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  • [Reality Check] - How Where You Live Affects Your Speech by Mandy Campbell Moore
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[Reality Check] - How Where You Live Affects Your Speech by Mandy Campbell Moore
Written by
Zetta Brown
October 2015
Written by
Zetta Brown
October 2015

Do you listen when people talk? I mean, do you hear their voice and can tell from their accent or dialect where they come from? Perhaps you try to suppress your own accent or dialect when speaking in public.

You think you don't have an accent? Just move to a different part of the country--or to a different country--and your accent will come out.

What happens when you're writing and you have a character and you want them to sound authentic in their speech? You can do research, but if you can draw from memory and personal experience, so much the better.

But what if your memory is rusty or you've never given thought to speech patterns before? What do you do?

Mandy Campbell Moore tells of her experience of being from the South and living in the North and how her speech almost always prompts the question, "Where are you from?" Mandy shares how listening to voice--and trusting your experience--can bring some regional authenticity to your writing. Be sure to share your own suggestions in the comments below.


Researching My Way Home: How Where You Live Affects Your Speech
By Mandy Campbell Moore
© 2015

Lecturing I guess you’d call it, I speak without a speech, ad-libbing a point across. My students are mid-lifers at an independent bookstore in Los Angeles, reexamining their writing goals. At just that moment when I’m driving my point home, I catch bemused smirks on their faces and wonder what regionalism has escaped to leak the real me, the girl from the Outlet Capitol of the South. I have the distinct feeling that’s what’s happened, because it’s happened before when I’m speaking from the heart. Breaking the awkwardness, a woman says, “Where are you from, honey?”

I’m from North Carolina, and I still like calling it home even though it and I have changed drastically since the last time I lived there full-time. The state is the blood in the veins of my writing, but only in moving away did I discover that. My first novel begins with the Greensboro incident of 1979 and follows a mixed-race couple from high school into college. I did a lot of research for the novel, but—that’s my time, so I also relied heavily on my memory and that of my friends. When a Californian graciously beta-reading the novel questioned the phrase “you know you didn’t” as being too contemporary, I checked with Facebook friends who confirmed my memory. (“Girl, I been sayin' that all my life.”)

How do you check your memory and your regionalisms in your own writing? Of course, we want to avoid petulantly saying, “But that’s how I remember it,” or “But that’s what really happened.” And yet, sometimes, having someone say that in response to our writing is exactly the kind of support we need. Then it’s up to us as authors to make it believable.

Way back when I moved out of the South, I was eighteen and I got a job answering phones. I had no intention of erasing my accent. Didn’t know I had one. But I was worn down by self-consciousness—realizing people were listening to how I said something instead of to what I said. Like the first time I had to get a prescription for birth control pills refilled. I was embarrassed enough over my transaction before the elderly pharmacist came out from behind the counter opening his arms and saying, “Georgia? Georgia?”

Not realizing that he was inquiring as to my origin, I said, “No, the name’s Mandy, and if that prescription won’t work here, I need to ask you where it will.” Not until the cashiers started laughing did I understand what had happened.

Then, things changed. People stopped asking me about my origins, at least not in every phone call. At my first visit home six months later, my cousins were questioning me about my new life and I found myself lecturing—embellishing on my worldliness—when I caught the same bemused smirk on my cousins’ faces that my students recently wore at the LA bookstore. My great-aunt’s rocking chair came to a halt. “Mandy,” she said, “you sound like a Yankee.”

Now I’m considering relocating right back where I started. I want to go home in search of new opportunities (read: I need home and family). I need to go home because I’m an only child of aging parents. But will the South feel like home? Because I’ve always held the notion that it is home, if I get there and I feel out of place—that’s going to hurt like hell. What will I change, this time, to blend in? My speech seems to adjust when I’m visiting, but those muscles are older and more brittle. As a writer, I find that the lines between real life and my fiction life are quite blurry. So, no doubt, the careful listening I do to try to fit in will inform my writing.

Although I focus on dialect here, these issues are larger—they are culture, a way of life. How do you write about familiar vs. unfamiliar places? What types of research do you do to understand regionalisms—both to write about them and to live them?


About the Author 

Though she’s headed back to North Carolina, Mandy Campbell Moore writes fiction in Los Angeles. She blogs and wants to provide YOU with writerly services at MandyCMoore.com.


©2015Zetta Brown. All Rights Reserved. Zetta is an editor and the author of several published short stories and the erotic romance novel Messalina: Devourer of Men. She provides services through JimandZetta.com.

Got a [REALITY CHECK] about the publishing life to share? If you would like to be a guest on my blog, please friend me on She Writes with a message! :)

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  • Mandy Campbell Moore

    Hi Victoria! Thanks so much for your insights. Moving around, geographically, does tend to water speech down. I suppose we'll all even sound more alike in 50 years.... If you ever have a chance to see this documentary - I highly recommend it. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1438277/

    Good luck with your book!

  • Victoria Chames Writing

    Deja vu, Mandy. and then some. (By the way, my birthmother's name was Amanda, which nobody knew until she died and they sent me her birth certificate. I was sad, because it was such a beautiful name, and she had never used it.)

    I was born in Greensboro, and it appears in my book as a small town. I left there when I was four years old, and so never developed a strong accent, but we moved from there to Texas, and I have indeed experienced exactly what you describe, in regard to the "Where are you from?" thing. Now I've lived in Texas, Connecticut, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Michigan, and California, so I have such a blurred aggregate of accents, I'm rarely asked the question anymore –unless I get extremely happy, or drink more than on glass of wine; then the southern accent returns noticeably.

    Now as I write this book in the voice of the growing-up child, phrases of my family come drifting back. I love this. I laugh as I write those parts. I love the child's natural, often charmingly incorrect, interpretation of the sayings. Thank you for sharing this; I think you're onto something very valuable here. A few simple words, in a pure uncontrived dialect, can carry a lot of information about the character who speaks them.

  • Alonna Shaw Writing

    Oops, Mandy, the "d" didn't make it into your name in my previous comment!

  • Mandy Campbell Moore

    Thanks for sharing, Alonna - I will have a listen!!

  • Alonna Shaw Writing

    Many, I'll take any opportunity to acknowledge my love for Angela's Ashes! Frank McCourt's audio narration must be heard. Such a deeply moving story on so many levels. Brooke Warner and Linda Joy Myers did a terrific memoir class covering Angela's Ashes. (yes, She Writes' Brooke Warner) http://goo.gl/oX5p2w

  • Mandy Campbell Moore

    Dear Karen - good point! Yes, as a southerner, it was always funny to me that non-southerners sometimes can't hear the difference between Texas and Virginia. And, I have to admit, I was surprised when I first learned there was a difference in "yankee speech," but oh, boy, is there ever! I imagine you just ask a NYer and a person from Massachusetts what they drive and that will quickly identify them! I hope to read your book someday.

  • Mandy Campbell Moore

    Alonna, thank you for your comments. It sounds like we share some language interests. I'm always curious how writers fit that in and I did not think of IPA. Your novel sounds beautiful! And your grandmother's "Uff-da" made me think of the "Och" that runs through Frank McCourt's work. So nice to have just a flavoring here and there that doesn't distract.

  • Karen A Szklany Writing

    Thank you, Mandy, and to Zetta for having her as a guest writer on your page.  This is a very pertinent subject for my new novel, which may take more listening and thus more time to write than I had hoped, but it'll be better.

    The difference in speech patterns is very different between NY and Massachusetts. ~:0)

  • Alonna Shaw Writing

    Mandy, thanks for sharing your personal experience. I'm curious about how others feel, too. When is it really necessary to spell out dialectical speech? When I critique read and come across dialect (accent) spellings, it can be a tricky situation. Sometimes there's a good fit, but I still cringe at the memory of one of my decades-ago attempts with slang. "Uff-da" as my Northern grandmother would say (meaning an enhanced "Oh, my.") I'm a California "Yankee," but those early years of speech development were spent overseas and in Louisiana. There's a part of me that misses that music in southern speech and attitudes. In my novel, there is a character with music in her speech (not southern though because she's a Northern California local). I didn't try to force the music in through different word spellings. Instead, it was through attitude and sentence construction. I'd love a refresher course on dialects using the International Phonetic Alphabet. If anyone knows of a solid online course, please let me know. Thanks!

  • Mandy Campbell Moore

    Hey Tonya - thanks for commenting. Do you think your time away helped you see, feel, taste and hear home even better? Best wishes, Mandy

  • Tonya Rice

    I'm from Virginia. Even though I'd moved away for a while and have returned, it's been easier for me to use my hometown as the setting for just about all of my stories. It's what I see, feel, taste, and definitely hear best. I'm more comfortable with the familiar. You're right - home. Getting that part out of the way, I can concentrate on the characters and the story.

  • Mandy Campbell Moore

    Thanks for your lovely observation, Donna. I note that your book, Provenance, which takes place partly in the South and elsewhere, does make use of dialect, but it's never distracting. Lance's speech adapts as he moves in wider and wider circles.

  • Mandy Campbell Moore

    Good point, Charlene. You are right, the best of the best really get the cadence of a region's speech on the page - with real words. Although, "Shet de do," works just as well when I read Twain!

  • Donna Drew Sawyer

    I'm from New York, my husband is from Texas and despite the fact that we have lived in five different states over several decades, get a spirited conversation going and the accents of origin come out in all their glory. Like muscle memory, cultural conversation is ingrained and when you can commit it skillfully to a page the authenticity makes your writing all the better. I believe the best way to write about unfamiliar places is to spend time there and pay attention to the mundane details of people's lives. That's where the magic of is.

  • Charlene Ball

    I'm from North Carolina too. I think the way to make characters sound authentic is to listen and read, read, read. Eudora Welty doesn't use much dialect, but her phrasing and word choice evoke Mississippi. 

  • Mandy Campbell Moore

    Hey Kim - Thanks for commenting. Have you ever used dialect in your own writing?

  • Kim Koehler

    I love when I hear a "y'all" come out during one of your writing workshops. It makes me smile when I my husband says things like "cawfee" instead of coffee with his Long Island accent. And I like that sometimes people ask me if I'm from the Midwest because I just visited my parents and started talking like them again. It is a part of history that lives inside us. Great article. Don't worry, you have not lost the North Carolinian in you. I can still hear it - even if is has been watered down with a little bit of "Yankee."