“Jaysus! Howaya Saggy Arse?”: The Challenges of Accents in Dialogue
A few weeks ago, my friend Drew posted about the challenge of writing dialogue with characters who have accents. I never much considered it. All the writing I ever did, the characters spoke pretty normal. Now I’m writing about Irish immigrants in the 19th century slums of New York and I find myself staring at the Irish accent and slang.
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. How do I go about tackling this?
The last thing I want is my readers having a hard time reading my dialogue. Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer comes to mind. Good book, but at times, it was tough to read. Also, I don’t want to pull a Dick Van Dyke and come up with the worst sounding accent of all time.
I seem to have four options.
- Go balls to the wall and study the shit out of the Irish language so it sounds plausible when written. (I’m only writing short stories, though, I don’t want to become an expert on this stuff.)
- Fake the language as best as I can. (ala—Dick Van Dyke).
- Keep the dialogue normal and just spice it with the occasional “ye” and “yer.”
- Don’t try to write the accent. Just say the characters have Irish accents and write normal.
I checked out some writers I admire to see how they did it. Larry McMurty in Lonesome Dove goes for the fourth option. Here’s a few lines after he has already told the reader these men are Irish.
“I say we eat the mule,” the younger man said.
“Nothing of the sort,” the other said.
“Then give me a drink,” the younger said.
This seems to work. There is something that sounds Irish about it—the way their sentences are laid out and their use of words. “Nothing of the sort” sounds Irish to me. Pretty good.
Michael Shaara in the Killer Angels goes for the third option. Try this on for size:
“Colonel, darlin’, I hate to be a-wakin’ ye, but there’s a message here ye ought to be seein’.”
This also works. I’m not sure if this is faked or spiced or properly studied. It’s probably #3, though.
In truth, Shaara’s strategy is my preference. Irish seems to be one of those dialects that just begs to be written out a little phonetically. I don’t want to over do it, though, because most, if not all my characters will be speaking in accents. Will this get on the reader’s nerves after awhile? It’s a challenge that I will be experimenting with.
How about you guys? What’s your strategy with accents?