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The Woodshed: What We Talk About When We Talk About Writing / Dan Russell

Last week, my good friend JD Clapp and I had a discussion on dialect. He asked if I would write about using it correctly, and I told him I was already working on something along those lines. Sir John Cosmos works that way; often, minds on the same plane work similarly

When considering this task, I thought it might be good to use my place at Poverty House to write about the craft of writing and things I've found helpful and harmful on my journey.

I want to start with dialect and touch on dialogue. The two are linked. One can write sparkling dialogue but mess it up with a lousy colloquialism or idiom. Doing so is tragic. Good, honest, authentic dialogue and proper dialect make a story more beautiful and intriguing. I'll give you some simple rules in this article to ensure you get everything right!

1. Don't write about where you've never lived.

This is crucial. To write good dialogue, you must know how people speak. It's also easy to offend or ostracize readers by misrepresenting their community. Readers want authentic stories. They'll see it as inauthentic if what they read doesn't match reality. You can't have that happen. While you may visit an area and feel you understand it, you can't write about it accurately if you haven't lived there for a long time. For instance, I lived in Australia for three years. I developed a quasi-Australian accent that Americans thought was authentic. However, Australians thought I was South African. Some things you can never get right. I can't write the great British novel, and neither can you. I also can't write New England noir or anything outside of Arkansas. I'm also questioning if I can set anything northwest of Little Rock because that area is more Midwestern than the rest of the state. Think about this when you consider where your stories will take place.

2. Dialect is inextricably tied to place.

I live in Poinsett County, Arkansas. It is farmland, depressingly flat. If it isn't flat enough, farmers run a laser over it to make sure it is. The only elevated area is Crowley's Ridge, which bisects the county in my wife's hometown. I grew up in the flush, soil-rich western part of Poinsett. My wife grew up along the ridge in central Poinsett. A friend of mine is from desolate eastern Poinsett. None of us speak the same. Consider the word "yellow." I say, "Yella." My wife says, "Yallah." My friend says, "Yeller." Same county! If you think you can navigate that dialect minefield, go for it, but I suggest you don't. Most of my stories are set in Providence, a construct of Poinsett County, where everyone speaks like they're from western Poinsett - as they should. You owe it to your reader to get it right. They'll see you as a local bard telling their stories if you do. They may not say it, but they'll think you're a hack if you don't.

3. Don't write gendered dialogue the same.

This also works as relationship advice, too. Listen to women. Listen to men. Listen to your parents, grandparents, and children. Listen to everyone. Everyone speaks differently. Spend time around a variety of people and take note of how they speak. Doing so will be a gold mine from which you can continue to draw.

4. Use contractions unless your character is very posh or a machine. Don't drop G's.

I see this a lot. "I cannot believe you have not come to our house. You have to. We love it. It is beautiful." No one talks like that. They'd say, "Hey, man. You gotta come over sometime. The new house is awesome. We love it. It's everything we could've dreamed of." "It's" and "could've" do the heavy lifting and make the sentence sound natural. I also chose to end the sentence with a preposition. Bad grammar, but good writing. That's how we speak. Some may recoil at this advice, but I don't. People do it. Listen and hear. If you want authenticity, try it.

Another thing people do when trying to write dialect is dropping g's and ending words with an apostrophe. DON'T! Use the setting and the showing you've done in the story to let the reader know how your characters speak. "Gonna" is usually fine. If you are writing Southern lit, I think "doin" is ok, but you must be careful. If you drop all g's, you are creating something that may sound natural but is a messy read. Faulkner was the worst at this when he waded into African-American dialect. These sections of his dialogue are laborious on the reader and, in my opinion, the weakest part of his craft.

5. Go to a coffee shop, a farmer's-op, a barber shop, or your local diner and listen.

If you want to hear good dialogue and dialect, go where people are. If you're writing a courtroom drama, sit in court. If you're writing a sports book, spend time in a locker room. You must know how these people speak. Doing this will give you unparalleled insight into dialogue and dialect.

I could go on about this topic because I am a dialect and dialogue junky. It is the most essential part of what we do for our readers. People read for pleasure. Good dialogue draws them into a book or story. If you can harness its power, you'll open up a world that will draw them in. Do it wrong, and you might as well kick them square in the teeth. The key is to give people the right words in the right place, spoken at the right time. That's the magic.

Keep chopping!


DAN RUSSELL is a writer and host of The Fair to Middlin' Podcast. His work has appeared in The Arkansas Review, Cowboy Jamboree, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, The Tributary, Close to the Bone, Poverty House, and You Might Need to Hear This. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Concordia University-St. Paul. He and his wife and family live in Arkansas atop Crowley's Ridge. His debut novel, Poor Birds, will be published by Cowboy Jamboree Press in 2025.

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