“Ask an Editor” is a forum wherein SCBWI members submit questions that are answered as part of our quarterly Kite Tales blog.
Dear Yolie – Let’s start with some definitions. Accents are “speech habits typical of the natives or residents of a region” while slang is a defined as “language peculiar to a particular group” (Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary).
ACCENTS: With accents, sparing use can be more effective. While some stories may carry an accent throughout, this works only when it’s done well and is easy for the reader to follow.
Here’s an example of a character with an accent from the 2017 Newbery Honor book, middle-grade novel Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk: “Mr. Ansel slowed the horses further and waved in reply. His ‘good morning’ came out ‘goot morgan,’ his tongue forever German no matter how many years he’d lived in these hills.”
This example is from the middle-grade chapter book, Drat! You Copycat! (Katie Kazoo Switcheroo series, 2006). “Thanks for saying you’d be my buddy this week,” she said in her thick Southern accent. “I hope I’m not getting in the way of anything y’all want to do.”
John Green’s 2005 debut YA novel, Looking for Alaska, has a Romanian character who speaks with an accent. Lara’s mispronunciations are italicized: “Lara leaned down to me and whispered, ‘He ees really hot.’”
Dialogue written phonetically can tire a reader if it takes effort to decipher what’s being said. Instead, let the reader know someone has an accent without hanging up the story.
SLANG: Slang is also usually peppered in rather than used exclusively. In David Barclay Moore’s middle-grade novel, The Stars Beneath Our Feet (2017) some of the characters speak to each other in slang: “I ain’t never had no little brother before,” Rockit said.” Also, “Hey, ‘Crete,” I said to him. “How Day-Day?” “He fine,” Concrete said. “Thanks for asking. How your moms?”
IN SUMMARY: Accents and slang are often showcased in dialogue between characters.
Whenever a writer includes information beyond their experience, it’s important the manuscript be reviewed by people of that background to ensure accuracy and fair representation. Start with your critique group, then, once you’ve exhausted those resources, consider hiring beta readers or sensitivity readers. Include diversity and multiculturalism in your story, but do so in a meaningful and thoughtful manner. When using accents or slang that are not in the way you speak, you’ll need a keen ear, sensitivity, and help from others.
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