Tuesday 25 October 2011

Do you use dialect or other languages in your writing?

In my book, 'The Grandson', the main character, Jessica and her mother, Mary are from Yorkshire.  I've gathered from writing classes and creative writing books that using too much dialect when writing can put a reader off.  Apparently it is best to sprinkle dialogue and a character's thoughts with the odd word which gives away where they're from.  This makes it easier for the reader to take in the story.
Some writers break this rule however with success.  I recently read 'The Help' by Kathryn Stockett.  Initially after reading a couple of pages, I put the book down because it is written using a great deal of dialect.  (It is also written in first person present tense which I find difficult to read-see previous post) A friend told me to stick with it so I picked it up again and I'm glad I did.  After a while I got used to the dialect and enjoyed the story which unfolded.
Using another language:
Most of my book is set in Tuscany.  In earlier drafts I wrote much of the dialogue in Italian, typing the Italian in italics and putting the English translation afterwards.
            eg. 'Stasera incontro mio nipote per la prima volta. Dimmi cara, com'è? Tonight I'm          going to meet my grandson for the first time. Tell me dear, what's he like?'
When I read this out in writing classes, it clearly didn't work because two versions of the same dialogue slowed the story down.  After reading several books set in countries where different languages are spoken, I worked out that I could put the dialogue in English but imply it was being spoken in Italian.  This was made possible by adding the occasional word such as 'cara,' meaning dear or 'grazie,' meaning thank you.  Another way was by phrasing the English so that it seemed as though an Italian speaker was saying it, translating the Italian literally sometimes instead of using the English equivalent.
eg. ‘Tonight I meet my grandson for the first time.  Tell me cara, what is he like?’

An English speaker might say 'I'm going to meet my grandson tonight for the first time. What is he like?'  We wouldn't necessarily say 'Tell me' whereas Italians use 'dimmi', meaning 'tell me' all of the time.

I'd be interested to read your comments on the use of dialect and other languages when writing. Have you broken the above rules and made it work?


  1. Another interesting blog, Anita. Writing dialect is so very hard to do, particularly if it isn't your own. The two books, or rather one book and one writer, that came to mind when I read your blog, were 'Buddha Da' by Anne Donnovan and Roddy Doyle. I can't find my copy of Buddha Da at the mo (ever thus!) but as far as I remember the narrator uses the Glaswegian dialect/accent as well as the dialogue being written in dialect/accent. It took me a short while to get into but was so wonderfully consistent and evocative. Roddy Doyle's dialogue in The Van, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, etc is stunningly vibrant and sends you into an Irish accent just reading it. When done well, as it sounds like in The Help, fiction written using accents/dialect can be amazing.

    Ruth Brandt

  2. Ah, just the word Tuscany makes me long for a nice vacation. I haven't messed w/ dialect much, but you make some interesting points here. So so important for characters to sound authentic.
    ~ Wendy

  3. Very interesting post, Anita, especially since I'm in Scotland and sometimes have to incorporate a little dialect in occasional stories - and in the tween novel being published in March. But I think your solution of turning the sentence around a little and using only a word or two in dialect makes perfect sense!

  4. My novel is set in the Highlands of Scotland, so while we don't really use dialect, there are a few words which are a little different.

    I think the way you suggest is by far the best way - keeping a flavour of the language, but keeping it accessible.

    Interesting post, thank you :)

  5. Hi Anita

    I think you have to be very careful with dialect, it's very difficult to do well. Little and not very often I think is the safest way - it's all you need to give a flavour of the origins of the speaker.

  6. Writing characters with dialects can be awkward, but I think you've got this right.

    My step-mum gave up with The Help because of the use of so much dialect and gave the book to me. I haven't had time to read it yet, but I'll bear your words in mind and try to stick with it.

  7. I really like your ideas for hinting quite subtly at a speaker's origin. I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to reading stories with lots of dialect and have definitely been put off by its extensive use in the past.