The dialog in my book HUSH PUPPY had a special challenge for me. First, I had to write the way teenagers talk, but secondly, I had to write the way Southerners talk, which was a lot more difficult than you might think. I didn’t want my characters to sound like stereotypical country bumpkins. I loved them all and I wanted to make them real without making them sound, well, stupid. Mark Twain is infamous for exaggerating Southern speech and I did not want to follow his example.
Some of my characters are more educated than others and that difference in voice had to come across as genuine. I can’t tell you how much I agonized over how to write the book. I put it aside for years for fear of not doing it justice. People in the South are well aware of the ways different people speak and I wanted that to be part of the book too.
In the end, I crafted the dialog to sound like human speech, leaving out the words and some of the sounds that are often dropped in casual speech. Here’s an example:
Jamie walked up to me, a little short of breath after his run. I could see he wasn’t going to leave me alone.
“Whatcha reading, Corrine?” he asked with a dimpled grin.
To my horror, I realized I still held Memaw’s romance novel.
“I’m not reading.” I tried to hide the book behind me.
“You were. I saw you.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Jamie leaned sideways to look behind my back. “Aw, don’t lie now,” he said as he inched closer. I turned, determined he wouldn’t see what was in my hand. I wished I’d thrown the thing in the bushes, but it was too late. He wasn’t having that anyway. He lunged and grabbed at the paperback, surprising me. I swatted at him, but he just laughed.
“Don’t you have something better to do?” I asked.
“Like take a shower?” I meant to sound angry, but it came out like I was kidding.
“No.” He reached around me again for the book. Annoyed, I finally hauled off and whacked him with the paperback, but he giggled like it tickled.
“Aha! I knew it!” He grabbed the book.
“It’s my grandma’s, so don’t get any ideas,” I insisted as he pulled it out of my hands, his fingers softer than I expected. His eyebrows rose when he saw the cover and a grin bigger than before spread across his lips. I felt my cheeks go hot.
“Your grandma reads this stuff?”
“What’s it to you?”
I actually used the word “ain’t” as a character trait for Corrine because she makes a concerted effort to avoid using it.
Jamie followed me down the safe path. It made me more than a little nervous to think of him right behind me. I started babbling.
“Opal Herman is a certified curmudgeon. Cranky! Lord! She hates everybody, even cats. Traps them and throws them in the lake, trap and all, let’s the snapping turtles eat them. She’d do the same thing to people if she thought she could get away with it. There’s a reason why she named her dog Killer. They ain’t a kid in this county she ain’t sicced him on.” I stopped myself because my grammar wasn’t what it should be.
“There isn’t a kid in this county…I mean.”
Most times I tried to speak proper, but sometimes my mouth ran away with me and I slipped back into old habits, like some kind of ignorant hillbilly. Proper English was the only way I was going to better myself, so I worked hard at it.
“You mean ain’t ain’t a word?” Jamie teased.
“No, it isn’t.” I smiled back at him. He seemed to understand.
I’m not suggesting you craft your dialog exactly the way I did, but I highly recommend you listen closely the way your characters speak given the part of the world they come from and their education level. Someone from Minnesota speaks differently than someone from Scotland and you should reflect that as best you can. Reading your draft work out loud is the best way to really hear what your dialog sounds like. The second it starts to sound like an English teacher, stop and fix it. You don’t want proper English in your dialog unless your character is actually a proper Englishman.