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The secret of how to write a bestseller

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Paul Whybrow

Full Member
Jun 20, 2015
Cornwall, UK
I have mixed feelings about writing phonetically, as it can come across as patronising. When it's clumsily done, the technique slows the reader's progress.

We all have accents, even if it's easy to fall into the misconception that we don't and that how we pronounce English is perfectly comprehensible to strangers.

I live in the county of Cornwall, which has a distinctive accent among native dwellers, though there are so many 'incomers' from upcountry that it's getting diluted. There's also the ancient Cornish language, which has seen a revival in the last twenty years; many road signs and public buildings have the Cornish language equivalent. I include some Cornish words in my Cornish Detective series, and occasionally indicate the local pronunciation of English words and phrases in a phonetic way. For instance, "It is" would be said "T'is."

I've faced a similar problem with my latest novella, which I'm in the throes of finishing, for it's set in 1868, in the mountain region of Appalachia. This straddles several states and has a strong culture of its own, along with distinctive pronunciation of words and local phrases and names for things. It's what's colloquially called 'redneck' or 'cracker' country with urbane city dwellers, especially from the northern states, looking down on 'hillbillies' as 'poor white trash'. Think 'Deliverance', the Hollywood film in which inbred, cabin-dwelling, backwoods locals stalk and attack four white city men out for adventure in the wilderness.

The antagonist in my story is the evilest character I've created, a psychopathic killer who's committed atrocities in the Civil War that ended two years before. He's continued the war, lynching black folk and white supporters of the abolition of slavery, using rape of both sexes as military intimidation, burning farms, stealing livestock, robbing banks and killing people of all ages, sometimes torturing them first; he's also a cannibal. Lest you think I got carried away with my depravity, :confused: I found many contemporary examples of all of these terrible actions in my research.

My villain is a despicable and uneducated monster, who grew up dirt-poor in the mountains, so talks in a coarse way with a heavy accent. I needed to indicate this, so after listening to online audio files of Appalachian English, came up with speeches such as this:

"Where's your money, Billy Yank? I knows yer got some, with such a fine horse and two mules, stayin' in hotels an' such. No use to you now—may as well let us 'uns have it—what do yer say? Yer kilt five of my men, dammit, and gave Blue Elk's paint pony to them voodoo niggers—helped 'em skedaddle—I'll hunt 'em down once we've eaten you. I'm not that keen on dark meat, but they sure do dance well on the end of a rope."

(Incidentally, the word skedaddle came into common usage during the American Civil War, it's origins obscure.)

While writing this story, I've been reading a novel by one of my favourite novelists Alice Hoffman. Her The Marriage of Opposites is set on the Caribbean island of Saint Thomas in the 1800s, and is based on the life of the mother of Camille Pissarro, the painter who founded the Impressionism movement. Although the story includes native French, Spanish, German and Dutch speakers, as well as the black inhabitants of the island, Hoffman doesn't use any tricks to indicate their accents, keeping all of her spellings standard and barely referring to dialects. I love the story, but occasionally I've had to remind myself exactly who the character is, their cultural background, religion and skin colour, as everyone sounds the same in how they talk. It certainly requires the reader to do a lot more work themselves.

How do you handle accents, regional spellings and pronunciations?

There's a recently published novel The Gallows Pole, Benjamin Myers, set in 18C Hebden Bridge, W Yorkshire. The writer uses straight English for the main narrative but intersperses it with vernacular 'own voice' and the own voice sections use quasi-phonetic spelling, because the 'own' voice belongs to the MC, who was an illiterate metal worker turned coin counterfeiter.

Had he used that throughout, it would have been unreadable. Had he made the MC's own voice, supposedly a verbal, not a written account, he could have managed to be convincing, I think, without using this device.

A 'rich pidgin' says this review.

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aɪ dɪd tɔɪ wɪð ði aɪˈdɪə ɒv ˈjuːzɪŋ fəʊˈnɛtɪk skrɪpt fɔːr ə ˌfjuːʧəˈrɪstɪk ˈstɔːri. It looks very strange, but would have the advantage of making English speakers of all dialects understand the strange way English pronounces most vowels as diphthongs.
Phonetic spelling...Another thing that's been beaten out of me by beta readers. Every once in a while, I'll throw in a 'gonna', but that's about it anymore. I don't mind reading dialect as long as it's not too hard to decipher, but I guess most people don't. I suppose it's about making the effort of reading less to tip that reward:effort ratio more toward the reward side.
Less is more. Too much dialect, and your readers work too hard to decipher it. The trick is to toss in just enough that they get the accent down in their heads. They will then "read" it all in that accent from that character. You only need a word here or there, maybe a sentence or two every few chapters, for readers to "hear" the accent. You want the reading to be seamless, so they're not pulled out of the story trying to figure out what the heck your characters are saying.
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The secret of how to write a bestseller

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