You’ve all heard of the dreaded “dinna-canna” book? One where the author doggedly reproduces the uninterpretable Scottish accent in dialogue of some secondary character throughout the whole story. The reader is completely distracted from the book by trying to translate. “What the hell is he saying? Is it important to the story?”
It happens in more than just Highlands historicals. Any story where a character might have an accent seems to seduce authors into the worst excesses. Editors hate it, readers hate it. Hey, yes, it’s great to give us a little taste to help flesh out that character – but after a few sentences, CUT IT OUT.
The July 2012 issue of Romance Writers Report has a very good article by Kinsey Holley on this issue. Basically, what she says is “more dialect, less accent”, and she defines it as “accent is the way words are pronounced (i.e., the way they sound), while dialect is vocabulary and sentence structure.” In other words, use the appropriate regional words and phrases that will attach a locality or nationality to your character—without all the accents. Slang works the same way—it can indicate young versus old, city versus country, and a lot more.
Do you carry your groceries in a sack or a bag? Drink soda or pop? Eat a sub or a hoagie? Those words place you. That strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street, which is owned by the city but the homeowner is responsible for maintaining? It’s got a lot of names; I grew up referring to it as the curb strip. But here in EC-HQ land, it is the “devil strip”—look that up and you’ll find out the phrase is unique to the Akron, Ohio, area. Have your character say that, and Ohio readers will love you as an author and believe in your Akronian character. All parts of the US have entertaining regional sayings that you can slip in where appropriate. Just make sure someone unfamiliar with the phrase will still be able to grasp the meaning from the context. It’s an effective way to “show” rather than “tell” about your character.
So use words themselves, rather than the way the words “sound”, to illustrate a character’s nationality or regionality or social level. Spare your readers’ mental ears, avoid excess accents!