Monday, March 16, 2015

Dialogue 101: Secrets to Writing Accents, Part One

I am one of those people who picks up accents easily. Whenever I travel to the southeast, my Oklahoma friends at home grin at my twang, and when I go up north, my words gallop a mile a minute like the rest of my Philadelphian circles. When I was in a stage period drama, I helped some of my fellow cast members drop their r's and drag their vowels into Cockney. It's hard enough trying to pinpoint and act out an accent, let alone write one accurately without bogging down the dialogue with the deliberate misspelling we authors use to try and capture these accents.

Accents can easily become iconic on the screen. They can help define a character. Everyone likes to say, "'Ello, my name iz Ineego Montoyah. You keelt my fathah, prepare to die."
Friends of mine who are less than purist when it comes to Lord of the Rings remember Pippin as the "hobbit with the Scottish accent." But I'm sure all  of us try to imitate his brogue when we quote, "Wha aboout seckind brakefest."

Well, on the page, those quotes look horrendous. If all of Pippin's dialogue in Lord of the Rings was written that way, our eyes would be rolling in the back of our heads. As I said before, there are two keys to writing accents: 1. Finding the right way to portray the accent, and 2. Finding how much to write in.

This was all fresh on my mind when writing my Celtic Urban Fantasy trilogy. The main characters, all from the southeastern US, travel to Ireland. That's get difficult fast. Why? See below:

Besides the Irish, there are Scottish characters and then there are variations of Irish and Scottish lilts and brogues. I had to decide early on how to balance all of this out. Here's what worked for me, and when talking to other authors, I find that these methods are tried and true. But I'll split this post into two parts. First we'll look at finding how to accurately portray an accent.

The truth is, it's all in the research.

This seems obvious, but sometimes deciding where to research is difficult. Accents involve colloquialisms and terms and phrases that your region or country may not use. Just look at the fifty hundred names for soda. But what are the best ways to research an accent?

1. Talk to face to face with people from that region

Another reason why writers should not hole up in their caves of introversion :) But in all seriousness, this is the easiest way to discern pronunciation and colloquialism. It was the only way the authors of the classics, such as Tolstoy, Dickens, and Twain, could research accents. However, if that's too awkward for you because you don't want to be that person with the cocked head analyzing the way someone sounds, try...

2. Watching YouTube videos from the region/country your accent originates

There's a plethora of these, and it doesn't matter if the person speaking is a tour guide, reporter, or simply being interviewed. This is better than depending on films, because accents in films are rarely accurate, due to romanticization, or worse, poor voice coaching (of which Dick van Dyke was famously a victim, in Mary Poppins).

3. Read books set in the region

This may or may not be helpful, actually, but it will give you an idea of how to write out the accent (or even how not to do it, unfortunately).

4. Talk to a linguist or similar expert

I have actually never done this, though I watched a couple videos on Youtube on accents in the British Isles. However, different author friends of mine have talked to people who understand all the tongue positions and vowel differences, etc, and said it was beneficial.

These are all easy ways to get a handle on a accent before putting it down on the page in the right increments, which we will discuss next week. In the meantime, what are some ways you research accents and colloquialisms?

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