Pet Peeves – Dialect instead of Dialogue

I confess: I really hate reading books where the authors have decided to write dialogue in dialect. I don’t want to read a book where I have to struggle to figure out what people are saying. As soon as the dialect makes it hard to read, I give up and put it down. (Yes, I know Mark Twain got away with this, but that was a long time ago. Writing in dialect doesn’t work quite so well now.)

There are ways to let a reader know a character’s culture or ethnicity without turning their language into gibberish. Brad Smith does this beautifully in Crow’s Landing, for example: he has a Russian character who “reads” as Russian because of the words he uses and  a few dropped prepositions.

Will Ferguson won the Giller Prize for 419, a story partly set in Nigeria. He told me in a TV interview on my show, Getting Published, that he realized  quickly that he only needed a few Nigerian words here and there to get his characters situated and that trying to write dialogue with an accent wouldn’t have worked.

I tried reading a historical novel recently where all the “you’s” had been replaced with “ye’s” and it drove me absolutely nuts.

One of the best books I’ve ever read is a novel set in the 1400s called The Moor’s Account, which is due to hit bookstores this month. It  managed to totally convey the time, setting, and the different nationalities of characters who ranged from Moorish to Spanish to indigenous without altering the English language; one could imagine the characters speaking with different accents without being smacked upside the head with them.

I am in the final stages of writing  a historical novel set in the 1600s. My characters are French, First Nation, and English. I’ve conveyed their ethnicity and cultural differences by the words they used to describe things and the way they see the world. Their voices are completely different; some are formal, some are youthful, some are skeptical. It’s those voices that tell us who they are; I don’t need to force them into dialect for a reader to know which person is speaking or where they’re from.

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