Article by Todd Eastman

The FBI agent stumbled into the living room, only to find himself face to face with an old woman in a rocking chair. The old woman spit into an rusty coffee can sitting next to her on the floor, then used her bony, arthritic finger to point.

“The killer you be lookin’ fer is right down that there hall.”

Many writers find dialogue to be one of the most difficult aspects of writing fiction. Trying to include regional accents and speech patterns and doing it incorrectly can ruin your story. On the other hand, doing it correctly can make the story seem even more authentic. There are several things you need to be careful of when using this technique in your dialogue.

  1. Be careful not to suggest racism in the way you write, unless that is part of the story itself. Not everyone from the South uses “Y’all”, not every African American uses vulgar words, and not every Mexican is a gang member. Be aware when you are using stereotypes.
  2. If you are going to use regional speech patterns and accents, make sure you do it accurately and consistently. If your character has been speaking with a heavy southern drawl and suddenly sounds like he is from Boston, your readers are going to notice.
  3. Done correctly, using speech patterns and accents can be very effective in fleshing out your character. In R.A. Salvatore’s fantasy series about Drizzt the Black Elf, Salvatore introduces a character named Catti-brie, a human girl who was adopted as a young child by a clan of dwarves and is raised by them. Salvatore’s use of an Irish-like brogue works well for the dwarves and allows Catti-brie to express herself in a manner not always possible in plain English. (Although, I always wonder why dwarves have these Irish/Scottish-like brogues.) But if every race in Salvatore’s stories had different accents and speech patterns, it would become overwhelming and too cumbersome to keep up with.
  4. If you are going to use accents and speech patterns, make sure you make it sound authentic. If possible, sit with or near a group or person that falls into whatever background you are studying, and listen carefully to their speech patterns, accents, and terminology. Even better, get them to converse with you and ask if you can record the conversation, explaining of course that you are doing background research for your best-selling novel.
  5. Along with accents and speech patterns, you have to consider terminology. If your mountain bike-riding friend suggests you “bomb” to the other side of the hill, you better know what you are agreeing to.

One of the best references I have found for locating and defining slang words is Luc Reid’s book, “Talk the Talk – The Slang of 65 American Subcultures.” There are far more than 65 American Subcultures of course, but knowing how and when to use some of these words can give your story that sound of authenticity you are looking for.

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Todd Eastman is a threelancer. He freelances as a writer, graphic artist, and web designer You can read his very opinionated blog at http://www.eastman-writing.com

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