Monday, August 24, 2009

Reader's Question on Dialect and Diction or Easy on the Tabasco Sauce

Today's Reader Question is one that I address nearly every day in my writing:

"In MG and YA novels, do you ever use diction from other cultures or parts of the country in your characterizations? Or do you focus more on a character's actions, behavior and gestures to define them?"

Great question! And my answer is....it depends!

My novels (so far) have taken place in very specific places and times (Jackson, Mississippi, 1964-65 and Pittsburgh, 1943-44). Because the setting in these books (Yankee Girl and Jimmy's Stars) has the same weight and importance as my main characters, to ignore how characters sound style: is a lost opportunity to add another dimension not only to the characters, but to the entire story as well.

The way people talk has always been a big issue in my own life. I moved to the South from the Midwest when I was ten, and to this day, whenever I open my mouth, native Southerners say "You're not from around here, are you?" Most of my cousins are Pittsburgh-born and raised. When we talk, I note the difference in their sentence structure, and the local expressions that pepper their conversation. Pittsburghers are so proud of their unique vocabulary, it has been officially dubbed "Pittsburgh-ese", complete with dictionaries, websites and cultural studies.

In a mobile society that has been made ever smaller by TV and the Internet, Americans are losing their geographical and cultural speech patterns. We are beginning to all sound alike, with a homogenized "standard Broadcast American Speech" *sd they called in Speech Class) I think it's sad. We lose something of our roots in the disappearance of "local color" in our language.

So to answer the question, I often use speech as a component equal to action and gesture in developing a multi-dimensional character and to add depth to my fictional word. HOWEVER...

Pure dialect or dialog written entirely using regional expressions can be murder to read. Maybe it's just me, but looking at a page that thick with apostrophes substituting for all the dropped "g's" in an attempt to "sound Southern," makes my eyes hurt. (If you don't believe me, find an old edition of anything by Joel Chandler Harris.) If you don't have an issue with your vision, then try reading the page out loud. For me, anything that I can't read aloud smoothly, is not great writing. If I have to re-read a dialect-laden sentence over and over to puzzle out what the heck the writer is trying to say...well, that's a sign of dialect overkill. Using dialect correctly is a tightrope act. Too little of it, and it calls attention to itself, which of course, takes the reader of the fictional world you have worked so hard to create. Too much of it, and it's like someone dumped a bottle of Tabasco sauce on your meatloaf. A little brings out the flavor; too much, and your dinner is simply inedible.

The trick to using dialect and local speech is a light hand in places where the meaning can be understood in context. It's easy to fall into a trap of stereotypical speech. All Southerners don't sound alike, just as all Midwesterners or New Yorkers don't sound alike. Listen to your character. Let your character talk to you in his own voice. I find this easy, because I have never attempted a speech style that I haven't heard first hand. I never drop "g's" or the initial sounds of a word to "sound Southern." I prefer to use expressions like "we're fixing to go" or "what're you so ill about?"(Translation: We are about to leave, and why are you in a bad mood). I handled the Pittsburghese in Jimmy's Stars by using my mother, who left Pittsburgh in 1943, as a model. If the terms "slippy," "lift supper" and "redd up" had remained in her speech after all these years, they must be central to Pittsburghese, and fairly easy for the outsider to comprehend in context. (Translation: slippery, put a meal on the table, and to clean up a room)

Sometimes speech has more to do with the age and social class of a character. I have a pet peeve of indicating the age of a young character by using the words "gonna," "gotta" and "wanna". (In fact, when I teach Young Writers classes, some of my students are surprised to find out that these are not actual words!) If I use each one of those words once in a book, I feel that I have taken a short cut by resorting to the stereotypical "mush-mouth" teenspeek There are other ways to accomplish the same effect. Kids don't talk in complete sentences. They use contractions. They sometimes use incorrect grammar. They run words together. They talk in Text Speak. Ok, I made up the term, but some of my fifteen-year-old's friends do say things like "You're my BFF" or "OMG, OMG" (and if you don't know what those mean, you need to eavesdrop on kids more often!) Again, all kids don't sound alike. Let your character be your guide.

My last point has to do with the use of historically accurate terms. Or, if you don't write historical fiction, allowing your contemporary characters use outdated or archaic expressions. Like from when we grew up. You know what I mean? Like groovy? Can you dig? (Hopefully your mental ears are hurting by now as I "laid my best 60's jive on you.") If you DO write historical fiction, you have to be aware that some commonly used words today had an entirely different meaning fifty, thirty, even ten years ago. Believe it or not, there was a time when there were no "nerds." When I was in junior high (oops middle school), nerds were "goobs" or "social misfits" and several less politically correct terms. Yes, sometimes I do use politically incorrect words, but only if absolutely essential to the story and character, and never, if there is an acceptable equivalent...like "goobs." In Jimmy's Stars"goobs" were "sad apples", "wet blankets" or "drips." Again, who says this, and in what context, should make the meaning apparent to the reader.

To sum up (finally!!), in using dialect and expressions, less is more. More is...too much of a good thing. Easy with the Tabasco.

THIS WEEK'S READING. I've been slacking a little since school has started here (always a trauma at my house.) But here is what I've managed to digest between High School Emergencies:

CHAPTER BOOK: For the Duration by Tomie DePaola
MG/YA: Night Fires by George Edward Stanley
MG/YA CONTEMPORARY: Slobby Ellen Potter
YA FICTION: After by Amy Efaw, Jumping Off Swings by Jo Knowles, Donut Days by Lara Zielin
YA NON FICTION: Years of Dust by Albert Marrin
ADULT MEMOIR: The Slippery Year by Melanie Gideon.

1 comment:

pamanmat said...

Thank you for answering my question. That is one area I struggle with. Some people told me to use more diction to give my character voice and others have told me to use less. I follow "less is more." Pam