Accents! Putting the accent on the right Sy-LLA-ble.
Okay, it was a dream trip–to the Edinburgh Fringe, 400 venues and a thousand dance/song/stand-up/improv/drama acts, each compressed into fifty minutes or an hour. Cabaret–Aussie powerhouses Ali McGregor, Stewart D’Arrietta. Drama I can’t forget: Midsummer, Underground Railroad Game, An Elephant in the Garden. We dashed from one improvised venue to the next (in lecture halls at the medical school, in churches, in large shipping containers). Then we queued, waiting for the doors to open. In every queue, we talked to those in line. “What’s the best thing you’ve seen yet?” In those queues, reserved Brits, silent Scots—they all talked. Shared their favorite shows. Asked, “Where are you from?” So did we, until a tee-shirted organizer gave the signal and we trekked in to find seats
Then—we suspended disbelief.
And reveled in accents.
Especially for the two-woman comedy teams, we reveled, rolled, rollicked in accents. One second: two competitive English upper-class matrons desperately competing for assurance that their volunteer activities had indeed left a beneficent mark on their village. The next second, two competing grandmothers with a new baby that only likes one of the two. Then suddenly, two Sloane Ranger types talking over each other about how they cahn’t stand a third friend’s constant DRAHma. Indeed, Fringe productions offer accents from men, women, Brownie scouts, manics, depressives, all ages and classes, trades and professions, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Yorkshire, Midlands, and London in all its accentual richness. The accents help tell the story: location, backgrounds, expectations. Add in the mobile faces, the roving eyes, the leers, the tight lips, the suggestive eyebrows, and the audience instantly “gets it.”
I was jealous. Jealous! In thirty seconds two women could create an entire scene with a ridiculous plot and leave an audience convulsed with laughter.
Contrast the lonely writer at her kitchen counter. No eyes, lips, voices, accents to help her out. Instead, a blank page. A blank screen. Letters of the alphabet. Prose.
Accents on the page can distract. In Five Red Herrings Sayers could pick just a few expressions for Scottish flavor. “Aye, weel.” But too much written “accent” can drive readers nuts. Instead, writers search for particular word patterns, particular locutions. I’ve tried mining written comments on foreign websites to find a helpful phrase. For example, in one website with comments on UK metal detectorists, I found, repeatedly, “If I’m honest, I’d say…” I used it for my Scots pub owner.
No question, America has its own accents. The flat delivery and broad a’s of Massachusetts. Garrison Keillor’s earnest Minnesota delivery with its heavily voiced vowels; the South, rich in variety; Texas, offering accents from East Texas, West Texas, Spanglish, the distinctive nasal Houston-born UT coed accent, and more. But how to use them?
We mystery writers take refuge in consistent diction. We listen to the people around us so we can assign our characters a verbal “tell.” Our protagonist speaks like this, thinks like this, but his best friend has different and unique habits of speech. So does the antagonist. Maybe we use some regional expressions, though not every reader will “get” them. When I had a character say he was “horsed off,” a non-Texan was nonplussed. “I didn’t recognize that expression.” Well, your loss, and now your verbal life is enriched.
Thinking again of improv: like those comedy pairs, we also assign our characters a physical “tell,” a repeated gesture, a posture. A way of hoisting the shoulders, fiddling with fingers, compressing the lips, messing with their hair. We assign clothing. Shoes. Car choices. Tidiness, or untidiness. Age. Eye movement. Yes, we writers have ways to create distinct characters. We do it on the printed page.
Still, it’s hard not to envy the richness of improv, which offers instant recognition of accents, of the implications of the actor’s roving eye, and the interaction between actor and audience. The actor builds the scene by playing off the audience’s reaction.
Lots to enjoy there. Plenty for writers to learn. And besides, it’s great material.
If Fate smiles, if ever you get a chance—take yourself to the Fringe!
Helen Currie Foster is the author of the Alice MacDonald Greer mystery series: GHOST CAVE, GHOST DOG, GHOST LETTER, and GHOST DAGGER. She earned a BA from Wellesley College, an MA from the University of Texas, and a JD from the University of Michigan.
Having grown up in Texas surrounded by books and storytelling, she taught high school English and later became a prize-winning feature writer for a small Michigan weekly. Following a career of more than thirty years as an environmental lawyer, the character Alice and her stories suddenly appeared in Foster’s life. In her writing, Foster explores the interaction between history and the present and the reasons we tell the stories we do.
Married with two children, she lives north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros. She works in Austin, and she’s active with the Hays County Master Naturalists and the board of Austin Shakespeare.