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Writing Unusual Dialogue

Liz here.


As a reader, an author, and an editor, I've both written and edited books with foreign words or other unusual speech and dialogue. What is the best way to go about writing unusual speech that will get across the idea of some type of accent without alienating your readers?

Foreign words: My WWII books are all set in foreign countries and populated by non-Americans, for the most part. For Snow on the Tulips, in which the characters would be speaking either Dutch or Fries, I had them say yes, no, thank you, good-bye, and other such simple phrases in one of those languages. I'll admit, it was a clunky first attempt. Fortunately, I had an editor ready to help me out. Here are some hints I've learned along the way.
  • Try to use the context to give the meaning of the word or phrase. My publisher had me put in a glossary, but I didn't want readers to have to keep referring to it. For example: My sweet, sweet Anna, my beruško. While I don't give away the meaning of the word beruško, from the context, you can figure that it is a term of endearment. Or this: Schnell, schnell. The Germans wanted them to do everything fast. Even if you don't know that schnell means hurry up, you could figure it out from sentence following it. 
  • Be very sure you are using the foreign words correctly. I wanted to have one of my British characters use the word bloody. To Americans, there's nothing really offensive about that, but there is to the British. I removed it. I always try to have someone who speaks the language look over the manuscript to make sure I'm not using the word incorrectly or using an offensive term. 
  • Use foreign words sparsely. Pick a few words, easy ones for the readers to remember, and use them consistently throughout the book. Don't keep throwing in new terms on every page. The goal is to give the flavor of the foreign language, not make your readers fluent in the language. Tripping them up with tons of foreign words will only frustrate them. That's the last thing you want to do. 
  • Study the language you're trying to imitate. I spend quite a while watching videos of people speaking the languages my characters speak in. I also listen to native speakers of those languages speak English. This gives an idea of the cadence of their speech and how they construct sentences. You can use that to give the reader a flavor of the foreign language. For example, instead of saying, "I had three eggs for breakfast," your character might say, "Three eggs I had for breakfast." 
Accents: Like with characters who speak foreign languages, writing characters with strong accents can be a challenge. I've stopped reading historical books with slaves as main characters because the author felt the need to write the dialogue just as it would have been spoken. The awkward writing, all those contractions and such, drove me crazy. I couldn't slog through it anymore. As with foreign languages, give a flavor of the accent. For example, when I became dear friends with a woman from deep in Georgia, I discovered that Southerners call all women by their first name with a miss in front, regardless of their marital status. So, I would be Miss Liz. In the north, we use Mr. and Mrs. This is one way you could convey the accent, the differences in speech, without sending your readers over the cliff.

Historical speech: When you write historical fiction, it's great to be able to throw in some historically accurate speech. In my WWII novella set on the home front,

it was fun have the character talk about her father flipping his wig. And when she got frustrated, she said, "Oh, applesauce." I searched for 1940s slang, double checked that these were indeed terms used at the time, and picked out a couple of my favorites. It lends a great sense of the time period when you can do that. Watch out that the terms your characters are using aren't too modern. While it would be hard to read a book about the Pilgrims with dialogue written just the way they speak, you also shouldn't have them using terms like, "That's groovy."

How do you go about writing unusual dialogue?

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