Monday, August 28, 2017

A writer’s exercise

     I’d been walking 30 minutes two or three times a week, but my doctor wanted 45 minutes every day.  Naomi, my girlfriend and most incisive editor, said she’d walk with me.  We decided that rather than take it on as a daily chore, we’d try making it fun on the theory it eventually might actually become fun.
    We started driving downtown to the attractively restored historic district early every morning to beat the heat.  We set up several routes for variety.

     One game we play is to spot three things we never noticed on previous walks.  An architectural embellishment.  An unusual floral or arboreal species.  A name on a historical sign.  Then the next day we’d have to each find three more, and remember the ones we spotted the day before.  And then the day before that.  We got it up to a week’s worth.  And we still see things we’ve not noticed before.

     Another game is people watching.  Trying to guess what a particular walker does or may have done for a living and what their personality might be like.  Trying to memorize at least three dominant facial and physical features.  Trying to judge height and weight.

     It wasn’t long before we were looking forward to our morning sessions.  Exercising our bodies.  Oxygenating and exercising our brains.  Practicing observing our surroundings and life, one of the best skills any writer can learn.

     Sometimes we try to see how many and what items in a shop window each of us can remember after a three-second look.

     But the game I like the best is interacting with people we meet.  If we can elicit a laugh from someone, we get an A.  A smile gets a B.  A wave of acknowledgement is a C.  None of the above is a D.  If you try only half-hard, Ds are rare.

     Example:  We were walking past a yard where a young woman in Spandex was braced against a tree, feet placed well back, legs straight, head between her arms, probably stretching her hamstrings.  I said, “You need help pushing that over?”

     She emitted a nice explosive little laugh.

     I gave myself an A-plus.


Monday, August 7, 2017

Talkin’ Tennessee-un

          A quick lesson in Tennessee dialect:
The spoken word                                    What it actually means
             far                                                              fire
             fat                                                              fight
             tar                                                              tire
             yawl                                                           you all
             brat                                                            bright
             wah?                                                          why?
             hail no                                                        hell no
             lay-us gnat                                                 last night
             wail owl rat                                               well all right
             yeeeeeeee-haw                                       this experience is quite enjoyable (useful for
                                                                       everything from eating fried pork skins to making love)
          And so on.  After a few days in Knoxville or Nashville, you can learn enough to understand restaurant specials and converse with the locals a bit.  After that, hopefully, your drive home will be long enough to shed all the words you've recently learned and return to normal speech.  If there be such a thing.

          There are some two dozen distinct major English dialects recognized in the United States.  Some cover a broad area, like the Southern Appalachian voice that includes Tennessee-tawk.  Some are only used in restricted areas, like San Francisco Urban, New York Urban, Boston Urban, and the extra-hard-to-understand Gullah of the Charleston area.  One I like, especially when used in singing, is Louisiana Cajun.  Near where I live there’s a dialect peculiar to only modest-sized Harkers Island, preserving remnants of the old Elizabethan tongue (high tide to them is “hoi toide”).

          Using dialect and foreign-language accents in writing dialog can be a challenge.   If you try to portray a hillbilly speaking, for example, and you replace the g on all words ending in “ing” with an apostrophe, you could soon have a page swimming with tadpole-like apostrophes, only confusing and slowing readers.  The late Elmore Leonard solved this by not using any apostrophes at all, simply spelling out dialect words phonetically (but still recognizably).

          The best advice I’ve heard is to use dialect words sparingly in the first place, then go back during the final self-editing and cull out even more of them.

          In conveying dialect and foreign accents, the merest hint is almost always quite enough.