Tag: Grindstaff

Dialect and Disability

Note from Day: For those of you just coming to Unleaded: Fuel for Writers, the post below is from Unleaded contributor Robb Grindstaff.  As mentioned in Saturday’s post, his debut novel, Hannah’s Voice is now available.  Robb also took the time to add to Unleaded’s collection of Writerly Tips.  

Dialect and Disability in Fiction

Hang with me, and I’ll connect these two unrelated topics.

Using dialect or accents in fiction can be treading dangerous ground. In my novel Hannah’s Voice, the story is set in a small town in North Carolina. I needed the characters to realistically speak with a southern accent, use local idioms, and generally sound as if they were from North Carolina.

I lived in North Carolina for several years, so I know what a Carolina accent sounds like, and I know how it differs from a Texas or Oklahoma accent, where I’ve also lived. The accent in the central Piedmont is different from the Blue Ridge mountains. Fishermen on the coast sound completely different than bankers in Charlotte or NASCAR fans in Greensboro. Even in one town, people will speak with different degrees of accents and use different phrases depending on their age, gender, occupation, income and education level. The accent can even fade in and out depending on who they’re talking to.

In fiction, every character also must have a unique, distinguishable voice. If every character sounds exactly the same, it’s hard to tell who is speaking. So I needed to write each character with a true-to-life dialect for that character. I wanted the dialect to help ground the reader in the setting, in the tone of the novel, and give each character his or her own voice.

But have you ever tried to read a novel or short story where the writer accurately portrayed, or at least attempted to accurately portray, a strong dialect? It doesn’t matter if it was a southern accent, or an Old West novel, rural New England or an urban black setting.

When the dialogue is in too heavy of a dialect, it can be almost impossible to read and very irritating. If you happen to be from that area and speak that dialect, it will feel like the writer is making fun of you. Exaggerated southern accents are common in movies and television, and usually with the sole purpose of showing southerners in a less-than-favorable light – the ignorant redneck syndrome. Isn’t that just as bad as overdoing the stereotypical African-American dialect or an ultra-heavy Hispanic, Asian, or Arabic accent?

Dialect is a strong spice in fiction. A little bit goes a long way. Too much, and it becomes so overpowering that you just can’t get it down without gagging. You can sprinkle a little cinnamon on your apple pie, but don’t try to swallow a spoonful of cinnamon. You can choke to death.

Finding the exact right amount of dialect spice is tricky. Too much, it becomes unreadable. Too little, and you lose the flavor. I’ll use a couple of examples to illustrate. This first one I’m just making up:

“Wa-al, howdy y’all. I was jes’ a-fixin’ up some vittles. Y’all come in here and set a spell afore I puts on da grub, den we’uns will stuff our faces with dese here homemade biscuits ‘n’ gravy.”

Could you read an entire novel where all the characters spoke like that and the writer spelled out all the words in a phonetic replication of an accent? Readers will stumble over every word, every sentence, have to stop and re-read on occasion and try to translate what the characters are saying. At least until they give up and throw the book across the room.

Second example, from Hannah’s Voice, where her Sunday school teacher says this about Hannah:

“What on Earth has gotten into this child?” Mrs. B stood in the middle of the living room, rubbing her hands together as if she were washing them in a sink. “Running out into the storm like that to grab a pile of snow. That just ain’t natural.”

In the North Carolina setting that’s already been established, Mrs. B speaks in a manner that fits the town and the character. But nothing there is overdone or attempts to sound out a southern accent. It should read easily and natural, whether you’re from the south or from North Dakota or California. Can you hear the accent? I hope so.

The second type of dialect I had to deal with in Hannah’s Voice was that of a six-year-old child, the first-person narrator in a book that is aimed at adults, not children. Again, I wanted to go with light flavoring, just enough to make it clear to the reader that the story is being told by a six-year-old for the first half of the book. The second half jumps ahead to when Hannah is a teenager. But if I’d precisely mimicked a six-year-old’s voice for 150 pages, it would have been as unreadable as the exaggerated southern drawl example above. Neither could I write it narrated by an adult voice and tried to keep it in real time from a six-year-old’s perspective.

I went for relatively simple, straightforward language, but I let Hannah’s voice and her internal thoughts rise a little older than a typical six-year-old, sprinkling in a little of the phrasing and idioms and thought patterns of a child to keep the reader grounded in the character and her age.

Several trusted beta readers pointed out things that a six-year-old would never say. A writer-friend who is a child psychologist gave me a lot of tips on the thought processes at age six, and I tried to blend those in naturally to help create a believable six-year-old, but with a voice that an adult could read without distraction or irritation.

Later in the book, the story jumps ahead to Hannah as a teenager. Also a bit tricky here to keep her voice consistent, and yet older, more mature in her words and thought processes, yet clearly recognizable as the same girl.

When Hannah goes to college, she is paired up with a deaf roommate. I didn’t think, “Oh, I need a character with a disability.” What I needed was a character that would play against Hannah’s character. Hannah stopped speaking when she was six, way back in chapter two, and hadn’t spoken in twelve years. Um, yes, by the way, I had to write a first-person narrator who doesn’t speak. But that’s a subject for another day.

So Hannah doesn’t speak, and the college matches her up with a roommate who can’t hear. That’s why I needed a deaf character. Ginger, the roommate, can read lips, but that doesn’t help since Hannah doesn’t speak. They have to figure out how to communicate.

Ginger can speak, however. As many deaf people do, Ginger spoke with a dialect—the natural voice of someone who has learned to speak but has never heard her own voice or the voice of anyone else.

Back to the dialect thing. I wanted to accurately convey Ginger’s voice, her dialect, the way she pronounced words, the extra sounds she would throw in. I wanted to show that sometimes people had trouble understanding her.

But I didn’t want to make it so hard to read that it became irritating to the reader. Neither did I want to make it so exaggerated that it could be construed as ridiculing the way a deaf person speaks. I wanted just enough of that spice to create the character’s voice in the reader’s head.

I went stronger with Ginger’s dialect when she is first introduced to the reader:

The dorm room wasn’t quite like the orphanage. The orphanage was a little nicer. It looked more like the shelter—block walls and worn vinyl tile floors. I covered most of the floor with a rug Suzette had given me, and stacked my textbooks for the first semester on the shelf. First in alphabetical order, then I took them all down and put them in order of my class schedule.

“Yo kind ah vanal, awn’t yo?”

I didn’t understand Ginger’s words. I shook my head and motioned for her to say again while I looked at her, like that would help since I didn’t read lips.

“I say-ah-da,” she enunciated and exaggerated each syllable, “‘ou kind ahv ay-nal, awn’t ‘ou?”

Just organized, I wrote, and she giggled.

Here, I wanted to establish her voice, and I wanted the reader to have trouble understanding that first sentence the same way that Hannah had trouble understanding it.

As the story progresses, the degree of that dialect quickly fades as Hannah (and thus the reader) grows accustomed to Ginger’s way of speaking.

Ginger told me Warren was upset.

“He finally worked up the ner-vuh to ask ‘ou out, and now ‘ou awn’t coming back-uh. He is kind-uh cute, don’t ‘ou think-uh?”

It’s still there, and much stronger than the southern accent used throughout the book for all the characters, but it’s lighter than at the beginning. Even with this lighter version of Ginger’s dialect, I couldn’t use it much. She’s a minor character who only appears in a few scenes. If she’d been a major character throughout the book, I would have gone much lighter on the dialect.

Give your characters unique voices that fit the story, the setting, and each character. Use dialect when appropriate to your story, but be very careful not to overdo it. Let it flavor the voices lightly, not overpower the dialogue. Don’t make readers work to hear the voice or have to decipher what the characters are saying. A little goes a long, long way.

 


Hannah’s Voice – Debut Novel from Robb Grindstaff

Just a quick note about Robb Grindstaff, a long-time contributor to Unleaded and all-around good guy, in addition to being a fantastic writer.  🙂  We’re proud to celebrate with him on the release of his debut novel, “Hannah’s Voice.”

Published January 2013 by EVOLVED PUBLISHING

HANNAH’S VOICE, Commercial/Literary Fiction

A little girl’s silence rends a small North Carolina community. When her silence continues into her college years, the entire country divides over her message.

When six-year-old Hannah’s brutal honesty is mistaken for lying, she stops speaking. Her family, her community, and eventually, the entire nation struggle to find meaning in her silence.

School officials suspect abuse. Church members are divided—either she has a message from God or is possessed by a demon. Social workers interrupt an exorcism to wrest Hannah away from her momma, who has a tenuous grip on sanity. Hidden in protective foster care for twelve years, she loses all contact with her mother and remains mute by choice.

When Hannah leaves foster care at age eighteen to search for Momma, a national debate rages over her silence. A religious movement awaits her prophecy and celebrates her return. An anarchist group, Voices for the Voiceless, cites Hannah as its inspiration. The nation comes unhinged, and the conflict spills into the streets when presidential candidates chime in with their opinions on Hannah—patriotic visionary or dangerous radical. A remnant still believes she is evil and seeks to dispatch her from this world.

Hannah stands at the intersection of anarchists and fundamentalists, between power politics and an FBI investigation. All she wants is to find her momma, a little peace and quiet, and maybe some pancakes.

One word would put an end to the chaos… if only Hannah can find her voice.

Comments Off on Hannah’s Voice – Debut Novel from Robb Grindstaff more...

Boy meets Girl, Boy loses Girl, Boy Kills Girl’s Parents or Complexity in Stories

Note from Day:  The post below is actually a reprint/repost (with permission) from the site of author and editor Robb Grindstaff.  His post about “Complexity” is a great  follow-up to some of the discussion this week on Unleaded – Fuel for Witers about novels and short stories.  Other than length, one of the differences between a short story and a novel, generally speaking, is that a novel gives the write more place for increased depth and complexity.  (And right now I can imagine all the comments that’ll be posted highlighting complex short stories, but as I said, GENERALLY SPEAKING, that’s a major diffrence).  So, how does one add that complexity?  How do you add those additional layers to a story to move it to a novel? 

From Robb Grindstaff, Book Editor:

 _______________________________________

First, I’ll point out that there’s a difference between making a story more complex Robb Grindstaff Headshotand just making a plot more complicated. Complicated isn’t always good. But if you want to go for more complicated, just keep adding new plot points and sub-plots and characters. Just don’t make it so complicated no one wants to read it.

There are more ways to develop or structure a more complex novel than any single blog post can address. So I invite any other writers out there to jump in with comments and share your experiences and knowledge [either here or at RobbGrindstaff.com] . The group here will be a lot smarter than any individual (like me). And that segues nicely to one method to structure a more complex novel: ‘The Group.’ Instead of a single protagonist, or several individual protagonists, what if the protagonist is a group of people? Yes, the group is made up of several individuals, but there is a collective ‘group’ as an organism, person, or character as well.

Think of the Lawrence Kasdan movie, ‘The Big Chill,’ as one example. There are seven primary characters. These adults, all thirty-something years old, were college classmates together some years before, and now they are gathered in a reunion of sorts because the eighth person in their group has committed suicide. They’ve gathered from around the country to attend his funeral and spend a weekend together. The interconnecting relationships, the memories, the shared grief and guilt over their friend’s death, and the emotions of coming together again after years of going in their own directions creates a tremendously complex plot. Each individual in the group has his or her own story, his or her own conflicts. But the protagonist isn’t any of the individuals or all of the individuals, but the group as a whole and how the group comes to terms with grief and guilt, not just over their friend’s death, but all of life’s disappointments.  Rebecca Wells’ novel Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is another example of ‘the group.’ Lord of the Flies by William Golding comes to mind as well.

Another option to make a story more complex is to structure it in two different timeframes – current and past (or recent and more distant past)…The novel, The Mercy of Thin Air by Ronlyn Domingue, has a single protagonist and narrator, Razi Nolan. The story, however, takes place across two timeframes. Razi is a young woman in 1920s New Orleans. She falls in love, and also has a dream of becoming a doctor – not an easy task or accepted profession for a woman in the early 20th century. Tragically, she dies at an early age. But the story doesn’t end there, of course. She remains ‘between’ this world and the next as a ghost. In today’s world, she hangs out in this old New Orleans house where a young married couple has moved in. Amy and Scott have their own set of relationship problems, and Razi involves her ghost-self in their lives to try to help them achieve the lasting love she was never able to enjoy.

But the story doesn’t start at the beginning in the 1920s, proceed to Razi’s death, then start up again 80 years later with the next plot development. That wouldn’t be complex. The story slips back and forth in time, drawing connections between the young Razi and the modern day Amy as the two story lines and the characters are intertwined with each other, until the resolution reveals an even deeper bond between the two women. So not only is the story more complex with two timeframes, the overlapping structure of how it is told is also deeper and richer. To tell a story from two timeframes doesn’t have to involve a ghost, of course. It might be the story of one character as a child or young adult and that same character years later. It might be intergenerational – the story of a man in World War II and his great-grandson in Afghanistan, their families back home, the letters they wrote, and a secret they share. This is different from an epic novel that may cover several generations over the course of hundreds of years, but starts at the beginning and moves forward in time.

A writer can also go for the ‘grand scale’ novel. My favorite example of this – and one of my favorite novels of all time – is John Irving’s The World According to Garp. It’s a story that covers the entire life of the main character, Garp. It even starts before his birth and tells all the back story of his mother and how Garp came to be born (and named). But it’s more than just a novel about one man’s life from beginning to end. Everything about Garp is larger than life – starting with his mother and his birth. It stretches, but doesn’t break, credibility. It is perfectly grounded in reality, yet everything he does and all the rich characters that come in and out of his life are just slightly bigger, and odder, than reality. It’s much bigger than writing a standard, non-complex novel about one character’s life from beginning to end. Most lives, even of fictional characters, just aren’t interesting enough for 80 years or so to hold a reader’s attention from start to finish. But if that character is Garp, his life holds your attention throughout the novel, and plot threads that start in his childhood wind up in full bloom (for good or bad) later in life. The character of Garp is a writer, and layered throughout the novel are the stories and novels Garp writes, drawing on the experiences of his ‘real’ life.

Beyond the grand scale of the story, a writer can also go for the grand scale of the story’s theme – a deeper, more complex theme. More complex than boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy kills girl’s parents. Go for the deeper motivations. Not just the conflicts between right and wrong, but between one right and another right, or between two wrongs, such as when a moral person is forced into a situation where she must choose the lesser of two evils knowing whichever she chooses, it will hurt someone she loves. Explore that conflict in depth. How does it affect the character, and how does it affect the rest of the story? Are there at least two levels to your story? There’s the story level – the plot development, conflict, resolution. And there’s the character level – inner development, inner conflict, and resolution. Just as you may have sub-plots and plot twists, you might also add sub-character conflicts and dilemmas.

In the novel I’ve just finished, ‘Hannah’s Voice,’ I tried to go for something a bit more complex in structure. I’m not claiming I’ve succeeded, but that was my goal. The initial idea was for the main character, who starts the story at age 6, to become mute. After some initial inciting events in the early chapters, she stops talking. What made that more complex to write was that it’s in first person. That’s right, a first-person narrator who doesn’t talk. I had to stop and think about every single scene and how to present it, how to convey the story through her voice when she doesn’t speak, and how she will interact with other characters. On top of that, I had to keep it in the voice of a 6-year-old for the first 100 pages or so before the story skips ahead in time. I also went for the grand scale, as her silence is misinterpreted by various groups and factions. From a child whose silence tears apart a small, southern U.S. town, she grows into a college student whose silence rips an entire nation apart.

So a few ways to deepen and enrich your fiction:

– The Group protagonist

– Two or more timeframes

– The Grand Scale (of a character’s life or of a plot with higher stakes)

– The Grand Theme

And that’s only four out of countless ways to add complexity in story, richness in character, and depth in theme to your fiction. I highly recommend two books that address this topic in much more depth and expertise: Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass and Between the Lines: Master the Subtle Elements of Fiction Writing by Jessica Page Morrell.

Now, time for everyone else chime in with your advice on what has worked for you as a writer or a reader on how to make a story more complex.

____________________________ 

Another Note from Day:  You can comment below or on Robb’s original post.  Make sure you check out his website and blog.  Thanks for sharing!

 

 

Comments Off on Boy meets Girl, Boy loses Girl, Boy Kills Girl’s Parents or Complexity in Stories more...

  • Upcoming Deadlines:

    • No dates present
  • Twitter

    • Random #Research Finds :) #WIP https://t.co/CvBjMmvway
      about 2 months ago
    • Cool Firsts - Writer of the Week https://t.co/1k9peKL55t https://t.co/lRXOie2QdS
      about 3 months ago
    • New York Comic Con Panel: Where are all the Wheelchairs? https://t.co/YrQ09s2ya8 https://t.co/z7Kre0KLfq
      about 3 months ago
    • #Media and #Disability Representation – 6 Recommendations https://t.co/jdrhBmRw8M https://t.co/CWV1GZuVLH
      about 7 months ago
    • New post: Closing Down of Unleaded: Fuel for Writers https://t.co/rQRT6V3TiK
      about 9 months ago
  • Categories

  • Archives

  • Writing Resource Books

  • Copyright © 1996-2010 Unleaded - Fuel for Writers. All rights reserved.
    iDream theme by Templates Next | Powered by WordPress