Accent-uating the Positive

May 8, 2018

I write in a Southern accent.

Well, not all the time. Only when I’m writing personal messages or social media posts. The twang evaporates when I write novels.

I’m not talking about dialect or jargon or patois. I’m talking about nuance, inflection, affect.

I just noticed it recently. When I’m writing professionally, I use things like exclamation points and adjectives sparingly. Less is almost always more, in my estimation. But in personal correspondence, my drawl comes through loud and clear. I tend to get so gosh-darn effusive that the words splat onto the page like water balloons.

So why the difference? Why do I communicate so differently in my own voice than that of my characters?

I think it’s because of my mom. She had a truly beautiful voice – rich, honeyed, sonorous. Not only was it the first voice I ever heard, but it was the voice that read to me. I still remember her lilting cadence when she read me “Madeline” as I snuggled against her on the bed. She never used fake voices for the characters, but she managed to convey Madeline’s spunkiness and Miss Clavel’s brisk efficiency through her intonation. Somehow, this was much more persuasive than mugging or overly emoting. Characters never seemed like caricatures in my mother’s good hands.

It was so typical of her personality in general. Mom grew up in Connecticut, and she had a distinctive New England mien: classy, dignified, understated. She was never campy or unrestrained. Playful, yes. Silly, no. She stood a statuesque five feet, ten inches tall, and her voice conveyed stature as well.

She retained her New England accent all her life, even long after she’d moved to the Deep South. My dad grew up in Atlanta, but his father was from New York, and his accent strikes me as neutral as well (despite inexplicably pronouncing pretty “purdy”).

But what can I say: They chose to raise their five children in a small Southern town and, well, the rest is hick-tory. (I remember Mom shaking her head slowly saying, “I never thought my children would sound like you.”)

So yes, I have a Southern accent. And as I noted, it shows in my personal correspondence. Southerners don’t just love things. They love them! They love them with italics! They love them with ALL CAPS! They love them with multiple exclamation points!!!! I write personal messages as I imagine saying them aloud, and subtlety seldom factors into a Southern conversation.

But in my novels? No. I think I hear my characters’ voices as my mom’s much more than my own. Their dialogue typically doesn’t spill onto the page so much as drizzle onto it. Of course, all of my characters are different, and I try to give each a unique voice. But the basic elements are much more my mom’s than my own.

Maybe that’s one reason I love my characters so much. Theirs are the voices I heard when I snuggled against my mom on the bed.

Aaaaahhh. Music to my ears.

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