Writing good dialogue is one of the most important things you can master to improve your storytelling, and I have a few different posts planned on the topic of dialogue. The first, though, is something I was fascinated by long before I was an editor, just because I think people and all of their differences are cool.
Many people who know me know I used to have a severe Dr. Pepper addiction. And many people know that Dr. Pepper is a very Texas kind of thing. But did you know that if someone from my home state offers me a soft drink, even if they know I am going to want a Dr. Pepper, the conversation is likely to go something like this:
Friend from Texas: “Hey, you thirsty? Want a Coke?”
Friend from Texas: “Great! What kind?”
Now, those of you from outside the South are probably scratching your head and asking yourselves what’s up with that? Your friend clearly just offered you a Coke, didn’t they? Well, yes, and if I had wanted a Coke, they would have given me one (if they had one to give). But in Southern parlance, a Coke is simply any carbonated beverage. Other parts of the country call it pop, soda, or even soda pop, we call it Coke. Go figure.
Paying attention to these types of regional word choices are part of what is key to making your characters more authentic. And when I say regional, I mean regional as in regional within parts of the US or regional as in parts of the world.
Some of the differences are obvious. Another classic within the States is how your character would address a group of people. Is it you all, you guys, y’all (note apostrophe placement!), or something else? But what about something more subtle? Did you know that what most of the rest of the US calls a frontage or service road, we in Houston call a feeder street? Or that a lot of the South tend to say towards, forwards, backwards (much like the Brits do), even though “proper” US English tells us it should be toward, forward, and backward.
National differences can be both obvious and subtle as well. The Oxford English Dictionary has a nice list of some of the major British English to American English “translations,” things like car park to parking lot, jumper to sweater, biscuit to cookie. But there are some very, very subtle differences beyond just the words themselves. For example, in US English, coffee is generally treated as a mass noun. This means we treat it as something that can’t be counted. Whereas British English treats coffee as a discrete noun, meaning (you guessed it) something that can be counted.
Compare the following two lines from a possible conversation:
Friend in the US: “I’m going out. Do you want me to get you some coffee?”
Friend in the UK: “I’m going out. Do you want me to get you a coffee?”
Other subtle differences in British English are places they drop the article the, in front of the word hospital in certain instances, for example. (Don’t ask me all the rules for that one. I still haven’t figured them all out.)
Obviously, I can’t tell you everything there is to know about every regional difference in one post. We are such a connected society these days that I would encourage you to reach out to your network. Surely if you don’t already know someone who can help you with the area you are writing about, then someone knows someone who can. Also remember that regional words are just one thing to think about. Education level also is also a strong predictor of word choice.
I’ve included a couple of links below to some research that was published in 2013 about regional differences in the US. Whether or not they are useful in your writing, they may be interesting.
|Happy writing and see you next week.|
Erika Orrick wanted to be a writer when she grew up, but detoured into computers when she realized she actually wanted to eat. Financial stability established, she eased her way back into storytelling by fixing other people’s words and discovered she had a knack. An admitted geek, she is constantly distracted from resuming her quest to be a writer by all the shiny. Luckily, since she hasn’t yet grown up, no one can say she hasn’t met her goal. She has tried (and failed) to escape Texas twice and in fact now lives on the north side of Houston, less than 100 miles from where she started.