Using accents and dialects in dialogue

In a recent author talk, one of the audience members asked me why Two Hawks spoke English with a Scottish accent.

I explained that my hero needed to speak English in order to communicate with the heroine and that using a Scottish accent in dialogue seemed reasonable since his father was a Scots fur trader. Of course, he would speak English with a Scots accent since he learned the language from a Scotsman. He also employed commonly used words and phrases…like “lassie.”

The Scots burr gave Two Hawks an unexpected charm. In their first meeting, Anna was surprised at his accent.

He settled her securely on the bank, away from the slippery rocks. “You’ll live, lassie.”
….Anna looked up in amazement. This was the closest she’d ever been to an Indian, and this one spoke with a Scottish accent!

Accents share information about a character and give the story a richer texture and flavor. But using accents in dialogue is tricky.
• How much is ‘too much?’
• Are the colloquialisms understandable?
• Is the accent distracting?

My editor helped me with those issues. She recommended ‘toning down’ the accent in some parts of the manuscript to improve readability. But, she commented that using accents in dialogue helped define Two Hawks’ personality.

It wasn’t just the Scots accent that I had to contend with. Some of the characters in Proving Her Claim used Civil War slang. How to communicate that without making the reader stop and look up an archaic term? I relied on narrative to explain some of those phrases.

In other instances, the characters used poor grammar. I’ve spent a lifetime silently correctly grammar in my head. It was difficult to allow my characters to say “ain’t” and “yer.” Editors call this “eye dialect” and caution writers to use it sparingly. Using misspellings or nonstandard spellings to depict a character’s accent (for instance, writing “fixin’” with an apostrophe instead of “fixing”) can be distracting for readers. In subsequent manuscript drafts, I re-wrote dialogue to keep eye dialect to a minimum.

So, do accents and dialects give readers a better understanding of the characters? As we say in the Midwest, ‘You betcha.’