Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Guess What I'm Doing

After watching Josie 'cook' for Dolly last week, I thought about ways of extending that play without succumbing to the lure of a little plastic kitchen complete with plastic foodstuffs.  Firstly, we don't have room for that; secondly, and more importantly, I'm trying to reduce the amount of plastic we buy that will eventually end up in the waste stream and the environment, and thirdly, I think that with Josie's imagination, this will work just as well. Maybe better.

My little cardboard stove top can be set up various places for play. The little 'saucepans' (egg poachers we inherited from John's grandparents) and other little bits of kitchenware should give her a good start. And there are some pictures of food. (Not too many sweets, Claui.) We'll see how it goes.

I admit to a moment of asking myself: Is this good training for a future feminist? Will I find myself getting her a little vacuum cleaner, iron and ironing board, broom? Would I be doing this if she were a boy?

Then I decided that, boy or girl, there's nothing wrong with beginning to learn life skills.  And learning to take pride in a job well done -- whether it's cooking or sweeping or whatever. (While I actually enjoy doing the occasional bit of ironing, I have a feeling that for most people of Josie's generation, the iron will have gone the way of the buggy whip. So no tiny ironing board.)

As I said, we'll see. A two-year-old is a fickle creature. She may want nothing to do with my little kitchen.

I have another plan. Last time she was here, she told me that some of Dolly's clothes were dirty. I'm seeing a little wash day happening on the front porch, complete with clothesline and clothespins. Much as she likes to play in the water, I think this could be fun. And Dolly needs clean clothes.

Monday, July 29, 2019

On Writing Dialect -- and About a Bestseller

I just finished reading a book that has been immensely popular--NYT #1 Bestseller! Over a million copies sold!--and I am shaking my head in, not disbelief but more like puzzlement.

Since I'm going to say some critical things, I won't name the book--though with mega-sales and a movie deal, I doubt the author would be hurt by by my opinions.

Starting with the positive. The book has some truly lyrical nature writing-- evocative descriptions of setting and animal behavior. The protagonist is engaging and is faced with a threat--several threats, actually-- and an excellent hook. It's a textbook setup for a good novel. The reader cares about the protagonist and truly wants to keep turning pages to see how the problems are resolved, which is a key requirement of good story telling. 

But then it gets a bit melodramatic, actually, quite a bit melodramatic.  Nothing wrong with melodrama -- people love it. But for me, it turned what was looking like a serious literary novel into an excellent beach read. (And which sells better?) It will, no doubt, be a wildly popular movie.

But some serious inconsistencies and an implausible plot, much of the dialogue, cliched and clunky writing here and there, and especially the heavy-handed use of dialect made me cringe. Stuff like viz'ter for visitor, Saderdee for Saturday,  and ya/yo used  for you and your. Yikes!

Obviously it didn't bother the legions of readers who have made this book so popular.  (1.5 million copies sold at last count.) It hit a nerve with me though because when I was leading my class at Wildacres, at the request of one of the writers, I devoted some time to the use of dialect in writing. I did note that the people most likely to be critical of dialect are those who are intimately familiar with the dialect represented and that for most readers, just a vague approximation will suffice to let them know the speaker's dialect is Southern/Irish/Appalachian/Latino etc. 

Here's what I told the class -- far more information than most of you will care about. And, obviously, not critical in whether a book's a bestseller.


Dialect is tricky – it can add a lot to the richness of a story – or it can annoy, baffle, and irritate the reader till he or she flings the book across the room.

I had one critic call my use of dialect in one of my early books “demeaning.” At the same time, I’ve had numerous readers thank me for writing characters who talked just the way their grandparents spoke. I disagree with the demeaning accusation. I happen to believe that the language of my older neighbors, the same language I tried to reproduce, is musical and evocative. “I wouldn’t trust that man in my meathouse with a muzzle,” one neighbor told us when, during the Watergate hearings, we were discussing President NIXON.” Or, from another neighbor, “I was weedeatin down in the ditch when a great big gorf rat like to run up my britchie leg.” I almost swooned when I heard that -- the first time I’d heard ‘britchie leg” outside of the old song Cripple Creek.

You don’t want to turn your characters into caricatures; at the same time, I don’t see the point in cleaning up language – say, avoiding the use of ain’t, if that’s the way your characters talk. The way your characters speak can tell us who they are – think of Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. He could probably listen to me and pronounce that I was educated, of a Southern background with hints of Alabama and Native Floridian overlaid by long time residence in rural western North Carolina. In my writing, set in rural western NC, I even differentiate between the speech modes of the older generation, their children, and their grandchildren. It’s easy for me – I just think of various people I know or knew – a lot of them are gone now) and ask myself How would Mearl say that? And what about her daughters Elsie and Delsie who have more education and more dealings in the outside world? And Mearl’s grandchildren, whose language is influenced by television?

The first thing to say is that, unless the reader is familiar with the people of whom you’re writing, you can get away with some flagrant misappropriations. BUT, if what you’re writing is being read by the same people you’re writing about, expect to get called on it. I can’t really speak to the authenticity of Dianna’s Irish and German accents, or Lindy’s Irish because I’m not familiar with them, beyond the popular representations thereof. But if Leah is writing about a place near me, I’m going to have a more critical ear.

That said, the important thing is to SUGGEST a mode of speech rather than try to replicate it. Use speech patterns – “Reckon why he did that?’ Or “Reckon why he done that?”
Mark Twain and others of his time wrote with an almost phonetic attention to the pronunciation of words. That really won’t work today. 

Try to get across the dialect or speech patterns by the phrases and sentence construction rather than oddly spelled words. You can also have an outsider comment on the soft Southern drawl, or Brooklyn accent, or Appalachian twang, or the fact that Miss Birdie pronounces chair as cheer. If English is your speaker’s second language, he may speak very precisely, no contractions, and sprinkle in bits of his own language.

‘Eye dialect’ is the term used for showing differences from ‘standard’ pronunciation by using alternate spellings (for example, writing ‘holler instead of hollow or using apostrophes to represent omitted letters y’all instead of you all or runnin’ instead of running. A little of this goes a long way – Over the course of my six novels. I used less and less. Often, I might use some once – As in Miss Birdie’s “Come on in and git you a cheer.” I spell get GIT and chair CHEER -just this once, hoping to have instilled in my reader’s mind, Birdie’s way of speech. Subsequently – and Birdie says this more than once - I use standard spelling.

Watch out for too many of those apostrophes to denote dropped letters. A standard one is an apostrophe instead of a g – ridin’, ropin’, shootin’ – absolutely standard and I used a fair amount of this in my first book. But it began to seem awfully cluttered lookin’ to me and in the secondary story – which is set around 1901 and in which everyone speaks in dialect, I dropped the G but omitted the apostrophe. And in later books, I generally didn’t drop the g at all.

Instead of eye dialect, the things to focus on are diction, synax, and idiom: word choice, word order, and characteristic turns of phrase.

DICTION – word choice: When we moved to our farm back in 1975, we found ourselves having to learn the language. You need to put some chat on that road so it don’t gaum up come winter. Finally, we realized we needed gravel on the road so it didn’t become a muddy morass when it snowed and melted. Traveling in England we had to remember that cookies were biscuits and potato chips were crisps and chips were French Fries.

SYNTAX --word order: This is really useful if you’re trying to convey a foreign speaker, It’s wanting to go, I am could be Irish or perhaps Welsh, while   Reckon what he meant by that? I’m ready to go everwhen you are  are some standard Appalachian twists of syntax.

IDIOM--characteristic turns of phrase: Brilliant! (current Brit) I wouldn’t give her air in a jar, He bowed up and wouldn’t go no further. She’s awful bad to talk. He got right ill at his wife when she burnt the biscuits.

Nothing can substitute for being as familiar with the dialect as if you had grown up speaking it. I didn’t start writing till I’d already been in Western NC for 25 years. I’d absorbed the sounds and had, on occasion, ‘passed’ as a native. But there are other ways of gaining greater familiarity with an accent – spending time with folks who speak like that, local radio, books by indigenous authors, recordings of story tellers using that dialect. Or a source – once I found myself writing that someone was ‘drunk as Paddy’s sow’ It sounded great but I began to wonder if it was something I’d actually heard – or something I’d read. I got up with (that’s some local idiom) Sheila Kay Adams – ballad singer and storyteller from my county and she said she’d never heard that but she had heard Drunk as an owl. Later I found the Paddy’s sow thing had come from the Patrick O’Brian books. Of course it’s not a big deal – the majority of readers wouldn’t have known the difference. But I would.

In my last book I have a character who’s English and as I wrote him, I realized my idea of Britspeak was somewhere between Monty Python and PG Wodehouse. So I enlisted the aid of a longtime English blog friend who agreed to read my attempt at this guy’s speech. He read and suggested a few minor changes. Here again, most readers wouldn’t notice. But for a few, there might have been some dreadful clangers.

Of course, if you’re writing about the past, you’ll have to rely on books of the time for the way of speech. I read Civil War letters to get an idea of the speech of the time. Mark Twain’s books are rich representations of a certain way of speech BUT the eye dialect is too much for modern day readers. The same for Zora Neale Hurston’s accounts by ex-slaves and many other writings of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. You can read them to get an idea of the way the speech sounded then ‘translate’ paying attention to diction. Idiom, and syntax. 
Here again, less is more. And here you won’t have anyone to call you on authenticity.

In the end, we do the best we can to represent our characters fairly, honestly, and with the dignity they deserve.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Child Development --a Poem by Billy Collins

As sure as prehistoric fish grew legs
and sauntered off the beaches into forests
working up some irregular verbs for their
first conversation, so three-year-old children
enter the phase of name-calling.

Every day a new one arrives and is added
to the repertoire. You Dumb Goopyhead,
You Big Sewerface, You Poop-on-the-Floor
(a kind of Navaho ring to that one)
they yell from knee level, their little mugs
flushed with challenge.
Nothing Samuel Johnson would bother tossing out
in a pub, but then the toddlers are not trying
to devastate some fatuous Enlightenment hack.

They are just tormenting their fellow squirts
or going after the attention of the giants
way up there with their cocktails and bad breath
talking baritone nonsense to other giants,
waiting to call them names after thanking
them for the lovely party and hearing the door close.

The mature save their hothead invective
for things: an errant hammer, tire chains,
or receding trains missed by seconds,
though they know in their adult hearts,
even as they threaten to banish Timmy to bed
for his appalling behavior,
that their bosses are Big Fatty Stupids,
their wives are Dopey Dopeheads
and that they themselves are Mr. Sillypants. 

Friday, July 26, 2019


I can't help it. As a onetime English major and teacher of the same and as a writer, teacher, and sometime editor, I can't not notice errors in writing. And they're everywhere. 

Sometimes they're just typos--any errors you notice in this piece are typos, by the way--but usually they're the result of the writer's having heard a particular usage rather than having read it. 

I'm talking about homophones-- words that sound the same but have different meanings and spellings.

A few days ago I read a piece in which someone said he called a contractor he was having a problem with and "raised cane." I immediately thought of someone hoeing sorghum or sugar cane, though I knew what the angry person meant to say was "raised Cain"--an expression that means caused a ruckus and implies that one is resurrecting the spirit of the biblical Cain--the first murderer.

The person who wrote he'd raised cane probably wouldn't be fazed by a nit-picky old lady.  And he'd probably spell fazed wrong--phased or phazed are two popular variations.

Then there's the expression to give free reign. Sounds plausible, as if one were giving the right to reign over something. Except that the correct phrase is to give free rein -- as in holding the reins loosely so that a horse can go at its own pace. 

And speaking of horses, what happened to Whoa--the traditional command to stop a horse? It's also used for people, as in "Hold your horses" and as an expression of amazement, as in "Whoa, I didn't see that coming!" But more and more people are writing Woah, which, to me, should rhyme with Noah (like Cain, another biblical character.)

Oh well, horses and biblical knowledge and correct usage are so yesterday. 

Kinda like me.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Yet More Flora and Fauna

I'd hoped that the Heavenly Blue morning glories and the Moonflowers I grew last year had re-seeded but only the seemingly deathless purple ones are back.  And they are most welcome.

These sulfur yellow mushrooms appeared in one of my rosemary pots. I think they're Lepiotas -- and are known as a greenhouse mushroom, noted for growing in potted plants. 

A resident bunny -- a very large one though you'll have to tae my word on that.

Yesterday was clear and dry and amazingly cool. The sunshine in the morning felt like the first day of the world.

A Blue-tailed Skink -- sometimes called scorpions by our older neighbors -- enjoying the sun.

A few day lilies are still blooming.

Standoff at the bird feeder -- young cardinal and veteran goldfinch.

And look who was relaxing in the warmth of the greenhouse. That big bulge to the left of his/her head probably isn't the copperhead; nevertheless, I'm glad to to see he/she's still around. 

Blacksnake was so blissed out in the sun that I came and went several times before he/she decided to leave.

Always happy to see bees of any description.

The new goldfish seem to be settling in well despite having to live in the shadow of a predator.

With thanks to the weather gods for a blissful day!

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

The Beginning of Let's Pretend

When I took Josie to the library last week, I could see how ready she was to play with other kids. My plan was to take her again yesterday but it rained and rained so we stayed home and I was enlisted as the other kid.

"Will you play with me?" she asked ever so sweetly, handing me Dolly. 

So I did Dolly's voice: "I'm hungry, Josie!"

Immediately Josie grabbed a wooden plate that sits on the chest that is our coffee table (and a major play place,) heaped some coasters on it, and offered it to Dolly. "Here you go; I made you some banana pancakes." She pulled the plate back. "Wait a minute, I'll put some butter on them--in the middle and on top. Here you go."

So Dolly gobbled up the pancakes and then demanded watermelon.  Josie went down to the end of the chest and came back with a handful of watermelon which she plopped onto the plate. "Here you go."

Greedy Dolly gobbled up the watermelon and demanded blueberries, which the now slightly harried Josie supplied. Then Dolly wanted broccoli.

"We're out of broccoli, Dolly."

"I WANT BROCCOLI!" shouted the very bad Dolly.

"NO, NO, Dolly," said the completely exasperated Josie. "You are being rude."

At which Dolly went face down and began to cry. Josie picked her up and kissed  her. "Do you feel better now, Dolly?"

Dolly did.

I'd been thinking about those little kitchen sets they have for children to play with but we really don't have the space for one. And after playing with Josie today, I realized she doesn't need one. Her imagination supplies whatever's needed. 

I couldn't take pictures, alas -- too busy being bad Dolly. But at several points Josie was doing a perfect imitation of an over-worked mother--darting from Dolly to the imaginary kitchen, trying to keep up with the never-ending demands. 

We had fun.