Julia Anne Long, good stuff, sad stuff

Here’s the good news: I just read the four novels Julie Anne Long has out. Historical romance, mostly regency. And she’s good. She can write a sentence, she can tell a story. The first two novels are light(er) reads. With her third one — Beauty and the Spy — she really finds her footing.

There’s an interesting plot here, one that actually had me wondering how things would resolve themselves — and that is unusual. This is not bragging. This is somebody who reads and writes for a living just stating a fact: it’s not unusual for me to get to page three in a book and know pretty much everything that’s going to happen, and how. Within the romance genre, there are some givens. You know who will end up together, but you don’t know how they’ll get there or what the roadblocks will be.

JAL manages to tweak some expectations. That’s an excellent thing. I think that she has a good chance of evolving into a major name in historical romance if she continues along this trajectory.

So it’s with a heavy heart that I have to report this flaw.

Has nobody ever talked to this woman about how she portrays dialect? Because there’s only one word: sloppy. Or maybe two words: sloppy and uninformed. There seems to be a formula:

1. Is this character of a lower or working social class? If your answer is yes, pepper his or her direct dialog liberally with any and all of the following:

  • dropped h
  • replace every instance of ‘you’ with ‘ye’
  • don’t stint on the tortured spellings
  • lots of apostrophes (and don’t forget the exclamation points!!!)
  • sprinkle with an occasional dinna or couldna

2. Is the character Irish or Scots? If so, double up on all the features mentioned. No need to distinguish between them.

For example:

For the love of dog: what the hell? This poor Biggs guy is linguistically schizophrenic. He is possessed by speakers from all over the British Isles. His symptoms:

  • He’s dropping his h-es as though he just escaped from a My Fair Lady Cockney casting call.
  • ‘avena seen you since’ — What is this compulsion to hang Scots verb morphology like a caboose on the back of working class London phonology?
  • Poor Biggs, he’s possessed by a torment of second person pronouns, Yorkshire and Middle English and … what, exactly? Some terrible mixture. Tha and ye and your… put the man out of his misery. Please.

I will admit this was a particularly bad bit of dialog, but all JAL’s novels have this sad problem. Looking at this example, I’m wondering how I managed to get through at all. And so here’s the compliment: the stories were compelling enough to keep me going. Though I winced. Winced, I tell you, every time I saw an apostrophe coming.

You might think this is nitpicking. Unimportant to the story. But when you’ve got a duke’s eldest son posing as an Irish groom, it would really help this rather standard plot device if the duke could actually sound Irish. Because it’s likely that the upper class English household that employs him would notice right away if he claimed to be Irish but instead sounded…. confused. The way to do that is not with ye, and absolutely not with dinna, but with lexical choice and syntax. If you really want to pursue writing dialog so it evokes English as it is spoken in Ireland, there are places to go for that information. There’s a great list of features on Wikipedia, which includes lots of examples of regional phonology (you’ll note — the Irish do not drop initial h), as well as word choice and syntax. for example, you might hear:

“Why did you hit him?” “He was after insulting me.”

The Wikipedia article has a nice, concise explanation of the origin of that usage.

Ms. Long will likely never see this post, but if she does I hope she will take this in the spirit it is meant. Such promising work deserves more attention to detail.

So I’ll put down here my rule of thumb, which I have talked about before (but not recently): don’t mess with spelling. Do. Not. Mess with Spelling. Do some basic research about differences between various dialects. Don’t confuse the Irish with the Scots — it will make them cranky.

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8 Replies to “Julia Anne Long, good stuff, sad stuff”

  1. Well, I’m usually pretty good at ignoring dialect issues. This is one instance where ignorance is bliss. So thank you for the point toward another author.

    I’m in the middle of reading Dance, upon your recommendation. I must say, it hasn’t grabbed me yet, and I’m halfway through. However, I am holding out hope for it, because I did love Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm which was another one of your recommendations.

    I hope your writing is going well.

    -D

  2. Thanks for the recommendations. I’ve been on the look out for some good historical romances. I get pretty annoyed by the way some writers try to write dialect too but will try to turn a blind eye here.

  3. I really liked this book (the first and only one of Long’s I’ve read) because the writing seemed fresh in some ways, even if overdone in a lot of instances. I could sense that she really enjoyed writing the book, and that allowed me to overlook a lot. I wasn’t fond of the age difference between Kit and Susannah, and I thought Kit acted much younger than he was, but I really enjoyed the way Long built their relationship slowly and had the sense that the two really liked and enjoyed one another. I agree with you wholeheartedly about the dialect, though, and find this problem with lots of Romances, even though I wouldn’t know the first thing about how to correct it. I actually got into a debate on AAR about this book, because someone else objected to what she thought was Long’s abominable use of history. I didn’t find as many problems as she did, and actually thought that Long used some historical elements that appeared wrong because they weren’t mainstream Romancelandia stuff. But I don’t know enough about the period to get a strong sense of what Long did or didn’t do in the way of research. Of course these issues are inherent in historical Romance aren’t they? The language, the history — all of it is a re-creation, and 100% accuracy is probably impossible to achieve (although I do think we should have some kind of baseline with historical events, dates, historical figures, wardrobe, setting details, etc.). My own personal meter is that of authenticity — does it feel real and do I feel that the author respects the history she/he’s using. Emotionally, I feel the authenticty with Long, but I agree that there are other aspects of her writing that need to catch up, and obviously certain types of historical research are among those.

  4. Robin — I’m so glad you chimed in. I was wondering if you had read this. I’m just reading the second in the series now, which is as good if not better than Spy. She’s got a definite knack for character development and the occasional lovely internal monologue.

    In cases like this I have to wonder where her editor was in the process. Because a very good book could have been an excellent book, with more attention to detail. Historical and linguistic.

  5. Rosina, after thinking on the matter, I find that I’m in total agreement with you about dialect issues. I hope you don’t mind but I have quoted your blog entry on my own forum.

  6. Lynn — of course I don’t mind. I hope it’s useful to somebody. Did you look at the entry about Gone with the Wind I linked to? As a Southerner, I wonder how it struck you.

  7. I did read that before and I just read it again. Of course, GONE WITH THE WIND is a sacred tome around these parts (okay, it’s really not any longer but I remember, as a child, being taken to a showing of the movie as almost a rite of passage) and part of me thought, “hey, Rosina, what are you doing to GWTW…” But, then, I realized it was probably one of the best ways to make your point.

    I had never really thought about this before but even a southern dialect (which I am a native speaker) is very difficult to decipher in written form. And, really, who wants to have to read through all of that to get through a book? I can imagine, in this instance, if it’s difficult for me, then people who are not southern may really have to struggle to get through the dialog and make sense of it. Jeff Foxworthy, performing his comedy routine about how we pronounce certain things down here, is amusing but I sure wouldn’t want to read a whole book that was written that way. Same goes for my beloved Scots or Irish dialect.

    And, now that I think about it, misspelled dialog really does slow my reading down — and I have a good enough imagination that I can hear the voices in my head — and hear the southern drawl, the Scottish burr, the lilting Irish accent — without resorting to having to read those words spelled out the way they supposedly sound.

    Look at it this way, too — when I’m writing a letter or an e-mail — or a response on a blog — I don’t write the way I talk. I write, I hope, (mostly) grammatical English that any English speaker would understand. Now, I could sprinkle that with local colloquialisms or slang — but that would be fine and is a different thing entirely. The point is, though I may sound like this, I don’t write this way:

    “Hiy’alldoin’? (how are y’all doing?) or “hiboutthemdawgs” (how about them (those) dogs? University of Georgia reference — my alma mater — had to get that in!!). So, even though that may be what I sound like when I speak, writing it out that way does seem rather condescending, as you pointed out.

    So, yes, I agree totally about this. I’m glad you wrote about it because I might not have explored how I really felt about it if you hadn’t.

    Whew! That wuz long, wuddenit?

  8. Not at all long. I’m glad you didn’t take offense at the Gone with the Wind example– others have. But it does make the point.

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