Agatha Christie was a shy person. Clever as her mysteries were, she felt that, in real life, her wittiest remarks and most amusing observations always came to her too late–when she was alone at home or long after she’d left a dinner party. Part of the reason she loved to write was that she could use these slightly-too-late bits of dialogue for her characters. I, too, love to take a phrase that didn’t come out quite right when I said it, polish it until it gleams, and then put it into a story. Or, better yet, to steal a great turn of phrase I overhear and put it into the mouth of one of my characters. Writers are a bit like magpies, always on the lookout for shiny objects to add to our collections.
A great joy of writing the Lindsay Harding series is that the books are set in different locales around North Carolina. This has allowed me to play with not just dialogue, but with dialects. This was especially true of the second book in the series, A Death in Duck, which opened my eyes, or, more appropriately, my ears to the High Tide/Hoi Toid accent of North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
To write dialect is to walk a fine line between authenticity and reader comprehension. For example, it may be authentic, but the dialogue in James Joyce’s writing has baffled readers for almost a century.
“That made him mad, and he said, liter’ry tone be durned.”
“Thunderation! Keep the durned millingtary step.”
Say what?! I’ve never been able to make it through Joyce’s classic Ulysses because the whole book is populated with incomprehensible jargon and phonetically-rendered accents.
My solution for the native ‘Banker characters in my book is to sprinkle in the occasional regional word–e.g. “dingbatter” to mean “outsider,” “whomperjawed” instead of “crooked”–to give the reader an authentic sense of place. And when the accent is first introduced, I explained the sounds this way:
“Well, you must be Little Miss Lindsay, all grown up,” he began. “I remember seeing you around when you was just a tiny, little thing. Have to say, you got your mama’s good looks. I’d’ve almost reckoned that that was a young Sarabelle Harding sitting there by the fire.”
Even after many decades of living in Duck, Butterworth’s High Tide brogue hadn’t been altered in the slightest. For him, “fire” was “foyer” and “sitting there” was a single word— “settinehr.”
I’m not saying I’m a better writer than Joyce, but if you’re looking for a book to take on your Outer Banks vacation and read on the beach while sipping a cold beer, might I humbly suggest you choose A Death in Duck over Ulysses?
If you’ve never heard the unique Hoi Toid accent, take a listen: http://www.greatbigstory.com/stories/hoi-toider-ocracoke-brogue-in-north-carolina.
Far out, huh?