June 2013

Have you ever read dialogue that seemed flat, uninteresting, or unbelievable? Or, worse, have you ever written dialogue like this? Dialogue can easily make or break a story by helping to develop characters, control the plot’s pace, and provide readers with necessary information through “showing, not telling.”

Throughout the next 3 posts, I’d like to share some simple ways to improve your dialogue to help make your story the best it can be. Today, let’s talk about the use of dialect.

Dialect is not to be confused with accents, although accents may help to accentuate dialect. Dialect is rather the specific nuances of how people talk and pronounce their words, depending on where they are from. Proper use of dialect can go a long way in making your dialogue believable because it helps create consistency for each character and serves to immediately differentiate your characters from each other.

I’m originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, and people there ask “Please?” when they don’t understand what you said—as opposed to “Excuse me?” or “What did you say?” I thought this was perfectly normal until I moved out of state. Someone would say something to me that I didn’t hear correctly, I’d response with “Please?” and they’d either look at me like I was from Mars, or they’d respond with “Please, what?”

I soon came to discover that this was a uniquely Cincinnati thing. Others who realized this would ask me—after I said “Please?” to them—“Are you from Cincinnati?” It seems it’s probably the only place in the world where people do this!

That’s an example of dialect. And, if you use it well, it will help your characters come to life.

If an American travels overseas, people may say, “Oh, you’re from America,” based on how that person speaks. But what does an American sound like? In America, we know that being from New Jersey sounds very different than being from Lubbock, Texas, and different still than being from  Minnesota.

Dialect includes pronunciation (Bostonians leaving “r”s off the ends of their words, Southerners adding a drawl to their vowels), unique phrasing or words assimilated into their speech (“Please?” in Cincinnati, “eh?” in Canada), and particular, identifying speech patterns (think “Valley Girl” from the 80’s in California).

When trying to write authentic dialect that captures the intricacies of speech from various areas, it’s best to be around people from that area for a period of time. Don’t always rely on the dialect you hear in the movies. When possible, go to where your character is from and spend time just observing and listening to the natives who live there.

Bring a recorder if possible so you can hear the speech again and again. Also be on the lookout for mannerisms and how people conduct themselves when in conversation. Do you notice in certain geographical areas that people are more boisterous in their conversations, maybe more apt to interrupt each other, or maybe women tend to be more submissive when in conversation with a group of men in certain places.

When I was growing up, I had a friend who was part of a large, Italian family. When they all got together around the dinner table, you’d be lucky to get two words into their conversations. And you’d think they were all mad at each other, the way the volume escalated, accompanied by flailing arms and intense facial expressions. But that wasn’t the case. That was simply their natural method of conversation. That family dinner table held no place for introverts!

All of these kinds of nuances help create full, rich, and believable dialogue that helps your reader instantly tell your characters apart.

If you can’t go to an area to listen to dialect, do as much research as possible before you start writing. It will make a huge difference in your dialogue if you can capture the heart of an area’s dialect.

When one of your characters burst into a scene and begins talking, your reader should know immediately who that person is long before you identify him or her. By doing your homework, this will happen.

Next time, I’ll discuss how the words you choose for your characters can enhance their dialogue and make it sound more natural.

I apologize for my posting negligence as of late. I got hit with several projects at once, and for the sake of trying to squeeze in a few hours of sleep, something had to go! But in the midst of all the work, a blog idea came to me that I felt may be useful to my readers: researching!

If you’re like most writers, researching is a necessary evil—much like when you were a high school or college student and the dreaded term paper was upon you. But when you’re researching something you care to write about, it can be fun…or at least interesting.

I’ve had posts in the past where I discussed using primary sources as research (which is always the best if you can find them), as well as how to properly interview subject experts to gather research. So today I’m going down a different path—one I just got off of myself—tips on gathering and organizing research.

My recent research was for two children’s weather books I was commissioned to write. Both books were to contain basic scientific information—one on hurricanes and the other on floods. Here are a few tips I used that can help you start your research process:

1. Don’t ever think you know too much about your subject to research it. This is a trap that writers can be prone to fall into, especially as they write about subjects close to their heart. But, just like your mother used to tell you, “You can always learn something new.” If you already have a solid understanding of your topic, hit the books (or the internet) to gain new depth and to see the subject from multiple sources. You’ll nearly always unearth a precious nugget you can use in your writing.

2. Make sure your sources are excruciatingly credible. Your best bet will always be primary sources. After that, try to locate information from an official organization or governing body for your subject. If that fails, stick with research books or experts’ writings (often found in professional and industry journals or magazines). As you research others’ writings, investigate the sources they used for additional roads to follow.

Dare I say, be very wary of the internet. Use it for finding the official organizations or governing bodies just mentioned or to gather magazine articles from reputable sources. Stay far away from personal blogs (unless the sources are cited), Wikipedia-type articles, and anything for-profit (unless you are researching a product or idea from that company).

For my weather research, I relied heavily on the National Hurricane Center, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, FEMA, and the likes. I’m assuming they know what they are talking about!

3. Take more notes than you think you need. This is one thing I learned the hard way the first couple of times I had to research. I had acquired some information that I didn’t think was very important, but I ended up adding additional sections to my writing for which the research I “tossed” became critical. This cost me a lot of time and effort in retrieving the original information I should have kept—mostly because I didn’t have the foresight to document where the information came from, so I had to retrace my researching steps.

The lessons learned from this were to always do more research than you think you have to, and take a lot more notes that what you think you will ever use. This is akin to filming 5 hours for a 30-second commercial. You never know what you will end up using and what will work best in your finished product. And, if your story ends up taking an unexpected turn, you won’t have to go back to square one to acquire more research.

Another lesson is to document everything. If it’s worth taking notes on, then it’s worth documenting so that: 1) you have the citation in your finished product; and (2) in the event you need to dig out more information on that particular area, you will know exactly where to go.

4. Good organization early on will save you major headaches later! Everyone has his or her own method for research organization, and what works for one may not work for another. For me, I like to use separate spiral notebooks and folders for each topic of my research. Right now, with my hurricane book, some separate topics include: “preparation,” “how hurricanes are formed,” “where hurricanes are formed,” and “resulting effects,” to name a few. I have organized these both electronically into folders and physically into spiral notebooks for notes that I jot down or documentation I come across.

Some writers use note cards to organize, others may include everything in one electronic document but break that document into categories. The point isn’t so much how you do it, just that you do it. By enlisting some organization to your research, you will easily be able to locate what you need and not waste time trying to find it. Also, you can quickly see which areas of your research are in abundance and which are lacking so you know what to focus on.

5. Learn how to walk the balance beam of not plagiarizing yet being precise with the facts. If your writing project is such that you can use direct quotes from your research, then this is an easy way to get around this problem. But sometimes, as in the case of (early reader) children’s books, you can’t do this. So, the dilemma becomes making sure that you have all the facts and details precisely correct, yet rewording the research you gathered so you are nowhere close to copying another’s work.

For me, it helps to rewrite certain excerpts from my research using various phrasing. I’ll keep revising it until it captures all the necessary elements of the details I need, yet looks nothing like the original text. Sometimes this is easier said than done!

When writing for children, a writer should not use another children’s book for research purposes, but he or she should review several children’s books on the same topic that are written for a similar age level. This helps assure the writer that he or she is using an appropriate style, word choice, and sentence structure for the target readers’ age range.

Reviewing similar books, however, sets a trap for plagiarism, as the authors have already done the hard work of assimilating all the research into “kid language” for you. You must be extra careful in this situation to purposely word your research differently so your book doesn’t result in a mimic of another’s.

I hope these 5 tips will help you to gather, organize, and utilize your research. The more you do it and get the hang of it, it can actually be fun. You may even start looking forward to it!