romance release, Tears on a Tranquil Lake, I faced the problem of writing dialect. The story is a love triangle between a mermaid, a merman, and a pirate captain. Learning buccaneer speaking patterns was essential. Also, my favorite character, a Haitian vodoun mambo proved a real challenge.

Writing dialog for those unusual characters led me to study various ways to make them sound authentic. I’ll categorize the various techniques.


The socio-economic status of a character is often reflected in their education, and therefore in their speech. “I don’t got no car so I ain’t going” creates a character who is poorly educated and probably in a lower income group.

Oppositely, in James Clavell’s Shogun, the ship’s captain, Blackthorne, speaks as an educated man. In this example, word choice and rhythm differentiate between him from lower-class English crewmen: “Pilot, it was terrible. No grub or liquor and those God-cursed paper houses’re like living in a field—a man can’t take a piss or pick his nose, nothing without someone watching, eh?” His personality and well-to-do manner clearly come through the dialect.

Regional or Foreign Speech Patterns

Watch for patterns in sentence structure, especially for characters from another country. Do they use the wrong tense or the wrong pronoun? Does the adjective go after the noun instead of before? Lack of contractions also makes a character sound foreign.

In Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, a Chinese-born mother says, “This American rules . . . Every time people come out from foreign country, must know rules. You not know, judge say, Too bad, go back. They not telling you why so you can use their way go forward They say, Don’t know why, you find out yourself.” This dialog, with numerous deviations from proper English, gives the reader a perfect image of what the character sounds like, and also conveys her attitude as well.

Another great example of foreign dialect can be found in Louise May Alcott’s Professor Bhaer in Little Women. The authors used word choices and pronouns for his German-sounding English. When the professor gives Jo a book of Shakespeare, he says, "You say often you wish a library. Here I gif you one, for between these lids (covers) is many books in one. Read him well, and he will help you much..." The German accent rings in your mind as you read.

Even regions within a country will show different word choices and phrasing. Some people refer to a front porch, while others call it a stoop. Does “call” mean to telephone or to stop by? The familiar debate between the words “soda” and “pop” is tied to specific regions of the US.


Slang can do a great job of distinguishing character voice, especially if the story is set in the past. But using modern slang can quickly date your work, making it seem out-of-sync with the times. However, slang can effectively be made up for fantasy characters or children, giving them unique voices.

Phonetic Dialect

This technique was once more acceptable in literature. Consider this example from Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: “You wants to keep 'way fum de water as much as you kin, en don't run no resk, 'kase it's down in de bills dat you's gwyne to git hung.” This method of creating dialect must be used cautiously, because it complicates and slows down the story. Too much will turn the reader away completely.

In the case of my vodoun mambo, Teega, I manipulated slang and grammar, but still came up far shorter than the voice in my mind. I wanted speech like the character Tia Dalma from Pirates of the Caribbean. I actually studied YouTube clips, listening over and over, in order to phonetically write a few words key of her speech. It always makes me smile when a reader tells me Teega’s voice reminds them of the movie character. Recently, I wrote the sequel to Tears on a Tranquil Lake, with Teega as a major player. To do so, I spent even more time studying to carefully craft her dialog.

Here’s a sample of Teega’s dialog from Tears on a Tranquil Lake. “Relax, my child, Teega es here. I heard yer heart crying from over a mile yonder. Ye be the saddest soul on tis island tonight. I have come te help ye.”

If overdone, dialect can create a mire, but too little sanitizes the prose. It is a delicate balance to consider word-by-word.

And, I am more than a little anxious for On Stranger Tides to be in theaters May 20th!

Marsha A. Moore: My writing is classic romanticism, soft erotica, and a sparkle of magic ~ adult fairy tales. I am a writer of fantasy erotica. Last summer I moved from Toledo to Tampa and am happily transforming into a Floridian. Every day I can spend at the beach is magical. My first book, Tears on a Tranquil Lake, is contracted for release February 1st, 2011 from Muse Publishing.

Creativity is the elixir of my life. I'm happiest creating . . . writing, painting, drawing, knitting, cooking. Imaginative expression extends a portion of me out to the world. I love writing, all forms – novels, short stories, poems, and non-fiction. Twisting real life experiences into fictional adventures intrigues me. Poetry flows when emotions overwhelm my ability to sequence plot or paragraph. As a music reviewer, I've promoted rock/metal bands and their music while working for several record labels. Other artistic activities like watercolor painting and pen-and-ink drawing relax me. I'm currently working on some illustrations for my upcoming book, Tears on a Tranquil Lake.

Tears on a Tranquil Lake

What a surprise for a young woman, to find herself suddenly transformed into a mermaid.

Ciel’s first thought – track down the merman who changed her and make him reverse his magic.
Unable to find him, survival in her new world becomes paramount. She eagerly accepts help from a dashing pirate captain who takes a fancy to her, lavishing her with finery. When her merman does show up, he competes for her affection. One look into his eyes makes her life more complex -- he is her soul mate.

Which man will she choose – pirate captain or merman? Which life – human or mermaid? Caribbean adventures and dangers chase Ciel as she searches for decisions and the key to her happiness.

Warning: This book contains Haitian vodou, sultry wenches, foul-mouthed scalliwag pirates, overindulgence of fine Caribbean rum, and amorous encounters on deserted beaches.


L. K. Below said...

A great post, Marsha. Thanks for sharing!

Marsha A. Moore said...

Glad you enjoyed it! Thanks for stopping by, Lindsay.

claudia celestial girl said...

J.K. Rowling was brilliant in creating different 'voices' for her characters. The one I study over and over is her chapter The House of Gaunt, in the 6th book. The Gaunts repeated their verbs, and turned sentences into questions: 'Can't cook nothing, can you?" 'It's over, isn't it?"

Marsha A. Moore said...

I strongly agree, Claudia. Rowling is a master at developing wonderful and unique character voices. Definitely one of my fav authors.

Your post gave my head a spin, since today I'm also participating in the Harry Potter blogfest--didn't quite know which blog I was on for a second! LOL

Janice said...

Your so right about the accents. I have an Aussie hero in my first book, and my editor toned his accent down.

"Too much can slow things down," my editor cautioned. "Accents need to be sprinkled in like cookie crumbs."


Marsha A. Moore said...

Like your comparison...sprinkled like cookie crumbs. Very true!

Jodi said...

Very good post, Marsha. I just advised an author that in order to make her German general sound more convincing, eliminate all the contractions. And I agree with the "sprinkling concept" — less is more.

Joelle Walker
Muse Publishing

Marsha A. Moore said...

Thanks much, Jodi! You're right, dialect must be done carefully and sparingly.

Pat McDermott said...

Wonderful analysis of writing dialect, Marsha. I enjoyed your examples and your excerpt. I use slang when I do "Irish" in my stories. It's fun,colorful, and helps get that Irish lilt across. Best of luck with "Tears"!

Larion aka Larriane Wills said...

very good advice about over doing. I've found a few key words or phrases rather than a word for word give the reader the idea with making him slow down and have to sound out every word.

Marsha A. Moore said...

Thanks, Pat and Larion. Glad you found my post useful.