Dialect in Dialogue by S.J. Garland

Recently I reviewed a historical fiction book by S.J. Garland, and it completely drew me in. One element that stood out most was her use of Scottish dialect, so I asked if she’d write a post about it. Dialect is an interesting technique I hope to try some day.

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find book review of Scotch Rising here

For an author, especially a debut author such as myself, the decision to write a form of Scots dialect into my dialogue was agonizing. I had to decide if the inclusion of all the aye’s and nays would give the text authenticity and therefore help build the narrative tension. Or if it would be cumbersome and make the reader set the book down and walk away without finishing. There are two ways an author can add a touch of dialect to their work, either by stating at the beginning of the characters speech something like: …he replied with a heavy Scottish brogue or with the addition of colloquial sayings relevant to their characters time and place. It is especially important in historical fiction to produce a balanced effort.

Historical fiction is all about setting the mood, getting the reader hooked at the beginning of the story and building enough tension they believe the narrative. The first way to add dialect into dialogue is by stating a character has a particular brogue or accent before they speak, giving the reader a signal to imagine how the character might sound. This choice also ensures the reader will not stumble over complicated sentences with misspelled words and hyphens. However in my opinion it is the weaker of the option, as it means the author must repeat the same signal many times in the text in order to keep the dialect moving.

The second alternative of writing the dialect into the dialogue gives readers the opportunity to experience the flavour of the character in an intimate way. Historical fiction is only one genre that can benefit from the use of direct dialogue. The key to being successful as an author using this method is to find the balance between realism and rambling gibberish. In my own work, Scotch Rising, readers found the addition of the Scots brogue into the narrative a good addition, although a couple of sentences had some people stumped. Writing is all about the learning process and I have toned the brogue down in places for the sequel Pretender at the Gate.

As my work is historical fiction, I spent time researching the words and phrases used by Scots during the time period. I narrowed my research to a Scots poet named Robert Fergusson, and used his poem Auld Reekie as the basis for my dialect. There is a copy available on the Internet at this address, which includes translations for the Gaelic words. With Auld Reekie as my basis, I chose a number of words I could integrate into my dialogue with the result the reader would be able to decipher the meaning after reading the whole sentence. In most cases it worked out well.

The experiment of using dialect in dialogue was rewarding, and it helped me grow as a writer. I will definitely continue to use it in my future work.

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