Caption: West Highland White Terrier

Ye didna expect Ah’d reet a whole post in bad Scots, did ye noo? How lang wull ye persevere wi’ that, Ah’m wonderin’?

Not long, I’m sure, so I’ll revert to my usual voice! I’m writing a novel set in an imagined version of ancient Scotland. It’s much closer to fantasy than history, which is the reverse of the way I usually tell my stories. However, it has a strongly Scottish flavour, and much of the content has grown from my love for and knowledge of traditional Scottish lore.

When I reached a certain point in the narrative I introduced a big cast of uncanny characters, and immediately they all started talking like extreme versions of Billy Connolly. It was great fun to write and helped the characters spring to vivid life. I was happy to keep writing that way for pages and pages.

Then I cast my eye over the passage and realised how hard it was going to be for the average reader with all its dinna’s and canna’s. In particular there were loads of apostrophes. The first glance would be enough to put a reader off. While I could hear the voices very clearly, it would not be the same for a reader who hadn’t been brought up on all things Scottish including the accent. Yet I wanted to do it. It felt quite wrong for these characters to speak standard English. Besides, some of my favourite passages from my favourite novels make use of dialect. Iain Banks captures the flavour brilliantly without going over the top. And what would Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander saga be without the soft Scots voice of Jamie Fraser?

On the other hand, I could remember getting rather bogged down in The Secret Garden as a young reader because of the Yorkshire voices of nature boy Dickon and his sister. As an adult I can see the charm of those voices, and how beautifully they contrast with those of straight-laced Mary, reared in colonial India, and the sickly, isolated Colin. As a child, I found they slowed me down.

I sought advice from the Dialect Queen: Kate Forsyth, versatile author of novels for adults and young adults. I remembered a lot of Scots in her Witches of Eileanan series, and a variety of different dialects in The Starthorn Tree, a novel for young adults. Like me, Kate is of Scottish ancestry but lives in Australia. I asked her how she felt about putting dialect in her books, and what was the trick to doing it successfully.

Kate said:

‘In my Witches of Eileanan series, I used dialect a lot …  I thought it was really important to show the Scottish heritage & dialect was one way I wanted to do it.

‘Some people loved the dialect I used and said they began talking in it and even dreaming it!  My US editor Laura Anne Gilman was on a panel at World Con at the time and she talked about how difficult dialect was to do well and that she thought I was one author that had managed it.

‘However, a lot of people hated it.  The only criticism I ever got for those books was about the dialect! I wish now that I had not done it, or at least done it a lot more softly. Part of the problem for me, of course, was that the books are so long and there are so many of them – once I started I had to keep on, and so there are thousands of pages written in Scots dialect which was wearying to write and, I think, difficult to read. I did actually soften the dialect a great deal in later editions of the book  & if I had the chance I’d rewrite all the books to take the dialect out, or at least soften it a great deal more.’

So how did Kate create a Scottish flavour in her most recent novel for young adults, The Puzzle Ring?

‘The Puzzle Ring is set in Scotland in contemporary times and back in the times of Mary Queen of Scots in the mid-sixteenth century.’ Kate said. ‘In my first draft of the book I had a few of the Scots characters speaking in dialect and my editor at Scholastic asked me to take it all out. She’s Scottish herself and she said she and most other Scottish people absolutely hate it when they see it. So I have absolutely none in The Puzzle Ring (although I do have one character who uses a lot of great old Scottish sayings.)’

I was horrified to hear that Scottish people hate writers using Scots dialect (I assume this does not apply to Scottish writers like Iain Banks.) It was this point in Kate’s response that made my decision for me – I went back through my manuscript and took out all the dinna’s and canna’s, though I tried to keep something of the old flavour of these characters’ speech. It hurt to do it. I’d had such fun writing those passages, and the voices felt right for the characters.

In fact, I proved incapable of killing absolutely all of my darlings. In the current ms I have allowed one character to speak Scots. I’ve rationalised this by making him an incomer from the far north, the only one left of his kind. Otherwise there would be no good etymological reason for giving him a unique voice.

What’s your experience with dialect, as a writer or reader? Do you love it, hate it, not care much either way? What regional voices have you tried to put into your work, and what were the challenges and rewards?

Photo credit: Naten at Dreamstime.com

About Juliet Marillier

Juliet Marillier has written seventeen novels for adults and young adults as well as a collection of short fiction. Her works of historical fantasy have been published around the world, and have won numerous awards. Her latest release, Raven Flight, is the second book in her Shadowfell series, set in a magical version of ancient Scotland. Juliet has two new releases coming out in 2014: The Caller, third and final book in the Shadowfell series, and Dreamer's Pool, the first novel in a new adult fantasy series, Blackthorn & Grim.