No really. Ask someone from another state. They'll tell you: You have an accent. You might not understand their answer, because they talk funny too, but that’s because people talk funny all over the country.
A Southern drawl, for example, is easy to hear, so authors erroneously assume it’s easy to reproduce. It’s not. And when you get it wrong, readers start picking apart your dialogue instead of enjoying your story. I've heard similar complaints from folks who live in Maine and Washington. Authors target them for their conveniently foggy and mysterious settings, and ignore the other elements that make the areas unique. People in California don't appreciate characters that talk like valley girls. People on reservations don’t speak pidgin English. People in big cities don’t have one generic accent-- New York, Seattle, Chicago, and Denver are drastically different and thousands of miles apart. Even towns that are close together don’t sound the same. My hometown in northwest Arkansas doesn’t sound like Little Rock, three hours away—but because my folks are from Oklahoma, one state over, I don’t have the same accent as my neighbors anyway.
Leaving the country doesn’t help. Scotland doesn't sound like Wales. Manchester doesn't sound like Oxford. Vancouver doesn't sound like Ottawa, and there are supposedly thirty-two distinct Irish accents in a country the size of Indiana. It's overwhelming. How in the world are you supposed to get all these accents right?
1) DO SOME ACTIVE RESEARCH.
- Always set your stories in places you want to visit. Then write off the travel expense.
Okay, maybe not. But if you get the chance, immersion is the very best way to learn a language, even when it’s a language you already know.
- Have an online conversation. Most large forums have a section broken down by geography, so kill two birds with one stone: Learn more about martial arts or photography or football while making contacts in the real life version of your setting. There are also forums dedicated solely to regional differences, like City-data.com, and writing forums like Verla Kay and Absolute Write have entire sections dedicated to story research, not to mention sections where you can request beta readers and specify your needs.
- Have a real life conversation. If you're using a social network, chances are you know someone who knows someone in the region you need. Ask if any online friends are willing to do a phone interview. Look up libraries and universities in the area and see what kind of oral history resources they offer.
2) DO SOME PASSIVE RESEARCH.
- Watch television. As much as I hate to promote reality TV, its contestants come from all over the place. Some of them are good examples of their local dialect, even if they're not good examples of anything else.
- Watch the news. Regional anchors usually sound like the folks around them, and for good reason: It makes them more trustworthy to their audience. Politicians do the same thing. If you can stomach it, try watching CSPAN. Want an exaggerated version to help you pick apart the sounds? Saturday Night Live has made a killing doing just that.
- Listen to the radio. Regional talk show hosts have accents, as do their callers.
- Use the magical Google machine. This amazing map breaks down the entire country by linguistic patterns. You can click on individual places to hear recordings of native speakers and celebrities. Fans created a YouTube channel to support the research with even more examples. George Mason University has an audio accent archive that covers the entire world. And of course Urban Dictionary can be, um… enlightening. Or something.
- Stalk people on Twitter. Okay, not in a creepy way, but you can sort trending topics by region, so why not skim through those? I mean, besides the fact that trending topics can strain your faith in humanity.
- Stalk people on Facebook. There are hundreds of results for “Don’t Mess With Texas.” The University of Kansas has almost 160,000 “likes.” Las Vegas has 318,000 fans. Surely some of those people have blogs you can read.
- Watch movies. Many actors do dialect training for authenticity. (Some, unfortunately, do not.)
- Read good books. Take note of the ways your favorite authors evoke a regional sound... or make you insane with their inability to spell "y'all" correctly. Ask locals to recommend books that faithfully represent their communities.
3) DO SOME DETAILING.
- Keep it simple. Unless you're Mark Twain, don't attempt to faithfully render every single vowel sound, even if you were born and raised in the dialect. Phonetic spelling is hard to read and even harder to get right. You're better off using vernacular phrasing and vocabulary.
"People call me Bubba, just like one of those redneck boys." This tells us our character probably has an accent, but we don't hear it.
"Peeple cawl me Bubba, jus lak wunna dem ol' redneck boahs." Overkill. Leaving aside any racial or cultural messages it sends, it's also, I'd argue, phonetically inaccurate. In fact, I'm too busy arguing that to read your story.
"People call me Bubba, just like one of them ol' redneck boys" Maybe not perfect, but a good compromise.
- Words can say more than one thing. “Line” and “queue” are synonyms, but say different things about the speaker’s background. What your character calls a soft drink reveals a lot about location. (I say “Coke.” I also say “bless her heart” and it rarely means anything nice.)
- Words can get you in trouble. Telling a young lady you’d like it “in the sack” can mean something innocuous or something suggestive, depending on where you say it.
- Communities aren’t just defined by geography. Athletes and soldiers are notorious for their extensive slang, as are boaters, bikers, gamers, and many other groups. If you’re a writer, “I’m working on my MS” means “my manuscript,” but to someone else it might mean “my masters of science” or “my multiple sclerosis.” Fandoms develop entire lexicons, which strengthen the bonds between fans. Using the right slang also builds your credibility in a group— no one wants to go rock climing with the guy who doesn’t know what “pitch” or “bombproof” mean.
- Communities can be split by geography and age. For example, surfers on the west coast use different slang than surfers in Hawaii. Older musicians might say "He's laying down a lot of clams tonight" when a drummer is screwing up; younger ones might say "That was tick city." Marijuana enthusiasts might say “weed” or “bud” or “reefer,” depending on where and when they smoke(d) it.
- Accents change over time. When people move, their accents often mellow, change, or disappear.
- Accents also change quickly. Whether to fit in or stand out, people change their accents on purpose. Salespeople know that matching their customers’ tone makes a sale easier. On the other hand, students know using slang in a paper doesn’t make for good grades. Some people try very hard to lose their accents entirely, adopting another so they can seem smarter, or get acting jobs, or disappear with the Witness Protection Program.
The change can also be unconscious. I don’t do it on purpose, but I know my own accent gets more strident under the influence of anger, alcohol, and the proximity of other people that drawl. Sometimes it gets less prominent when I'm with people from the West Coast or the Northeast, and my speech speeds up to keep pace with their conversation. But sometimes, if I think someone is being condescending to me because of my accent? I make it worse. Just for fun. Go ahead, say something like, “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool” in your thickest drawl. Then smile.
- Words create identity. For brevity’s sake, I haven’t even touched on the racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic implications of dialect. They’re inextricably linked with these other considerations, and can’t be ignored in your character development, even though I’ve ignored them here.
Do you talk funny? In the comments, tell us where you’re from, what you say, and which books and movies accurately reflect your neck of the woods.
Kate Hart is a YA-writing history nerd, represented by Michelle Andelman of Regal Literary. After a few years of teaching and a few more years of nonprofit marketing, she and her husband now build treehouses and playsets from recycled and locally-sourced materials. She has two little boys, an oversized garden, and a fairly strong Southern accent. She blogs at katehart.net and yahighway.com.