Dialogue woes

By PD Martin

Today I’m going to use my Murderati post to make a mass call for opinions! Help!

I’m currently working on a novel set in Ireland. I’d like to give the reader an idea of the Irish accent without confusing them.

Now, here’s the thing. I know most books on writing say NOT to actually write in a character’s slang or accents (or to do so very sparingly). And when I’m teaching dialogue, this is the guideline I suggest budding writers follow. But now I’m going against that advice and actually writing the accent. So I need your help 🙂

Below is an excerpt from chapter 3 of Grounded Spirits, my next Pippa Dee novel, and I’m keen to get your thoughts. I have flagged the main pronunciation difference in the actual book (as it’s written below) and am wondering if this is enough. I should also say it’s a young adult novel so it needs to be clear for younger readers, too. This is the main character’s first encounter with an Irish person – an Irish woman in her 50s who works at the hotel where she’s staying.

From Grounded Spirits © Pippa Dee 2012

Suddenly Fiona felt a warm breath near her ear. She jumped, letting out a little yelp, and then spun around to face the breath’s source. No ghost, just the waitress. In stealth mode, obviously. 

“So you’ve seen her, den,” the waitress said.

Fiona noticed her thick Irish accent, including the “d” instead of a “th”—“den” instead of “then”.

“’Tis one of our resident ghosts, so dey say,” the woman continued.

“A ghost?” But not the one Fiona had seen yesterday … if it had even been a ghost, of course. 

“Dey had a scientist in and all. See de face … doesn’t even exist in terms of paint. Like actual paint,” she whispered, leaning in toward the painting with Fiona. “According to de expert, ’tis de same pigment dere, as dere.” The woman pointed to the different shades that formed the face, careful not to touch the surface of the painting. “But ’tisn’t de same color, ’tis it?”

 “No.” Fiona’s excitement was building. “A scientist examined it? Really?”

“So dey say. Wasn’t here myself.” She paused and looked up. “I’m Maggie, love.” She held out her hand.

“Hi. I’m Fiona.” Fiona shook Maggie’s hand. Maggie’s accent was a little difficult to follow, but Fiona had tuned into it enough that she could understand. And obviously every word that started with “th” was replaced with a “d” sound.

“Fiona…” Maggie smiled at her. “Dat’s a grand Irish name. Do you have Irish folk in yer family, den?”

“Yes, three generations ago.”

Maggie nodded, and then they both stared silently at the painting.

Maggie broke the silence. “Do you like ghost stories?”

“I’m getting a bit old for them now, really.” Fiona knew that she looked a lot younger than she was, and she hated it.

“Ah, yer never too old.”

“But you don’t actually believe in them, do you?” Fiona asked.

“Believe in ’em? I seen ’em wit me own eyes.”


“Of course.” Maggie raised her eyebrows. “Dis hotel late at night…dere’s nothing else to explain what goes on. ’Tis ghosts all right. And more dan one, I’d say.”

First the boy in the window, and now this face? Could it really be that the Old Ground hotel was haunted? The building was old, ancient even, that’s for sure.


So, Rati, did you find the dialogue confusing or clear? Did the written-in accent add value or distract you? Finally, was it good that I pointed out the “th”/”d” thing twice or overkill?  I’m looking forward to everyone’s thoughts. 

By the way, this is a closeup of the face from the painting the characters are talking about. It’s a real painting! Spooky, huh?

Note: In case you’re interested, the Irish language (Gaelic) doesn’t have a “th” sound and this characteristic transferred when the Irish started speaking English— and it’s still part of their pronunciation today. My husband is Irish and “th” becomes either just “t” or “d” depending on the context. So it’s dis instead of this, dere instead of there, Tursday instead of Thursday, etc.

16 thoughts on “Dialogue woes

  1. David Corbett

    I didn't have the Jamaica problem — I would have needed a "mon" or two to go there. I actually thought it worked fine, but the explanations felt heavy-handed, like the author stepping in and saying: See? This is called writing! (The scene is wonderful, btw.)

  2. Kristi Belcamino

    Only my opinion, but since you asked : )

    I agree that I didn't care for the explanation: Fiona noticed her thick Irish accent, including the “d” instead of a “th”—“den” instead of “then”.

    And I think the middle of the road way to do it is to use very, very sparingly. You could probably get rid of half of your dey, den and dats and be just fine, maybe better off even. I find that if I'm told (shown) how a character speaks in the beginning, when they are introduced, then my mind will automatically read it as them having an accent, etc.

    I also agree it is a lovely scene.

    best to you,


  3. Declan Burke

    As an Irish person, it felt a bit excessive. For one, those who'd say 'dis, dat and dere' tend to be inner-city urbanites, while the 'tis / 'tisn't is more of a rural thing. Is the hotel set in a city or the countryside?

    I'd also suggest that it's a very Irish affectation to be on your best behaviour with strangers; in other words, your character is more likely to strain for a more correct pronunciation with her visitor / guest – born of an inferiority complex, perhaps, or an attempt not to confirm the stereotype of the bogman Irish.

    I hope this helps.

    Cheers, Declan

  4. susannefrost@rogers.com

    It's distracting for me and I start to skim. If a novel is set in Ireland, I "hear" their accents — accents to me — as I read.


  5. Debbie

    I found the dialogue easy to read but even with the age of the readers, would skip the explination, save for letting them know that Maggie was Irish. Fiona might reflect, "'I wonder if I tried an Irish accent if people would believe it or think I was making fun of dem.' Fiona laughed at her attempt. It might be a bit more in your face, but Fiona could even attempt speaking with an Irish accent to Maggie and Maggie's remark would draw attention to differences, "Ah lassie you might want to be sticking to yer own accent. Dar be more to Irish dan changing da th's to d's!"

    Btw, I like the portrait…definately inspirational.

  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Definitely would not change the th's to ds. i wouldn't mind one line of explanation like": Fiona noticed her thick Irish accent, including the “d” instead of a “th”—“den” instead of “then”.

    But we all know what an Irish accent sounds like. Would rather hear if Fiona has an emotional memory attached to hearing an Irish accent. If I hear a man speaking with one, for example…

    Well, never mind.

  7. P.A.Wilson

    It was distracting. And it if you feel you need to write in the accent, there's no need to tell us what the accent is like you did here "Fiona noticed her thick Irish accent, including the “d” instead of a “th”—“den” instead of “then”."
    Here's the problem, I didn't read it as an Irish accent. It sounded Scandinavian to me – at least as far as I could read.
    Follow the advice you give in your classes – don't do it.

  8. Allison Davis

    Agree with those who said leave out the explanation. I love it when there's an accent in the dialog if it isn't too heavy handed (what Declan said is good). I read the dialog outloud and it delights me. People don't all talk in Webster's english and if you have a good ear, it's ok to use it. I hear Tursday a lot from one of my local buddies…not so much the "Den" (sounds like Bronx or New Orleans)….

    What fun, thanks for that. Tony Broadbent's The Smoke (and Spectres in the Smoke) caused some controversy with the accent in that book (which I loved) — Jethro the burglar.

  9. Lisa Alber

    I concur: It is distracting. But what fun! Thank you for sharing with us!

    My novels are set in Ireland, so I know what a challenge this is. I've found that phonetical mispellings aren't the way to go. When you read authors such as Tana French you don't see much (or any) of this technique. It's the vocabulary and turns of phrase that convey the accent.

    I don't mind a quick explanation, especially because as a foreigner, young Fiona would be noting the accent. However, I'd be more sensual in my description. The sing-song cadence of the accent, or some such thing, rather than talking about "d"s versus "th"s.

    WHOREDOM IN KIMMAGE (nonfiction) could be a good reference. The author is American, yet she conveys the Irish accent so well through her dialogue. Subtle but effective. I've found you don't need much.

  10. Tom

    I liked it — but must admit a lifelong fascination with accent, dialect and vernacular. It worked in my favor as an actor more than once (just taught my granddaughter the Viennese psychiatrist accent for 'Dear Officer Krupke' in Westside Story').
    When I've written similar passages, though, I've gotten those same complaints from those unafflicted by my kind of ears.

  11. Sarah W

    I agree with Alex about taking out the "dens."

    Personally, I'd leave in an initial mention of the d=th (if you're keeping it after Declan's excellent points), and keep the 'tis and dropped th's for flavor. And since I've meddled this far, I like the way the second explanation was phrased better than the first one.

    Having said that—I want to read the rest!

  12. Lynn in Texas

    I personally like a touch of accents and had no problem with your dialogue. Only the briefest mention of the Irish lilt would be needed, if at all, because even fairly young readers these days are familiar with a brogue.

  13. lil Gluckstern

    I loved the scene, and found the accent distracting. but I couldn't read "Beloved" so I'm not much of a judge, I suppose.

  14. PD Martin

    Mmm…interesting! Thanks for all the feedback, everyone.

    I originally only had a few of the "d" sound in the dialogue (mostly for "the/de") but then when I sent it to my editor we started talking about making it consistent and changing all the "th" sounds. But then when I re-read it, I was worried it was TOO much. And it seems that the general consensus is — too much.

    Declan – It's set in Ennis so more on the rural side. I also have a "like" in the end of a sentence (but then again, my husband is from Cork!). While I know there is quite a bit of difference in the Irish accents, I've always thought the absence of the "th" was pretty universal. But then again, most of the Irish people I know are either from Cork or Ennis (and one person from Roscommon).

    I lived in Ennis for a year and a half and discovered the painting – and then felt compelled to write the story!

    Thanks again, everyone,

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