Last weekend, a friend from Essex came to visit me and we went for lunch with my mother in St Andrews. My mum took great pleasure in confusing my poor friend by talking about “coos” and “breeks” and “baffies”. It’s a bit of a cheek really, since I was never allowed to use dialect words when I was a child. My parents would always correct me with the proper English words.
I don’t know if it is because of this or just coincidental that I find it very difficult to write dialect in fiction. I wrote a short story recently set in the middle of a wood somewhere in North America. I realised that it seemed too incongruous to have my characters speaking standard English but I had no idea how else they would talk. In the end I just made up a dialect for them. I figured that as long as I was consistent, nobody reading the story could be certain that there wasn’t somewhere in the world where people spoke like that.
Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style contains the warning, “Do not use dialect unless your ear is good.” Later on in the same section there are a couple of tips for writing convincing dialect: be consistent and use dialect words sparingly. Hopefully I got away with it in my short story.