I found myself hitting a brick wall recently while working on one particular short story. It was not the plot or progress of the story that proved to be the problem. It happened, strangely enough, to be the dialogue. The wise axiom, it’s not what you say but how you say it, never proved to be more relevant.
And with this story in particular, having spent nearly two years in Scotland, you would think I would be better prepared with a wealth of knowledge and experience at my disposal to overcome this obstacle. Alas, I am ashamed to say, I may as well have been a stranger to the land of Lochs and haunted castles and never set my foot there. My story, which I have named Old Mason’s Close, is set (as you would of probably guessed) in Edinburgh.
Scotland’s capital is quite the cosmopolitan city. Now if I had to set the scene in present day Edinburgh (as I did with one of my completes: Vigils at Yester, check out My Stories soon!), I would not have a problem. Standard written English would do. Unfortunately Old Mason’s Close is set almost 200 years ago and due to my excessive need for authenticity, I decided that all my characters should speak in the dialect reminiscent of the period in question. Herein lies the problem.
I often wondered about written accents. It’s so easy to hear someone speak and then try to figure out where they could be from but having to write on paper HOW they speak is far easier than it looks.
In trying to tackle this problem, my thoughts rested on one book I brought back from my travels. It is a series of macabre and supernatural legends from Old Edinburgh. I thought of this source first because the style of the writing was very informal and contained some colloquial dialogue from the various periods in the city’s past. But again it did not prove very helpful. The few direct quotes I found spanned many centuries so there was no consistency in what I was studying and apart from a few common words I managed to extract, it was not enough to pull off entire conversations.
Then it struck me. No really, it really did STRIKE me. As I stood on a stool trying to retrieve a book from a top cupboard, a small pile of books came cascading down on me. Some landed in my arms; some landed on the floor. As I got off the stool to pick those of the floor, I saw it: Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting.
You are probably wondering how this profane, explicit, self-indulgent morality tale, posing as an artistic attempt to showcase the seedier side of human nature as the result of a society gone bad, saved me sleepless nights and gave me the confidence to proceed swiftly along with Old Mason’s Close?
Well dear friends, I will not give it away just yet. If indeed you have already read Trainspotting(and I must say, I would be incredibly impressed if you did) you probably have an inkling as to how I solved my Scottish dialect problem. Or solving, in the present tense would be a better word as I have not completed my work as yet. Watch this space!
As an avid reader (which I will assume you are), what do you think of written dialects in fiction? Do you think it’s a waste of time on the author’s part, or does it really propel the individuality of a character? Tell me what you think.
Image taken from http://www.edinphoto.org.uk courtesy of P.Stubbs