I belong to a glorious critique group that's international in flavor. Members range from Australia to Sussex, England, from Paris to Tucson, and Galveston to Canada. Several have been in the business long enough to be almost brutal in their reviews of my work, which I adore since it's that brutality that's enabled my fiction.
Dialogue is one of my strong suits, and since my Carolina Slade Mystery Series is South Carolina-based, and rural in setting, I have to clarify the occasional Southern witticism just like my UK friend has to explain some of his country's terminologies. In doing so, however, I've learned that dialect and regional lingo must be carefully scrutinized if you intend your book to sell outside of your home town.
"I awoke late on Saturday morning and stretched, basking in the rays filtering through my yellow curtains, happier than a dead pig in the sunshine." The sentence was something along that line. I say WAS, because it's no longer in existence.
"Um, how can a dead pig be happy?"
"Ew, dead hogs. What's that got to do with feeling good?"
"Wouldn't a dead pig stink?"
I kid you not. Those were actual remarks from my reviewers, and I couldn't get them to stop making cracks about pigs! Now, to some of you, the remarks from my critiquers are off-the-wall ridiculous. Everyone knows that a pig lying in the sun, fat and satisfied, is at his happiest. Also, feeling extremely lazy and relaxed is equated to being almost dead. At least it is in most of the Southeastern US. However, my Western and Northern peers, not to mention my international friends, thought I'd lost my mind. The debate on how, or whether, to use the phrase went on in jest for days, totally removing the discussion away from the chapter at hand.
Most of us already know that when using dialect, less is more. You do not write verbatim how dialect sounds or you risk losing the reader's interest as he bogs down in the commas, apostrophes, and abbreviated words. Apply that same logic to witticisms. Temper them so they are part of the storytelling, not the noise in the midst of it.
Admittedly, I'm a fan of metaphors and catch phrases. They're colorful, and when used strategically, they paint a character prettier than a basket full of Easter eggs. "He couldn't pour water out of a bucket with the instructions on the bottom" tells you as much about the speaker as it does the character being referenced. So much accomplished in so few words . . . words that are memorable to the reader.
Displaying characters in such a verbal snap is so much more fun than two paragraphs of clothing description and hair color. The sweethearts and good old boys, the intellects and the dunces, the wicked and the kind become all too clear when we use distinctive wording like "You're gooder than grits" or "Bless your heart" or "I'm gonna smear you like peanut butter."
However, falling in love with your phrasing can lead to a bit of overdoing and a sense of the overdramatic. Splash that with regional naiveté, and you might lose some readers who just don't get it.
Enjoy a spicy vocabulary and flex that dialogue, but make sure that when your reader reaches the chapter about dead pigs that it's about barbecue, so nobody gets confused.
Hope is founder of FundsforWriters.com, a career resource for freelance writers, recognized by Writer's Digest Magazine in its 101 Best Websites for Writers for 2001 through 2011. Her online publications reach over 43,000 readers each week, and she makes appearances at conferences across the country. In 2012, Hope will speak in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia, Iowa and Oklahoma. www.fundsforwriters.com
But Clark considers the Carolina Slade Mystery Series her professional personal best, debuting with Lowcountry Bribe. The novel won several awards as it evolved, from semi-finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award to finalist in the Daphne du Maurier Award for Mystery/Suspense. Hope graduated from Clemson University, in the field of agriculture, enabling her to walk the walk of her protagonist, the illustrious Carolina Slade. www.chopeclark.com