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.