The Effects of Dialect and Swearing in Novels

As I’ve previously mentioned, I’m experimenting with the use of Scottish dialect in the chapters that I have written so far in my book. I’ll be honest, it doesn’t come easily to me, as I’m not actually Scottish. However, as my Dad is Scottish and I have relatives in Edinburgh, I am familiar enough with Scottish phrases to be able to blag my way through (and I have every intention of running it past an actual Scottish person to make sure I don’t get it wrong!)

I do worry that perhaps people who are not familiar with Scottish idioms would struggle with the “cannae’s”, “wouldnae’s” and “ken’s” in the speech of my Scottish Mum and Granny characters. Surely, though, by omitting the dialect, I’m losing the authenticity of the dialogue. I’m considering putting footnotes in to give the translations but again, I worry that this would be distracting. So, I find myself in a bit of a catch-22 situation.

Initially in my first draft, I didn’t really add dialogue, just the occasional “wee” and “aye” to make sure that the reader knew that the characters were Scottish. However, following a read-through by my fab proofreader extraordinaire, she suggested that it should really be all or nothing, and I was inclined to agree with her, otherwise it would seem like a lazy attempt at authenticity, and I certainly didn’t want that. If, and when, I ever feel ready to publish a finished novel, I want it to be well-written, accurate and as perfect as I can possibly make it, so I certainly don’t want any potential readers to feel like I couldn’t be bothered to make it authentic.

So, with all this in mind, any dialogue by the Mum and Granny characters will now (hopefully) be authentically Scottish. Both characters will only feature in certain chapters as neither character is my main protagonist (who is from Manchester) so I hope that overall, if they are not totally understood, the gist of the conversation will be enough to keep the interest of the reader. I’m toying with the idea of having a glossary too but again, I worry that his would distract the reader if they feel the need to keep looking up various words in the glossary. I need to give this more thought.

Following last Sunday’s blitz on my already drafted chapters, I ditched my laptop for my Kindle to continue reading Ed James’s novel Ghost in the Machine, which is also set in Scotland; in Edinburgh, to be precise. Having tweeted about my task for the day, Mr James very kindly tweeted back with some sound advice following his own writing experiences on the pros and cons of using dialect. He removed most of the dialect from his own novel as “nobody south of the Tweed could understand it” and also it may “take the reader out of the book”. I was really grateful that an author who has already published a number of novels had taken the time to give advice to a “rookie” like me, and Ed James wasn’t the only one. Matt Johnson (Wicked Game) has also took time to advise me on occasion (including his thoughts on the subject matter of this post via my Facebook page), and it is really heartwarming that they have been willing to use their experience and knowledge to make suggestions on how I might approach my own writing. Thank you to both of you. If I ever do publish my book, I’ll make sure you get a mention in the acknowledgements!!  smile,emotion,emoticon,happy

Following the posting of my review of Ghost in the Machine (http://segnalibro.co.uk/ghost-in-the-machine-by-ed-james/) on Thursday, Mr James posted a very complimentary comment about my review and commented that I “[d]idn’t even mention the swearing…”. This confused me a little and I commented that “I may have made comment if there hadn’t been any swearing! Adds authenticity!!”. Mr James asked me to take a look at the 1 star reviews he had received as the swearing seemed to be a real irritation to some of those that had read the book, as well as the amount of dialect in the first edition of the novel. Sure enough, many of the readers had taken issue with the swearing and dialect. It was these comments that prompted this post in the first place.

Now, I understand that sometimes excessive swearing can be unnecessary. Personally, I don’t find swear words particularly offensive (unless they are aimed at me, of course face,wink ) as I just consider them as words trying to convey the extent of someone’s irritation or frustration. I understand, however, that not everyone feels that way. Also, there are particular groups of people where swear words are used more than perhaps they would be in other groups. There are people who would find this offensive, but, as I saw written on a post the other day “Every book you’ve ever read is just a different combination of 26 letters.” (Courtesy of Grammarly.com) Aren’t swear words also just a combination of letters?

Don’t get me wrong. I realise that I am simplifying the effect of swear words and that people use swear words for emphasis and to give a derogatory effect to whatever it is that they are saying. By their very nature, they are often used to be deliberately offensive. I do wonder, though, would I be any more offended if someone called me a “cow” or whether they called me a “f**king cow”. I genuinely don’t think I would be. I would absolutely be upset that someone thought I was a “cow” but the swear word in front of it only represents that person’s strength of feeling on the matter.

Ghost in the Machine is a gritty detective novel set in Edinburgh, and like it or not, as with most inner city areas, swearing is fairly commonplace. To remove all swearing from this book would be like adding mobile phone use to Pride and Prejudice – it just wouldn’t be authentic. In the edition that I read, there didn’t seem to be too much swearing. The amount of swearing may have been cut down from the original edition of the book, but unless every other word was a swear word, I would be surprised if it could be perceived as overly excessive. I can’t believe that a group of detectives investigating a series of brutal murders wouldn’t swear a fair amount, as they dredge through disturbing images and come across the vilest individuals; as they get increasingly frustrated by a lack of leads and the amount of red tape needed to be cut through in order to be able to obtain vital information for their investigation.

I’m not saying that the people who complained about the amount of swearing didn’t have a right to be offended, or that those who were put off by the use of dialect were wrong, but I also do not think that the author was wrong to include these types of dialogue either. Swearing is quite commonplace in areas of Edinburgh and Scottish people do tend to have a strong dialect which can, on occasion, be difficult to understand. (I actually think it is easier to decipher written down than it is when it is spoken, but that may just be me!) By not including these common features, in my opinion, it lacks authenticity. James didn’t completely remove any trace of dialect, but chose to adopt an accented English style. There were also a number of Scottish phrases, for example, “back of the hour”. Therefore, he managed to retain authenticity but I would have preferred a few more “didnae’s” and “wasnae’s”, perhaps not with every character but at least with some. However, I understand why James decided to cut out the dialect given the response of those who didn’t like it. Yet there are 931 four and five-star reviews on Amazon (one of which is mine) who like James’s novel and 59 one and two star reviews who weren’t keen, not to mention the 104 at three stars who seem to have found good qualities in Ghost in the Machine. Also, there will also be readers who just don’t connect with a particular novel. Reading is an extremely subjective past-time and it is impossible for every reader to be fan, no matter how well written the novel.  However, when you consider that the 1-3 star reviews only counts for just over 15% of the reviews posted, Ed James has had a very successful first novel.

However, this post is not meant to be another review of Ghost in the Machine but a discussion of the use of dialect and swearing in novels. My own thoughts are that, in order to extend the readership of a novel, it may be prudent to keep swearing and dialect to a minimum. As my novel would be aimed at mid-teens, and because the plot wouldn’t particularly require it, there will probably not be any reason to insert any swearing in anywhere, and if there was, it would only be mild. However, if it did, I would use it if it meant that my novel would lack authenticity without it. If it was set in a prison, for example, I would absolutely put swearing in it, because, in my opinion, it would be necessary to provide the reader with authentic dialogue, and I’m fairly confident that swear words would be used often in that environment. My own concern is with the dialect and, although I’m putting dialect in for now, I will be sure to do some market research before I commit to using it throughout.

Matt Johnson’s thoughts on the matter were that:

Dialect – better to show than tell, but only in small measure. Try writing dialogue that includes a very strong accent and/or local words and many people may not understand you. For example, if I said ‘cwtch’ would you know that was a welsh expression for a hug or cuddle, and it has other meanings as well. Swearing , also something that can be used for authenticity but if too frequent starts to get offensive, in my opinion. And I hate it when people write sex scenes in books and use awful language to try and make it gritty. I always skim it!

On the whole, I agree with him, although I suspect my threshold for swearing may be slightly higher than his (there is one particular swear word that I absolutely detest, but as I said earlier, I don’t generally get offended by swearing). I agree with his comments about dialect, which is why I have only made the less frequent characters Scottish, and I am still not completely decided on the use of dialect yet. I also agree with his comments on sex scenes but that’s a topic for another post. I’m also very grateful that he responded to my request for thoughts on the subject!

I think that the key to these devices is authenticity. Unless the use of swearing and dialect is being used to make the dialogue more authentic, it should be used sparingly. However, if the dialogue requires it, then it should be used. Swearing, in particular, doesn’t seem to cause the same offence generally these days, as it is used more often in general conversation (rightly or wrongly). Whilst there will always be people offended by swearing, sex scenes etc. it is impossible to please all the people all the time, so surely it is better to be true to the characters that are being developed and for those that are offended, they are not being forced to continue reading. When you look at the numbers of bad reviews compared to the number of good reviews that Ed James received on Amazon for Ghost in the Machine, that tells its own story. If the use of these devices can be justified, that’s good enough for me. Whether I will continue to use dialect, the jury’s still out…

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