When I was a kid, every teacher, from Mrs. Dunham in the fourth grade to English literature teacher Mrs. Snell in high school, pounded into us not to write phonetically. Especially in narrative. Nope, kiddies. Queen’s English was the rule. Joke’s on them. Now it’s the King’s English!
Seriously, though, we also had to read Huckleberry Finn. I kind of get the point as Twain laced his first-person narrative with enough apostrophes and malaprops to warrant a magic decoder ring in places. Well, if Twain did it…
So did Chandler, now pointed at as a paragon of style, the master of simile. When you write like him, it’s as cliché as a Twitter bot hijacking a webcam girl’s images so you’ll follow it. (Spoiler alert: I usually block those.) But Chandler, despite not having much use for Hemingway, took Hemingway’s lean approach a step further. He rendered fiction in a way the average reader could grasp it. And he wrote his dialog to sound like the characters, not what Mrs. Peterson or Sister Mary Bruno wanted.
Then we come to one of Chandler’s literary descendants, Walter Mosley, he of Easy Rawlins fame. Mosley did write a science fiction novel based in the days of slavery called 47. I’ve read it. Fortunately, he doesn’t write the title character’s dialog like Huck, though like Twain, he’s unflinching in his portrait of the Antebellum south. However, there’s that Easy Rawlins series, which unapologetically has swallowed letters and words and Texas idioms force-fit into Los Angeles from the late 1940s onward. I met Mosley once while he toured for 47. He said there was no way he would not write that accent Easy grew up with. Both he and Easy came of age in that part of the world, and he wanted it celebrated. A few months later, I read another novel by the late great Bill Crider, another Texas native, and found a lot of the same speech in his work. Crider, however, smoothed it out some for us ignorant Midwesterners, New Yorkers, and sundry West Coast folk. But then speech was there.
So, how does one edit for this?
As I’ve written here before, I use ProWritingAid as my main tool, though PerfectIt is becoming a major part of my process. PerfectIt is better suited for writers who write with an accent while ProWritingAid has a fit if it thinks an American is using “leapt” instead of “leaped.” In the past two years, I’ve seen one non-UK writer use “leaped.” She’s from Canada. I write “leapt.” Blame Mrs. Snell.) My first challenge with accent and ProWritingAid came from a recent project by an Australian author. The publisher said they wanted to keep the Australian grammar and dialog. Since I can’t change the Word plugin to Australian English, esp. while revising my own American English work, I grabbed a PerfectIt trial. (BTW, I’m sold on the tool.) It does change dialect on the fly. I actually suggested putting back in the “-our” endings of words as opposed to America’s insistence on “-or.” (Flavour instead of flavor.) That was easy enough once I got into the flow.
UK, America, Canada all have regional dialects. In North America, some places mix in French or Spanish without translation. Then there’s the rural Texas dialect used by Crider and Mosley, which both refuse to imply rather than spell out. That can get dicey. I know. I’m editing a Yinzer right now. What’s a Yinzer?
Yinzer is the dialect spoken by people living in Western Pennsylvania. To us Rust Belters, it’s as distinctive as the drawl of Kentucky or the twang of West Virginia. It draws from German and Italian, and thanks to an influx of West Virginians during the Depression, it’s taken on a but of a southern flavor. So why’s it so hard to edit?
Yinzers love sentence fragments. Not surprising. I grew up in Cleveland, which had those same West Virginians coming to the steel mills and auto plants there, but with more Slavic overtones mixed in. And it took me well into my twenties to ease up on the sentence fragments. But not only are the characters in this book Yinzers, so is the author, a Pittsburgh native. So his narrative has a lot of sentence fragments. Another author, or someone editing me, would find a manuscript awash in red tracked changes with lots of comment balloons. This particular author?
I find myself hitting ignore a lot. My job is to clear up the writing, not rewrite the novel. (And I strongly disagree an editor sometimes has to do that. Not unless they are doing a developmental edit, in which case, you’re going to call me after that part’s done. Dev edits leave a lot of copy editing to be done it their wakes.) Writers tend to write the way they talk. Or want to talk. And sometimes, they write like their characters. Military characters tend to speak in short, declarative sentences. Gossipy people prattle on incessantly. Introverts are prone to one-word responses. Those, of course, are stereotypes. I have met some rather verbose introverts and really quiet extroverts. That’s another topic for another blog.
The point is to make it readable, but preserve the author’s voice. You can’t do that if you listen to Mrs. Snell nagging you in the back of your mind to zap every single one of those sentence fragments and make Easy Rawlins use the King’s English.
In fact, I consider rewriting Mosley’s work along those lines blasphemy.