Delving Deeper into Dialects and Accents in Fiction

My blog post last week,, was about how reading Stony the Road:  Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow, by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. tipped the scales for me in writing dialect and accents in fiction. One thing led to another, and that post became too long. Today’s blog post includes what I deleted from last Monday’s post.

Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and The Rise of Jim Crow, by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

If this is a topic you’re struggling with, I hope these two blog posts will trigger some questions in your mind and lead you to try to come to terms with this aspect of fiction writing.

If you are a reader but don’t aspire to write fiction, I hope my thoughts on the subject will spark a new awareness in you. It’s not just about literature, it’s about how we view our fellow citizens.

My wake-up call

The awakening Dr. Gates’ book prompted in me helped me realize that, except for using an occasional “ye” or “’Tis” for an Irish character’s speech, I wasn’t using any sort of dialect in the white characters’ dialogue. So why in the world was I using dialect in the dialogue of the slaves in the novel I’m writing, The Doubloon?

A device in writing is the use of attributing certain words or phrases to a particular character. This is done to help the reader distinguish one character from another. There is a way to do this without using “Plantation Dialect.”

Thank you, Dr. Gates, for turning that light bulb on in my head.

Another resource for writing vs. not writing accents in dialogue

Images from Louise Harnby’s “Writing Natural Dialogue & Thoughts” blog post from May 20, 2019.

I looked for additional professional advice on the topic of writing accents in dialogue and found the following blog post by fiction editor and proofreader Louise Harnby:

She stated, “Bear in mind that dialogue tells us what words have been spoken, not how they’re spelled. Phonetic spelling can turn dialogue into pastiche, and offensive pastiche at that. It’s also difficult to absorb and distracts readers from your story.”

That led me to edit the dialogue I had written for a Frenchman in my novel manuscript. There is so much to learn. Times are changing. What was acceptable in fiction years ago or even last year, might not be acceptable now. Some people call this political correctness. That term has taken on negative backlash connotations, so I prefer to say, “When you know better, you do better.” Maya Angelou is credited with saying, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

A piece of advice I took from Ms. Harnby’s blog post is this: “Use location rather than pronunciation to enrich characterization – how where they’re from affects the story, their perception of the conflict or their approach to solving it.” I think this is harder than writing phonetically, but nobody said writing a novel set in the 18th century American South would be easy.

Reinforced by listening to Iron House, by John Hart

My awareness of this matter was reinforced a couple of weeks ago as I listened to Iron House, by John Hart. Listening to the novel drove home the question about the use of accent in fiction. I did not finish listening to Iron House because I became completely distracted by the over-the-top Southern accent used by the professional reader.

Iron House, by John Hart

The way in which the professional reader exaggerated the speech of at least two characters in Iron House reminded me of the extreme Southern accents used by the actors in the old television series “In the Heat of the Night.” Since the series was set in Mississippi, the actors used such slow and pronounced “Southern” accents that it was irritating to my North Carolina ears. It came across as Hollywood making fun of the way I talk.

Iron House is set in North Carolina. I’ve lived my entire life in that state, and I’ve never heard anyone talk with the extreme drawl of Caravel and Abigail in the audio edition of that novel. It piqued my curiosity, so I checked out the printed version from the public library just to see how Mr. Hart wrote the words. Sure enough, he did not write the book phonetically to convey over-the-top pronunciation in any words of dialogue Caravel or Abigail had. So why did the publisher think it was acceptable for the reader of the audio edition of the novel to use a fake accent?

In all fairness, Iron House was published eight years ago. Perhaps an audio edition recorded in 2019 would be done differently.

This has all been quite an eye-opener for me on my journey as a writer. Sometimes I’ve wished I’d started my writing career as a young adult, but now I realize I would have been a very different writer at 26 than I am at 66. I think the 66-year-old me would be embarrassed by the fiction written by the 26-year-old me.

Thinking about my reading experience

If I’m reading the dialogue of a character from Boston, my brain knows what a Boston accent sounds like. I’ve known people from Boston, so I know they pronounce some things differently than I do but not like the over-the-top Boston accents we sometimes encounter on TV or in movies. The writer doesn’t have to spell a Bostonian’s dialogue phonetically for me to catch on.

Outsiders tend to paint everyone from New Jersey with the same phonetic brush, too. I know people from New Jersey, and they don’t sound anything like Vinny in the 1992 comedy movie “My Cousin, Vinny.”

But somehow, there is a difference between an actor conveying a regional accent and an actor portraying what Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. refers to as “Plantation Dialect.” Although, I don’t appreciate an actor giving exaggerated pronunciations to a Southern character, it’s not the same as an actor giving exaggerated pronunciations to a black character. I think regional accents should be celebrated, but there is no place for “Plantation Dialect” in fiction in 2019.

I don’t have a problem with a Southern character saying “y’all” in the printed dialogue in a novel. I say it naturally. It rolls right off my tongue like butter. But I do have a problem with printed dialogue in a present-day novel having a black character saying “Nome” instead of “No, ma’am.” “Gwine” used to appear in the dialogue of black slaves in literature. I never did understand how “I’m going to” or even “I’m gonna” got translated into “gwine.”

Literature evolves as society evolves. When you know better, you should do better. I still have a lot to learn.

It will interesting to see how the dialogue in my novel is accepted or rejected by literary agents, editors, and publishers. When that time comes, I’ll let you know.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I’m reading The Prayer Box, by Lisa Wingate and Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, by Susan Elia MacNeal.

If you’re a writer, I hope you have quality writing time.

Thank you for reading my blog. You could have spent the last few minutes doing something else, but you chose to read my blog.

Let’s continue the conversation

Do you like reading fiction in which dialect is expressed through the spelling of words in dialect, or are you turned off by this practice? Do you think it’s time for us in 2019 to reassess how dialect is used in fiction? Should writers give readers enough credit to assume they can imagine how a character from a certain region would pronounce certain words?

Those of you who live in countries other than the United States are urged to chime in on this topic. Is this something authors in other countries are faced with as they write about regionalisms or even a past history in which certain groups of people were enslaved?

If today’s blog didn’t interest you, please come back next Monday for a different topic.


7 thoughts on “Delving Deeper into Dialects and Accents in Fiction

  1. Ha! I see you’ve circled back to the dialect topic. Crawdads did not bother me the way it did you but I will say this: I’d much rather the geography be painted richly than the dialect in a book to be phonetically spelled. I was a spelling bee nerd in school so phonetic spelling irks me. I also like it when an author describes a character’s voice and leaves it to me to “hear” it in my head. I’m reading a .$99 murder mystery eBook because I needed some mind numbing books since delving into Proust (Done ✅). I read Wingate’s book Before We Were Yours and I liked her writing style. Hope you enjoy the one you are reading. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great to hear from you, Alison! I’ve missed your blogs. Yes, here I am again, dealing with dialect. It has really been a learning curve for me. I appreciate your helpful comments. I needed to know how other people felt about the topic, but I didn’t receive many comments from last week’s — and you’re the only person to comment on today’s post. Spelling bees terrified me! I was a good speller, but being put on the spot to spell just about anything aloud scared me to death. I, too, liked Before We Were Yours. I’m just getting into The Prayer Box, but I’ve been told it’s much different from Lisa Wingate’s other books. The book club I’m in is reading The Prayer Box this month. It’s been on my TBR list for a long time, so I’m glad the book club has nudged me into reading it. I’m enjoying listening to Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, by Susan Elia MacNeal. It’s the first in a series of Maggie Hope Mysteries. I enjoyed one of the other books in the series and decided I should start over with Book #1. The audio e-book is read by an Englishwoman, which adds a lot of flavor to the book. (There I go, talking about accents again. Can’t help myself!) Thanks again for leaving a comment. It means more to me than you know.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I understand why you are questioning this. I think that writers do try to express local dialects in writings all over the world. Example; In our frozen bit of the earth, there are 2 different types of same language. The written (which is the ‘correct’ way) and the spoken. The spoken depends on 10’s of varying local dialects and it can be quite funny when a writer tries to express these dialects in written form (especially since we consider the writing form to be the proper wording). It usually just seems….weird. Not so nice at all. I hope this bit of rambling helped to answer your question?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you so much for commenting on this. That has to be confusing with so many different dialects in one area — especially if a writer is trying to capture the essence of the place. Thank you for sharing your perspective — and how it can just come across as strange when a writer tries to write in a dialect. You’ve helped me.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve never liked the use of dialect in writing. It slows down the reading process as you stop to utter the words verbally. It is like stopping the reading to speak the hundreds of Russian names In War and Peace.I don;t think dilect is necessary, A hint of it in the beginning of the text is enough to give the reader’s mind the notion that the character is speaking that way. Coleridges “temporary suspension of dibelief” informa us that you needn’t hit the reader over the head with anything. Readers are smart as whips and catch on fast. .

    Enjoyable reading., Janet

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi David, Thanks for adding your perspective. What I’ve learned over time is exactly as you stated. Anything that takes the reader out of the story is bad. I’ve read a couple of new novels this year in which dialectal spelling was used to a great extent. Both books surprised me — more from the standpoint of the publishers than the writers. Thank you for being a loyal reader of my blog.


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