Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Say What?

Please welcome author PD Singer to the our island home!

Stories take us all over the world, into the far corners and distant times. They take us to new places that exist only in the mind. A movie can place us in time and space, with garb, landscapes, buildings, and iconic images, but a story has only the words to do it. Descriptions help place us in the correct world, but so does dialog. If every character sounded straight out of Middle-Where-the-Author-Lives, how would we truly know where we are?

One of the treasures of my youth (they are still in the bookcase) is a set of abridged classics meant for young readers. In the years since, I've read the full works of most of them. Lorna Doone, by R.D. Blackmore, was one I couldn't finish.

Oh, I read my abridged version so many times that the spine cracked, but I bailed on page four of the full version. The reason was dialect. Pity the editor, working with lines like this:

"Small thanks to thee, Jan, as my waife bain't be a widder. Zarve thee right, if I was to chuck thee down into the Doone track."

Used in small proportion to the rest of the text, as my edition proved, it was an ornament. The full version was a solid wall of this. Not a wall, a mountain range. And I couldn't pass through it. By page four, I hated that story, I hated that author, and I was having trouble remembering what it was that I'd enjoyed so much before.

I tried to read another early love from this collection aloud to my young sons. Set in Yorkshire, Bob, Son of Battle was just chock-full of the dialect, all spelled out. For some reason, this was easier to cope with than Lorna Doone, perhaps because it tended to the dropped letters more than the morass of vowels and strange words. Once I started reading them Arthur Ollifant's story of the brave wee doggie, my mouth and brain disconnected.

"Aye, the Gray Dogs of Kenmuir, bless 'em!" Tammas was saying. "Yo' canna beat 'em nohow. Known 'em this sixty year, and niver knew a bad un yet. Not as any on 'em cooms up to Rex son o' Rally. Ah, he was a one! We've never won Cup since his day."

"Nor niver shall agin, yo' may depend," said the other gloomily.

"G'long, Sam'l Todd! he cried. "Yo' niver happy onless yo' makin' yo'self miser'ble."

By this time, all three of us were "miser'ble" because not a word went unstumbled over. I fully believe that one "never" was a type-setter's rebellion.

Fortunately, the huge use of dialect has declined in the years between those two books and others like them, to a more judicious sprinkling across all genres. There are some that use a word or two, others that have what's nearly a second language going, but nothing I've read comes even close to Lorna Doone.

Two recent books come to mind where the dialect has been utilized well, just enough to get the feel of the place but not so much as to be intrusive. Some readers do find anything but standard language as an irritant, but as you can see, I've been tried by fire.

Val Kovalin used a few very light touches to convey the sense of place and people in her shape-shifter novel, Call and Answer. Speech in Louisiana bayou country has a very distinctive sound, which Val chose to hint at, rather than reproduce wholesale.

Charlie’s voice tightened. “What the devil is going on with you this summer?”

Henri shook his head, unable to meet Charlie’s stare. He shrugged.

Charlie’s eyes narrowed. “You going to tell me anytime soon? ’Cause I got a lot of questions, me.”

That one "me," where most people don't put it, gets quite a lot accomplished!

The bayou folks speak French, too, something that again is only hinted at. A word here, an endearment there gives the flavor, whether the conversation is taking place in English or in French.

“You’re putting me on!”

“No, I’m surely not, cher. It’s true, every word. But I need you.”

Now and again, for characterization, the conversations are entirely in French, which again, are not reproduced completely. This is the French of the land, not the French of Parisian salons, signaled with a slightly less than grammatical sentence that matches the rest of the dialog. Just a comment that the speakers have switched languages, followed by speech of the same rhythm, and the conversation has an all-new subtext.

“He’s a boy! How can that be right?”

“Madame,” Henri said.

She switched to English, as if to make him the outsider. “What is it?”

“I got to get dressed,” he said, sensing they would speak English from here on.

Her lip curled. “I ain’t stopping you.”

Henri turned away, dressing with shaking hands. No way to prevent her from getting an eyeful. In his haste, he’d skipped his shorts and shoved them in his jeans pocket.

“Sophie.” Gabriel’s heavy phallus lay flaccid against his thigh. “Let us be.”

“Me, I’m just getting started!” she burst out...

“...What for you afraid?” Gabriel asked in French. “She can’t harm you.”

It came as a small relief to drop back into what had become the language of their courtship.

Just these small touches, and the author puts us very firmly into a specific place and manipulates the mood. Masterful, but only one reason I enjoyed Call and Answer.

Eden Winters had an entire world to build in another story I've read and enjoyed recently. In Galen and the Forest Lord, she has a whole society to define, with a level of technology to establish, and a mythology to boot. This is from the beginning of the story:

Galen said, "I ne'er believed the tales. Wolves be bad, evil creatures, eating unwary sheep and banished villagers. No kindly old grandfa could be their master."

Kitta shook her head. "They be not merely tales, lad, and the current lord's not so very old. He's scarcely two and twenty summers, so I'm told. And haven't I shared the bravery of the mountain warriors, who take the shape of great, flaming birds whilst in battle? Many a villager they've saved from raiders."

What did you take away from the language, not just the words? I got "rural," from the dropped letters, "depending on oral tradition", from the rhythm of the sentences, and "low level of technology," from the way the verb "to be" is used. "Whilst" is not a standard American word, which gives me an additional "not from here" boost, though other readers may have seen nothing unusual there. That's a substantial amount of world building in a small space, just by playing on things that I find familiar.

In fact, you can hear the echoes from the first two examples, where all of these things are indeed true. If you do an apostrophe count, there's only one that isn't a possessive, so I could reasonably read aloud from this story without stumbling.

Now, Eden may or may not have decided that this precise effect was what she expected the use of dialect to accomplish. Or she may have tapped into a general sense of assumptions, deciding they "felt right." What she did do was enhance the social structure with the use of names.

His uncle's last duty as Galen's guardian would be to see him suitably joined. Once paired, Galen could assume his position as head of the family, and instead of Galen Olaf-kin, the tables would turn. Olaf Galen-kin. Nice sound to that, Galen believed.

Not only do the names tell us how the families are structured, but did anyone else hear the ominous music start?

My contemporaries tend to be set in my own back-yard, where the speech patterns are familiar, but for an excursion across an ocean and a hundred years into the past, I had to consider how much dialect to use. Donal and Jimmy are Irishmen from Belfast, journeymen in their trades, which in this time and place means they are literate and likely to read a lot of newspapers. Other things I had to take into consideration were some readers' assumptions about what a brogue sounds like, other readers' knowledge of what a brogue sounds like, how much dialect I was willing to wade through as reader and writer, and a publisher who likes standard American English spelling.

So a sentence like this one:

"D' ye fancy taking the grand tour tomorrow?" asked the only stranger in a sea of familiar faces.

is about as brogue-y as it gets. I think 'twas appears four times in the entire piece. Ye gets a bit more of a workout, though "you" also appears, and for almost everything else, I decided to rely on word choice and sentence pattern.

"Do I fancy spending two days' pay to see a ship I've been in and out of for months?" Donal lifted his brow at the absurdity.

"Two?" The stranger regarded him frankly, which made Donal want to squirm. "I'd have thought-- "

He chopped off the appraisal of Donal's status in the yard, though what he'd said already was both rude and flattering. The five shilling fee would have been the best part of two days' wages for an unskilled laborer, but part of Donal's skills were in ciphering and forethought. "One for the tour, one for the wage they'd dock me for missing work. Ye must figure that in too."

The stranger laughed. "That would account for the lightness of my pay packet last week. 'Twas a dear cup of tea, then, and all for me getting thirsty before end of day."

I could have stuck a "'t'would" in Jimmy's last line, or dropped a g, but would it have added to anything but reader annoyance?

Another thing I had to contend with is another language. Gaelic isn't likely to have been the language of conversation in the metropolitan areas, but having grown up in a home where English only went back two generations, I was used to a fair sprinkling of other words in speech. Partly for flavor, partly as emphasis, and partly to avoid bogging the story down, I decided to keep the Gaelic to endearments only.

Jimmy calls Donal mo stór once when no one else can hear them. It means "my treasure," though it's sometimes translated at "my dear", which is more how it's used. Mo mhile stór is "my thousand treasure" and I love that endearment. The one time it appears, I hope you'll agree that the setting was right for it. Once or twice, they bare their souls enough to call one another mo ghrá, my love.

Val Kovalin could assume a general understanding of the few French and Cajun words she uses, but with Gaelic, that's a poor assumption. Still, I left the exact translations out of the story itself, trusting the readers to put it all together from context; the words appear sparingly.

In almost everything, my first inclination is to go for total accuracy. In my writing, I've learned to temper complete detail with the needs of the story. This is entertainment, not studying for a degree; the reader wants just enough dialect to evoke setting and time. With Maroon: Donal agus Jimmy (and you pulled the meaning of agus out of that title without a beat, didn't you?) I hope I've struck that balance.

Find Maroon: Donal agus Jimmy here.


PD Singer lives in Colorado with her slightly bemused husband, two rowdy teenage boys, and thirty pounds of cats, all of whom approach carefully when she's in a writing frenzy. She's a big believer in research, first-hand if possible, so the reader can be quite certain PD has skied down a mountain face-first, been stepped on by rodeo horses, acquired a potato burn or two, and will never, ever, write a novel that includes sky-diving.

When not writing, playing her fiddle, or skiing, she can be found with a book in hand. Her husband blesses the advent of ebooks -- they're staving off the day the house collapses from the weight of the printed page.

Follow the adventures at her website.


Chris said...

Dialect definitely has to be used well and not overused - it is indeed a fine line!

Anonymous said...

I did get one small section where an agitated Donal bursts out in mega-slang, but it's one sentence and he was provoked. Highly provoked. :D

Eden Winters said...

I enjoy using and reading mild dialect. Like you, it helps to put me into whatever environment I'm reading about. Some readers do not care for it at all, however, as I've heard in comments about Galen.

Having once lived in Louisiana, I really need to read Val's book.

JL Merrow said...

*g* I always need a second pair of eyes to rein in my natural tendency to ham up the dialect.

Then again, I read an awful lot of Sir Walter Scott's works in my formative years! ;)

Anonymous said...

Eden, you'll enjoy Call and Answer; it's not your standard shifter story at all.

JL, I hear you on Sir Walter; he's right there with my examples.

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