by Donis Casey
When I write an Alafair Tucker novel, I work hard to authentically depict what life was like in the pre-World War I rural Oklahoma. I decided early on that I wanted to try and evoke not just the events of the time, but the smells, the tastes, the sound, the hot and cold of it — the daily one-foot-in-front-of-the-other life of a farm wife with ten children. I love the language, too. When I was a teenager, my uncle walked into our house one day and said, “What in the cat hair is going on?” How could I let such a colorful way of expression fade into oblivion?
I’m very careful with dialect when I write, and often worried about it, too. The people in 1916 Boynton, Oklahoma, did in fact use terms and phrases that are now cliche. I know this is so because that is the way my grandparents talked, all four of whom were in their teens and twenties in the 1910′s. In truth, I don’t write exactly like they talked, because it would not be understandable if I did. It’s a beginner’s mistake to try transliterate a character’s accent onto the page. But the choice of words used and the very way that those words are combined will evoke the time and place.
The trick to writing dialect is to simply give a flavor of the language by use of grammar, word order, rhythm of speech, and regional phrases.There is a very big difference between dialect, which is the meaning and use of words and phrases of a particular region or ethnicity, and accent, which is the way words are pronounced. That is, a native Oklahoman in 1916 would probably have pronounced the word panther as painter, oil as awl, and point as pint. But I would not have my character say, “I just shot me a painter.” Because you would look at that, Dear Reader, and say huh?
Sometimes writing dialect for the near past is trickier than for the more distant past. Would my teen boy have said “jeepers” in 1916?* How about, “I’ll be f—ed?”** How can I know? Sometimes it’s tough, but we do our best. Popular literature of the time and etymological dictionaries like the good old Oxford English Dictionary help a lot.
In my experience, persons of Alafair’s particular era and place spoke with an amazing blend of ungrammatical, nonstandard usage and beautiful, flowery phraseology that would not look amiss in Shakespearean dialog. Here’s a passage from the fifth Alafair Tucker novel, Crying Blood:
“You’re a spiteful heathen, McBride…There’s no stud in Oklahoma can hold a candle to yon stallion and well you know it. Talk some sense into the fool, Shaw. I’d have to haul my mares clean to Tennessee to find another half so fine, nor could I buy another of such quality even if I could afford to scour the country to find him.”
Some of the words used in the paragraph are archaic, but not unfamiliar, such as “yon”, or the way the character uses the word “clean” instead of “clear”. And the word order is different from what one might hear these days. But I didn’t write ‘Yore uh spotful haythun, McBrodd.” I trust that you heard it that way in your head, anyway, Dear Reader.
I’m fairly well educated myself, and I grew up determined to speak English in as standard a fashion as I could. My parents were college educated, but their parents and older relatives weren’t, so I grew up around country people. My most schooled grandparent graduated from the eighth grade, which was as far as most people in that time and place could go. One grandparent only got as far as the third grade. But just because you didn’t get very far in school doesn’t mean you aren’t smart. Michael Caine, who is Cockney, once said that people too often judge your intelligence by your accent.
I fear I did that too often during my youth. Now that I’m not so young, I realize that my grandma knew a heck of a lot more about people and about living than I do, lack of advanced degrees notwithstanding.
Writing dialect is dangerous business, any as any writer knows. It’s really hard not to sound ridiculous, or worse, to sound like you don’t respect your characters. So most teachers warn students away from attempting it. Now that it’s hard to find strong dialect anywhere in America, I find that I miss hearing it. To me, an old Oklahoma way of speaking sounds like my warm and loving childhood, and that’s why I try to lovingly convey a flavor of it in my writing.
Donis Casey is the author of six Alafair Tucker Mysteries, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, Hornswoggled, The Drop Edge of Yonder, The Sky Took Him, Crying Blood, and the recently released The Wrong Hill to Die On. Her series featuring the sleuthing mother of ten children is set in Oklahoma and Arizona during the booming 1910s. Donis has twice won the Arizona Book Award and her books have been finalists for the Willa Award and the Oklahoma Book Award. Her first novel, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, was named an Oklahoma Centennial Book. Read the first chapter of each book at Donis’ website.