‘Til the Shoutin’s Over and They Gather up the Singin’ Books: Writing in Character Voice

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I like to write my novels in first person character voice. (Some people call it writing in dialect.) I do it for a few reasons. One, I enjoy reading novels written this way. Two, I think I’m pretty good at it. And three, I absolutely LOVE distinctive human voices, particularly those of the American South.

Writing this way is a challenge. For one thing, I haven’t been to all the places that I’ve set stories in. Right now, I’m writing a novel called Freedom City set in the Ozark Mountains region of Arkansas. Most of my characters are not from the Ozarks. They’re transplants from other parts of the south.

But one character, Pearly, is a ninety-five year old great-grandmother, born and raised in the Ozarks. She’s not the protagonist, but she’s an important character with several point of view chapters. And I (confession!) have never been to the Ozarks.

So what does a novelist such as myself do? I can’t afford to take time off from my life and spend a month with the Arkansas hill folk. And I don’t know anyone from that part of the country with whom I can just sit and have regular conversations, or eavesdrop on. (Incidentally, eavesdropping and conversating are ordinarily my two best tools in learning how to write like others speak.) My soon-to-be brother-in-law is from Missouri, which also encompasses a large portion of the Ozarks, but the one time I tried to get him to spend the day talking like a backwoods hillman, he kept coming back to his regular speaking voice. (What’s up with that, Ryan? ;))

The answer, for me anyway, is read, read, READ! I’ve read every novel set in the Ozarks that I can find. Unfortunately, there aren’t many of these. The only one that I actually enjoyed was Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell. (Read it if you can stomach a lot of darkness and violence.) I also checked out all of the Arkansas travel books owned by my local library. (If you’re wondering, that’s one. One Arkansas travel book in the whole library. Alabama had like five. Don’t people travel to Arkansas?)

So, imagine my delight when I came across this hunk of pure Ozarkian gold.

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The book is Down in the Holler: A Gallery of Ozark Folk Speech, by Vance Randolph. This thing’s got chapters like, “Backwoods Grammar,” “Ozark Pronunciation,” “Unusual Words and Meanings,” “Sayings and Wisecracks,” and lots more. I’m telling you, if there were a college course called Ozarkian English 101, this would be the text book. (Can you tell I’m excited to find this book?)

Randolph was not the leading expert on Ozark language and culture, I’m pretty sure he was the only expert. He spent decades living in the hill country, traveling all over the various towns in both Arkansas and Missouri, and just learning about the people. Then he wrote lots of books. I’ve already read his book, Ozark Superstitions (which is available for free download here), so I suppose I should’ve thought to look for this one sooner. But holy cow, it’s good stuff.

And here’s why writing in character voice is so tough. Aside from learning how the people in your novel’s little part of the world might talk, you must also find a way to convey their speech in writing, making it sound as authentic as possible, but without getting so dialecty that people can’t read it. (Or worse, they can read it, but they can tell you’re trying too hard, and it’s pulling them out of the story.)

This is my biggest problem with Pearly. According to Randolph, Ozarkers mix up their vowel sounds and their subject-verb agreement. And they use a vocabulary not likely to be found in most of the rest of the country. (Have you ever heard of a gollywhopper? A goose drownder? A goozle? What about government socks? These are just some of the G’s!)

In other words. I. Love. How these people. Talk. And I’m going to have sooo much fun writing my character.

So here’s a snippet of my first attempt at one of Pearly’s chapters, written in (hopefully believable) Ozark voice. What do you think?

Christine an’ her husband thinks I’m here fer me. Thinks I’m a-ridin’ along. Lettin’ my grand-youngin’ take care of her helpless, susy Nanny,  who don’t talk none. Who can’t do nothin’ to feed herself vittles or wipe her own behind.

An’ let me ask you. When’s the last time you seen me a-needin’ my behind wiped? Christine and that man can’t seem to remember that. But I was nary a baby the last time mammy took a towel to my butt, an’ I ain’t needed no help with it since.

Let them thinks it. I gots better things to worry me anymore.

Like a-gettin’ this paw paw spread out an’ around. I sprinkles the grinded-up root around up over the perimeter of our property.  I wants to lay out broomsticks too, but Christine might would pick them up when she sees. Clay might could miss them. Might could trip. Wouldn’t that be an awful shame? If only I could know fer sure he’d be the fist one out’n the house.

Fer now the paw paw’ll have to do. That an’ the crosses. I scratches them in over the dirt around about the property, an’ hangs some real ones from up there on the tree an’ bushes. I skips the branch a-stretchin’ up on over Chrisine’s Jesus. He can fend for hisself.

It’s a first draft, but I like it so far. (OK, I’ve been over it more than once. I’d NEVER show you a real first draft.) Bear in mind, Pearly only has about seven or eight chapters in the book, so most of it isn’t this thick. I’m hoping it’s just enough.

Do you have any ideas for improving dialect in your writing? Please let me know in the comments section below. I LOVE hearing from you!

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