I was born and raised in the Denver area. When I was 32, I moved to Maine. Walking into Hannaford for the first time, I had no idea where anything was, so I approached the first clerk I could find. “Excuse me, can you help me?”
“Aiyuh, glad to help.” That threw me a little; I was used to, “Sure, what would you like?”
“Could you please tell me where the pop aisle is?”
He looked totally confused, “The what?”
“The pop aisle.” He still looked confused, so I made it more specific, “I’m looking for the diet Pepsi.”
A light seemed to go off in his head, “Oh, you mean the SODA aisle.”
I’ve been in Maine for 10 years and I’ve come far in learning the Maine dialect.
Dialogue has a lot of power to establish more than just character, it is also used to establish setting. The tendency in many writers is to portray the difference in characters’ accents using a phonetic spelling, but they forget the importance of the words they use. This fact seems to be more noticeable in writers who have never had the luxury of traveling more than 20 miles from their birthplace.
There are a couple of ways to remedy this. One of the ways I’ve used is to listen to standup comics talk about where they grow up. They may exaggerate on descriptions but the dialect always comes through. This isn’t the best way, but it helps.
Another great way to learn how people talk is by reading books written by people from that area. Using the same words they grew up with, many writers tend to write the way they speak. This is better than standup comics, but it’s still not the best way.
The best way, if you have the money and the time, is to travel to the place you’re writing about, and take notes. A tape recorder would be great, but most people don’t like their conversations taped. Of course, you don’t want to be intrusive so my trick is to go to local restaurants or public areas, and tell people I’m writing an article and jotting down notes. In nine out of ten cases they will go back to what they were doing and ignore you.
In a character driven story, dialogue is a key to establishing character, setting, and situation. The way you handle this aspect of writing can greatly influence the way a reader will view you as a writer. If your goal is to accurately portray an area, the use of local dialect is crucial to that portrayal.
Challenge: Listen to the conversations around you and see if you can pick out the different words people can use for the same things.