Who’s a bonny lass then? Part 1…

Stamp Office Close, Edinburgh

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. 

Love always



Image taken from http://www.edinphoto.org.uk courtesy of P.Stubbs


5 thoughts on “Who’s a bonny lass then? Part 1…

  1. skombie says:

    You mention Trainspotting, and after reading it, it really is a masterclass on how to construct a character’s voice. Everything from choice of language, to catch phrases, to accents, it really has it all and I thought it paid in dividends for what Welsh wanted to do with the plot.

    However, if you’ve read A Clockwork Orange, Burgess creates this dialect for his characters and I thought that it took away from the book a little. Having to decipher what the words mean takes you out of the ‘flow’ of the book.

    So, I think, it’s a tricky thing to play with – if you nail it, it’s great. If not, your audience might concentrate too much on the voice and what you want from your story will be lost to them.

  2. Nisha says:

    Hi Skombie
    Yes I do agree that sometimes accented dialogues can constrict the flow of the text but some people like JK Rowling for instance, with her foreign characters, she handles it beautifully, as does Dickens (though his accents differentiate class/status rather than location, subtly done but still brilliant).
    I recently went on a website that dispenses advice to fiction writers and they state unequivocally that accents should be avoided at all costs. That is why I posed the question, because I feel if done right it can enhance characterization, or more crudely put, it makes them seem more ‘real’.
    Personally for me, I will not try to overdo it-I don’t want to frustrate the reader but tweaking the dialogue here and there will definitely add atmosphere to my story.
    You will be surprised (or disappointed) to know that I did not actually finish reading Trainspotting mainly due to the dialogue. I was saving this for Part 2 but now I’ve blown it! But check it out, it will be posted shortly. I’d like to hear your thoughts.
    Thanks for the post! 🙂

  3. skombie says:

    Ha, I put off reading Trainspotting because the language scared me. However, I found once I got in, I stayed in. And even to a small extent started thinking in terms of wee, didnae, and Ah’m.

    I think that in all cases of writing the golden rule is that there is no rules. The stuff I’ve been reading, they mostly use a different way of speaking to represent a character and it’s hugely effective. True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey, is absolutely brilliant in this regard, but to a smaller extent something like No Country for Old Men, the sheriff has the red neck accent and it adds to his character.

    I guess that’s a point though, that you need to use dialects to add depth to a character and not just have them for the sake of having them. As long as you do that, I think you’ll be fine.

  4. I think you have to be careful. As a reader, it can get very distracting to have to almost translate dialogue. But the worst, to me, is a narration that is in dialect. Many horrible “bodice ripper” romances with men in kilts on the cover do this. But you absolutely want to capture the flavor of your place and time and characters. I think you are on the right track. Reading is always the answer, and these authors you mention do it so well.

    • Nisha says:

      I absolutely agree with you, it is very frustrating to have to translate when all you want to do is kick back and relax with a good book. This is exactly what happened with Trainspotting. And the sad thing is that its actually a cool story but you have to make an effort if you want to read it.
      Personally I don’t think my short story is too bad. The more meatier words in the characters’ dialogue I kept in standard English, with smaller words like YES(Aye), FOR YOU(Fir yoo) and MY(mah) in the dialect. My narrative is in Standard English so its not a hard story to follow. And if it still sucks after all that work…oh well, who said a writer’s job is easy?
      “Bodice ripper romances with men in kilts”? I need to get me a copy of one of those… 😉

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