Writing dialect

Dialogue in a story places the reader in the middle of the conversation instead of being a bystander hearing about the conversation from a third person. Narrative is necessary in most cases to set the stage or describe events but dialogue is where the action takes place. Verbally assailing an opponent or cooing to a lover is much more interesting hearing the characters speak the words instead of having the narrater repeat them.

The best part about dialogue is that rules and regulations go out the window. One word sentences (“What?) and stuttering (“Y-y-you again!”) are acceptable while improper English and incomplete sentences (“Where you been?”) are appropriate for some characters.

Dialect is dialogue as people really speak and involves vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. It may be as simple as using phonetic spelling (“I wanna go”), truncations (“I’m goin’ to see the boss ’bout that”), or syntax manipulation (Whatcha doin’?). It can be daunting for a writer to phonetically spell dialects found in Maine, Boston, the South, or Cajun country. It can be tedious for the reader to decipher the spelling if it is overused and she may toss the book across the room in frustration (hopefully she isn’t using an electronic device.)

You may enjoy a story I recently completed in mild dialect about a rancher. Feel free to give me your opinion–was it hard to read or did you get frustrated? I would appreciate the feedback, positive or negative.

Wildcat Jack’s Bridge

The two men slowed their horses to a walk as they approached the gate to Wildcat Jack’s home place; he ranched well over 10,000 acres in the foothills of southern Arizona’s Pinaleno Mountains but only the three acres around the house and barn were fenced. Curley Joe opened the gate and urged his horse through. Bronco followed and Curley returned the gate to its closed position.

They rode into the corral next to the barn, draped the reins over the saddles, checked that water and hay were available, and closed the gate. They walked toward the house in the rolling gait of men more used to riding than walking. A four-foot-deep, fifteen-foot-wide swale with a trickle of water separated the barn from the house. The men crossed the stream on a narrow wood bridge but their boots made sounds more like walking on rock than on wood.

Wildcat Jack was enthroned in a homemade rocking chair on the porch. “Good t’see ya, Curley. Who’s that with ya’?”

“Back at’cha, Cat. This is my cousin Bronco from over by Douglas. Thought you may need ‘nother hand and he knows cows and horses.”

Cat stood to shake hands with both of the young men. He had known Curley Joe for years of roundups and knew that he was a good ranch hand. Bronco impressed him from the start—tall and well built with intelligent eyes and a friendly face.

“I’m full up with hands. Pull up a chair and sit fer a spell.”

“Y’all may need a new hand. I came up from Willcox lookin’ for some men to join us in a li’l adventure. Seems we went to war with Germany and the army’s lookin’ for volunteers to join the fight.”

“You goin’?”


“How ’bout you, Bronco?”

“Naw. Ain’t got nothin’ agin’ them Germans.”

“Ol’ Biscuit should have grub on in a bit. You can join us for some vittles and talk to the boys ’bout goin’ off to war.”

Bronco seemed a little nervous in the presence of the legendary Wildcat Jack. His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down as he swallowed hard. “Mister Jack, can I ask you about that bridge? It’s awful narrow but awful thick and it sounds harder than wood. Where did you find a timber that big out here?”

Jack ladled out a healthy swallow of water from the barrel next to him. “Make yerself comfortable and I’ll tell y’a story y’all may not believe. But it shur ‘nuff happened.

“It was purt’near thirty years ago when we was startin’ the ranch. The Apaches had all moved to a reservation in Florida and it was safe enough to start a ranch out here. I took the wagon down t’Willcox t’pick up some supplies. Got the wagon loaded and was goin’ t’head home in the mornin’. Went over t’Blackie’s for a snort and ran in t’Smitty and the two of us finished the last bottle ‘bout midnight. Caught a little sleep at the stable and headed home near sunup. Got t’that big wash and the mules was beat after pullin’ through the sand then up the slope, so I stopped at the top to give ‘em a blow ’n fer me to relieve myself of some excess whisky from the night before.

“I watered a Cholla and turned around to see the biggest damn rattler I ever seen comin’ up under the wagon. He must’a been twenty-foot long and big around as a bucket. He coiled right in front’a the off wheel and made a pile’a snake that must’a been five foot around and three foot high. His tail was up and there was about a foot’a rattles at the end. His head was raised up t’the top’a wagon bed and that big ol’ snake tongue was tastin’ the air. I think he was plannin’ on eatin’ one’a them mules. I pulled my Colt and took aim at his head. But, I gotta’ tell you boys, I was still a little drunk and y’know how hard it is to hit a snake. When I pulled the trigger I saw a little skin fly from the back of his head. He struck but I think he must’a changed direction in mid-strike and was aimin’ fer me ’cause those big ol’ fangs buried in that wagon tongue and them big ol’ rattles started clangin’ like a dinner bell. The wagon tongue started to swell afore the snake got his fangs out. The mules got scared and took off down the trail at a pretty good clip.

“The rattler took off down into t’wash and there I was left afoot four miles from home. I was too scared to look for the snake since he might be coiled up and waitin’ fer me so I started sloggin’ home. After ’bout a half mile, I noticed another track between the wheel tracks. Then that middle track got deeper and the mule tracks said they was really pullin’ hard. I topped a little rise and there was the team and wagon in the middle of the trail.

“When I got near ’em, the mules was really glad to see me. But, that wagon tongue had blowed up to about a foot square and eighteen, twenty foot long and the front was draggin’ on the ground. I tried to lift it but couldn’t budge it. It felt funny, too, so I thumped it with a rock and it sounded like I was bangin’ on an anvil. That damned tongue had putrified.

“And that, son, is the bridge y’all just walked over.”

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