Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Classic, Cozy & Cunning

We've all read books set in different countries, regions, time periods with characters from various ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. The attempt to capture the sound of speech and cultural nuances is all part of the craft of setting a sense of time and place.

Regional dialects lend authenticity to stories set in specific localities. Regional dialects give authors nightmares and headaches. Regional dialects give readers nightmares and frowns. Walking the narrow line between authenticity and insult is an art. Achieving a sense of place and depth of character without confusion or irritation is an art.

In my most recent endeavor, the novel-by-installment, Nights Before, I returned to my childhood home state, Maine. I had been working on an historical novel set in a small town in Oxford County, and was inspired then to write a contemporary romance as well. I had clear visions of the streets of Portland from childhood and more recent visits, but it is the Maine accent that distinguishes the sense of place more than the images of snow and falling leaves. The whole of the Northeast can boast the brilliant colors of Fall and the quiet of a snow-blanketed scene. Only Mainers talk like Mainers. 

I was born into a family of native Mainers, I remain one myself though I've lived far away for most of my life. When I began this book-by-installments, I wanted to pay tribute to that distinctive way of speech, but, except for a few vague recollections of my mother saying 'cunning' or the proverbial 'down the rod apiece' and 'ya cahn't get theah from heah,' my Maine vocabulary was sadly lacking. 

I realized I had to research my first language!

Fortunately, there are Internet sites for that. I went to several, including How to Talk Like a Mainer which was a lot of fun and reminded me of all I'm missing here on the West Coast. And I realized that the Maine accent is a serious topic for wide discussion. There is something about the way we talk that fascinates those who don't — or I'm just putting a proud face on what the rest of the English-speaking world thinks is plain 'odd'. 

In any case, I had to get it right. The more I went through the pronunciations and the vocabulary, I heard the words in my head, spoken as they had been spoken by my parents and siblings before the great exodus to the other side of the country. They came more easily from my own lips. Ayuh is now my first response in the affirmative and has started to spread to other members of my west coast family. And as I developed the dialogue in the first story of the novel, I went all out.

Howevah, too much of a good thing spoils the affect. Here's an example: 
“Sure. Take it easy goin’ over tah Rosemont. The road’s open now, but I’ve heard theah’s a dip where theah weren’t one.”

Easy enough to read, but what if I'd written it like this: "Shu-ah. Take it easy goin' ovah tah Rosemont. The rod's open now, but Ah've hehd they-ah's a dip whey-ah they-ah wehn't one."

Not as easy. In Elements of Style, Strunk & White make it clear that an over abundance of apostrophes and colloquial spelling curtail the flow of reading. Giving a hint of a different dialect is desirable on all accounts relating to the senses of authenticity, place, time, character, personality. In this novel, I distinguish between native Mainers and those 'from away' or who've been away or have abandoned their roots. 

Although I will never knowingly abandon my accent, the ability to talk like a Mainah fades, returning only when I write like a Mainah and I have to admit, I'm wicked glad I've had the opportunity.

Here is a taste of the vocabulary in these stories: 

  • bug - lobster
  • cunnin' - cute, sweet
  • finest - term of endearment, the best
  • wicked - very


  1. I love regional accents. Sometimes I wonder if watching the same TV shows and seeing the same movies will remove regional traces from our speech or blur them. So hope it does not. They're part of our roots and deserve to be preserved.

    1. Regional accents are rich and enlivening. The 'received' accent is bland and colorless. Even the BBC has abandoned its insistence on the 'proper' English accent - thankfully!

  2. You are so right, Ocerwriting accents can sure make things hard to read. Just a touch here and there is much more effective.

    Great Post Leigh

    1. Wicked nice of you to say so, Kathye. Less is almost always more. Except for chocolate!

  3. Leigh, I fell in love with Maine on our ten day visit. I loved the feeling of going back in time, the sense of being able to touch the sky, the food, and the question...were we from "away". The mix of French and Irish heritage was fascinating. Hope to return for another visit.

    1. I don't blame you, Carol. Even when I lived in Wales, I likened it to Maine and love most the parts of California that remind me of my home state. The winters are rough, but if you like snow, there's no better place. If you're from away, you can't get theyah from heeah.