Some suggested does and don’ts for writing with local or period ways of speaking:
In no order of importance.
Experiment, use accents, dialects, etc., but run your writing past a person with dialect experience before final submission. Learn how to write accents and dialects in your stories by practice because it will help you write about crosscurrents between people and places.
1. Choose accents, dialects, etc. carefully. Be sure you have your character’s manner of speaking match his/her known region of living. Tell the reader where that is.
2. When using accents, dialects, etc. be sparing. It is tedious for the reader to have a book full of a way of speaking which is strange to the reader. One method is to give a single sentence or a sprinkling of sentences fully in the accent language, followed by bracketed translation, and otherwise indicate in the narrative language [e.g. American English]; that the speaker is talking in the aforesaid language; by using descriptors pertinent to that language [e.g., guttural, coarse, tonal, mellifluous, etc., or by naming the language [e.g., Standard Singapore v. Singlish; East London cockney v. Welsh v. Scottish, or Irish, etc.]. Note that there are many British English regional colloquialisms, spellings, and pronunciations: [e.g.—in addition those above, Cockney: a London-based dialect with distinctive features such as dropping the letter H and using rhyming slang; Estuary English: a London-based dialect that is influenced by Cockney but more standardized and widespread; Yorkshire: a dialect spoken in the large county of Yorkshire in northern England, with features such as shortening words and using the definite article “the” before nouns; and Northern Irish: an accent spoken in Northern Ireland, with influences from Irish Gaelic and Scots.
3. Be liberal with the sprinkling of reminders, but, again, not to the point of tedium. It is a good idea to use different methods of identification at different points in the narrative that the speaker is using a foreignism; but it is not necessary to use the actual foreign language itself, necessarily.
4. When you use dialect, make sure you are using it for the right reasons. Ask yourself:
a. Is it integral to the story [e.g., is it used to reinforce the main character’s outsider status in a close-knit regional community]
b. Are there stereotypical expressions associated with the accent or dialect you should take care to contextualize, use sparingly, or avoid?
Remember, in writing, we live very much in a hypersensitive, politically correct, even “woke”, world. It is not possible to avoid every single and picayune word or phrase that could possibly offend someone on earth, but it is possible to be careful and somewhat defensive of yourself and your writing. I once submitted a script for a podcast about the mysterious murder of an unlovely and unloved wife. For the purpose of creating color, I described her (accurately) as being “one of the sistyuglers”. My submission was turned down because that could have been considered offensive to all women. I gave no adjectives or nouns that could be considered as descriptors in the resubmission, which was accepted without comment.
Another example, of which you might not be aware, is the use of the word “pants” in a British English sentence. In English—as in all languages–slang differs by location. In UK English, for example, many people say something is “pants” as a synonym for “rubbish”—pants, in that context, being an informal word for underwear. Failing the potentially politically correct requirements, you might have the opportunity to apply to another publisher or perhaps just to rewrite your English dialect speeches again. A word to the wise.
c. Remember less is more [and more better, or mo bettah as they say in Hawaii]
In general, people who read are intelligent and imaginative; and you, the author, should give them the benefit of the doubt. They do not need overkill in the use of dialogue peppered with colloquialisms, accents, dialects, or prolonged repetition, to encourage the idea that your character sounds like a Chinese peasant or a Mexican drug lord and not Eliza Doolittle’s Professor Higgins or Hogwarts School official, Dumbledorf. Part of the enjoyment of reading over watching movies is the chance for one’s brain to fill in blanks, to imagine, and to allow the reader to become part of the action. Too much help may seem tedious at best and as a putdown at worst. It is usually sufficient just to mention your character’s nationality or his/her particular pattern of speech to help readers hear the proper accent in their minds while reading your dialogue.
d. It is also of value to limit the amount of current jargon used among youths and the uneducated, such as near ubiquitous use of the word “like”. The word has actual meaning, hallowed by time: to have affection for, to be similar to, or the same as. It usually serves as only a stressor, or just a filler when sprinkled here and there in speech. It would be simply ludicrous to write a serious thought and give way to the use of like and slanguage; it does not even convey emotion or emphasis with any degree of understanding. One of your characters–overly impressed with the jargon du jour, may say, “Like, me and Erik was goin’ like all the way to the bodega, and like, he starts talkin’ smack to a big tough guy. I’m tellin’ ya, like the guy swept the floor with him, like I mean, like the whole barroom floor.”
I suggest that no character be allowed to use that kind of phraseology more than once in any paragraph, let alone three times in a sentence. We readers will get it after a sentence or two; and if the semi-illiterate is allowed to speak again later on, simply allude to the fact that he/she uses “like” to excess and get on with the story. Much the same goes for the jargon du jour that describes anyone and everything as “awesome” or “perfect”. No explanation is necessary.
e. Examples of probably correct speech, according to this author.
• Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, speaks in a working-class London dialect that the Professor tries to change. [“Come on, Dover! Come on, Dover! Move your bloomin’ arse!”; The rine in spine sties minely in the pline.]
• Tom Sawyer in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, speaks in a Southern American dialect. [Aunt Polly: “Hang the boy, can’t I never learn anything? Ain’t he played tricks on me enough like that for me to be looking out for him by this time? But old fools is the biggest fools there is. Can’t learn an old dog new tricks, as the saying is… I ain’t doing my duty by that boy, and that’s the Lord’s truth, goodness knows. Spare the rod and spile the child, as the Good Book says.”]
• Hagrid in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, speaks in a Scottish accent and uses informal words. [“There’s some who’ll hold it against you, but they’re not worth botherin’ with.”… “I brought you here 16 years ago when you were no bigger than a bowtruckle.”
• Huckleberry Finn in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, who speaks in a Southern American dialect with grammatical errors and colloquialisms.
• In To Kill a Mockingbird, many characters that are less educated and less sophisticated are shown to be speaking with a much stronger dialect. At certain points a nonregional reader might well need translations. Such as: Translation: I suppose I have. The first year I came to school and ate those pecans, I almost died.


As you write dialogue, and check its readability and interest, are you able to read that dialogue at a glance, or did you have to stop and sound out each word? Interrupting your readers’ experience of your story and forcing them to think about the words does not work. Unless your foreign or colloquial words or phrases are explained briefly and clearly [in such a way as to allow easy and accurate perception or interpretation] in brackets or parentheses along with the foreignisms themselves, you are in effect asking for them to suspend the disbelief you need to further your story. If you make it a habit to confuse your readers, you may well not get them back.
If you are writing a serious negative, you need to ask if your characters come across as fascinating, different, and compelling—or just cartoonish—and, in so doing disappoint your readers. Do not make your readers have to pause to figure out pronunciation, you are likely to lose their interest in your story—the most important element of your writing. The characters and their dialogue become something to bypass and skip along to more interesting story material, thereby missing some subtle and perhaps important story elements as they go by. The characters lose their personal power, their right to speak, and for their thoughts to matter. Incidentally, many successful authors do not allow unimportant characters to think.
You cannot fake mastery of a dialect on paper anymore than you can in real life; so, don’t try. You can add flair and spice with accents, colloquialisms, and dialect, but it is a path to story failure to make every word and phrase a foreign or local colorful character utters peculiar to say and even harder to understand. Help your readers. Don’t be shy about it.
Failure in use or overuse of accents, dialects, etc., contributes to a general sense of distraction on the part of your readers. Mistakes in the use of foreign words, etc., misspellings, mistranslations, and pretentiousness, are quickly and easily noted by readers. They become more interested in trying to decipher dialogue, laughing at your mistakes, or rolling their eyes at your less-than-perfect grasp of the dialect. You lose their attention to the immediate story and in compelling interest in you as an author for future reading or quoting.
Consider the evolution of Christmas tree lighting. My mother put up electric candles in each window of our Dutch Colonial house each Christmas. Down the block, a family put a string of lights on a pine tree in the yard. Ten years later, that family in competition with a next-door neighbor strung lights all around the eaves of the house, on all trees, in every window. The neighbor did the same but added a Santa, sleigh, and eight big cardboard reindeer on the roof.
Ten years after that, the entire block was set off for pedestrian traffic only and had full blown klieg lights illuminating a baby, its mother and father and some shepherds wrapped in tablecloths wearing bright towels on their heads, and holding crooks in their hands. Another house had double humped camels [even knowing that middle eastern camels only have one hump, but the store ran out of the single humps early on]. The next year the town square was ablaze with colored lights [just like they had in Bethlehem, so long ago], a herd of camels, another of donkeys [we didn’t say the other word these days]. Somewhere in all that kaleidoscope of buying, wrapping, lighting up, and double-humped camel portrayals, the idea that a godly child was born in humble circumstances and grew up to be a god for something like half the world’s inhabitants got lost. We more or less lost the thread of the story. Be careful not to overlight your story, or that can likewise get lost in the clutter.

I chose to use a pseudonym for personal reasons. I’m a retired neurosurgeon living in a rural paradise and am at rest from the turbulent life of my profession. I lived in an era when resident trainees worked 120 hours a week–a form of bondage no longer permitted by law. I served as a Navy Seabee general surgeon during the unpleasantness in Viet Nam, and spent the remainder of my ten-year service as a neurosurgeon in a major naval regional medical center. I’ve lived in every section of the country, saw all the inhumanity of man to man, practiced in private settings large and small, the military, academia, and as a medical humanitarian in the Third World.