Accents in fiction writing

One of the multitude of issues I’ve faced while writing the manuscript for my historical novel tentatively titled The Spanish Coin, is how to use accents. When I started writing fiction, I tended to go overboard with accents. It has been a long process of learning just how much to incorporate accents into my writing, and I’m not confident that I have it right yet.

Scottish & Scots-Irish

Most of my characters either hail from the lowlands of Scotland or present-day Northern Ireland or are first generation Americans whose parents came from those places. In writing for such characters, one needs to strike a balance between using accents too much or too little.

In The Spanish Coin, I want the reader to know the accents of my characters without those accents being a distraction. If an accent or dialect pulls the reader out of the story, it works as a detriment instead of adding flavor to the reading.

African-American

George is an African-American slave in The Spanish Coin. The year is 1771 in the Carolina backcountry. When answering a question, I have George say, “Yessum” or “Yessuh” instead of “Yes, mam” or “Yes, sir.”

Clarissa is a free woman of color in my novel’s manuscript, so she speaks with less of an accent than George or the slave, Caesar, from a nearby farm. Subtle distinctions make each character’s personality shine through.

French

One of the characters I enjoyed creating for The Spanish Coin is Monsieur Jean LeBlanc of France. He passes through on his way to and from Salisbury, North Carolina and Charles Town, South Carolina. His accent was fun to write. When writing or reading his dialogue, I invariably hear the voice of French chef Jacques Pepin in my head.

Summary

Part of the joy of writing historical fiction is selecting words and accents from a particular time and place. The challenge is to use those words and accents enough — but just enough.

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