Using Regional Speech in Dialogue

I love writing dialogue but never make my characters’ voices reflect their region of origin – because I Madeleine Purslowdon’t know how to do it effectively! Then I got chatting to womag writer Maddie Purslow who loves accents and likes to slip them into her stories for Yours and Take a Break Fiction Feast whenever possible. Today Maddie has kindly agreed to give us all a few tips:

I  have a Brummie accent and some would say I would do well to lose it, but I love accents.  I love using them when I write. A lot of creative writing courses advise against using dialects but I think not only does it make your work more interesting, it also makes it easier for your reader to distinguish one character from another.
However, it can be a problem if it’s overdone. Nobody wants to wade through pages of unintelligible dialogue. The key is to concentrate more on the structure of the dialect rather than reproducing it phonetically which, let’s face it, can be a bit subjective. What sounds like a Geordie accent to you might not to someone else. So I suggest a light touch. Just add the odd phrase here and there that suggests the accent.
Using an American accent seems like an easy option because we hear so much of it on television but remember that Americans often use entirely different words from us and these can trip you up, leading to a lack of authenticity. Using an example from a story I had published recently, “You make sure and tell them to work hard at school, I figure that’s the best advice you can give them right now.” We would never say figure but it is part of American everyday speech.
If your character is Scottish, don’t go down the route of having them talk in clichés like the old, “Braw brit moonlit nicht” stuff. Instead look out for the things that are peculiar to the accent. Scots would add “right enough” at the end of the sentence by way of affirmation. “She’s a good looking girl, right enough.” It just gives the flavour of an accent without over egging the pudding.
And talking of puddings, the proof is in the eating of course, and the majority of the stories I have sold have featured at least one character with an accent.
My final tip would be, once you have written your dialogue, always speak it aloud. Even if you can’t do the accent, speak it anyway. It’s amazing how different it sounds and how many faults can be spotted that way.
But most of all enjoy it. Using an accent can be fun, just don’t overdo it. Or as we would say here in Birmingham, “Take it easy, Bab.”

And read more of Maddie’s great regional dialogue in her first novel, Fred The Red’s Dottir. Fred The Red's Dottir
It’s currently only 99p on Amazon Kindle – going back up to the full price £2.49 next Sunday (2nd March).

The story sounds intriguing:
“It’s 1981 and the recession is biting hard. The summer of riots, a Royal wedding and things have turned sour for Julie Reynolds in London. She is forced to return to Birmingham where she has no choice but to live with her ailing, irascible communist father, Fred in ‘The Little Kremlin’. On her return to the working class Kingsbury Estate where she grew up, she is quickly drawn into the lives of her old neighbours, people she had tried to leave behind. But sometimes it is impossible to leave things behind….like secrets for instance.”

I was 18 in 1981 and remember it well so I’m going over to Amazon now, whilst the book’s still half the price of a takeaway coffee, and perhaps I’ll learn how to make the heroine of my next story talk like a Brummie!


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  1. #1 by Anne Harvey on February 23, 2014 - 9:44 am

    Fascinating stuff, Sally. And thank you, Maddie Purslow! This post was a big help to me personally because my novel is set in Lancashire and I’ve always been careful never to include too much ‘lanky’ talk, just an occasional flavour of an accent. However, the last NWS review I had, I was criticised for not putting more accent in! After Maddie’s advice, I shall be sticking to what I have been doing.

  2. #3 by susanjanejoness on February 23, 2014 - 10:36 am

    Yaw cor beat a good Brummie accent can yaw? Thanks for the info Sally, and will definitely have a read of that.

    • #4 by Sally Jenkins on February 23, 2014 - 10:43 am

      You’ve just made me laugh, Susan – thanks!

  3. #5 by ann harrison on February 23, 2014 - 12:12 pm

    I was interested in the advice given. After reading an article last year on this very subject also stating to throw the odd word in and not go the whole hog. I had bought a book set in Newcastle
    using the Newcastle dialect. I found it very hard going and gave up in the end.
    My novel is set in Whitby in 18c.Can I take this opportunity to ask: Does anyone know where I may find a few Old Enlish words from this era to throw in?

    • #6 by Sally Jenkins on February 23, 2014 - 7:51 pm

      Ann – A whole book in dialogue does sound heavy going. And I’m afraid I don’t know anything about 18th century Whitby – can anybody else advise? Or could you search the internet for a museum in the town and ask their advice?

  4. #7 by Carl D'Agostino on February 23, 2014 - 12:58 pm

    Good advice if you add a touch of the accent here and there. One could go full steam with it but can be disastrous if one really doesn’t hail from the region to get it right. Then there is vocabulary that may be a true part of a vernacular or culture slang that may be offensive(Mark Twain stuff comes to mind) not necessarily foul language.

  5. #9 by Jan Baynham on February 23, 2014 - 2:25 pm

    This is really useful, thanks, Sally. My writing class tutor also advised us not to try to spell the regional words in the way they sound or use cliches. She said that including the words used to reflect the dialect would be more effective. I love accents and dialects so shall be taking Maddie’s advice when I’m next writing. ‘I loves it, I do. It’s lush.’ (Can you tell I’m from South Wales? !!)

    • #10 by Sally Jenkins on February 23, 2014 - 7:53 pm

      Sounds like you’ve got the hang of this dialect/accents thing, Jan!

  6. #11 by Chris Sullivan on February 23, 2014 - 6:54 pm

    When you speak of an American accent which one do you mean? New York State alone has numerous different accents. Speaking as a Scot regarding the Scottish use of ‘right enough’; I have never heard that phrase being used or associated with Scots. I live in Edinburgh and I can travel less than 20 miles and the accent and dialect has changed. Adding the odd phrase here and there only works if the reader is aware of the phrase and the region to which it belongs. Accents and dialects are a literary minefield and why I believe creative writing courses advise against it.

    • #12 by Sally Jenkins on February 23, 2014 - 8:18 pm

      You’ve made some very good points, Chris. I guess that in most cases the narrative will include a reference to the geographical location so it won’t matter too much if readers’ don’t know the local phrases used there. I take your point about the wide variation in accents and dialects within a certain country and how easy it is to get them wrong. So I suppose the advice should be, unless you’re sure, leave the local dialogue out. Thanks for the warning.

  7. #13 by swanview on February 24, 2014 - 9:48 am

    Thanks, this is really useful. The book looked good, so I’ve downloaded it.

  8. #15 by Liz Young on February 25, 2014 - 10:43 am

    I’ve used Brighton accents in my novel and founf leaving the ‘h’ off words became tedious. It’s a difficult thing to maintain if you try to keep it going for an entire book.

    • #16 by Sally Jenkins on February 25, 2014 - 6:25 pm

      I guess you’re right, Liz. And if you forget the odd time it will stick out like a sore thumb.

  9. #17 by Wendy Clarke on February 25, 2014 - 1:03 pm

    A lot of my magazine stories have had characters with regional accents – it’s fun, as long as you make sure it’s done subtly.

    • #18 by Sally Jenkins on February 25, 2014 - 6:28 pm

      It sounds like a skill that has to be learned, Wendy. And, like a lot of things in writing, less is more.

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