On Regional Dialogue and Locations

When I was ten years old, I told an old aunt (she was in her late forties then) that I wanted to be a writer. I took that first solid step when my first newspaper column was published in 1988. The second writing milestone came to fruition in 2011, forty-seven years after telling Aunt Rene my life goal.

All right, I’m a slow starter.

As the manuscript that began in 2000 developed, I realized my characters were talking like those country folks I grew up with. They became people with personalities and who lived as my grandparents did.

They used words and phrases like, “Hand me that pair of dykes so I can cut this wire,” or “He took a notion to string off over there and he got in trouble for it,” or when looking at a line of cars passing on the highway, “It looks like they put the gate down.”

I was unconsciously using, and preserving on paper, the way of life I grew up with. Soon, the Red River series became known for those words and idioms.

One man at a signing came up to me with a grin. “I know you’re from Northeast Texas, because you called that watering hole a pool. Out in West Texas, they call it a tank.”

“Well, I was born in Paris, Texas, and we don’t call them ponds there, either.”

“I sure appreciate it when you write about those things I’ve forgotten. My mama used to call skim milk blue-john. She used words like clabber, and said ‘well I swan’ when she was surprised. Only folks from where we grew up would understand how cornbread in sweet milk tastes, or talk about toting a ‘tow sack up to the corn crib to get some ‘taters for our supper.”

Many people from other states don’t understand that this state is so huge it has five different regions that includes everything from high deserts, to prairies, to piney woods, rolling hills, and the gulf coast. Each region has its own unique voice, and that’s the subject of today’s blog.

At a Bouchercon writers conference a few years ago, a panelist beside me on the stage admitted that she wrote novels set in Texas, but had only been to the Lone Star state once. “I get most of my information from the internet and Google Maps.”

My hat was the only thing that kept my head from exploding.

I read one of her books a couple of weeks later and it was good, but it didn’t have one bit of Texas flavor. She got everything from the computer and likely television, including the most hated phrase (my opinion) a writer can use when penning dialogue set in my state.

“Yee haw!”

I’ve never heard that expression come from the mouth of one single native Texan.

A couple of years ago I was visiting my good friend and fellow author, Joe R. Lansdale in his home town of Nacogdoches, in East Texas. A mutual friend from Italy was in the states and the three of us had dinner at a local Mexican restaurant.

Here’s where we get to the nut of my subject. Rural native Texans eat three meals a day. Breakfast, dinner, and supper. There’s a lot of confusion because we eat dinner at noon, instead of the evening meal, but that changes in school when kids have lunch in the lunchroom. See what I’m talking about. Regional or local customs.

We finished dinner around two o’clock and Joe asked Friend if there was anything in particular he wanted to do while he was in town. Friend is an Italian author, a musician, and works as a translator for Americans who vacation in his home country.

“I’d like to buy a ‘cowboy’ shirt like the one Rev’s wearing to take back home.”

I reached halfway across the table full of dirty dishes bearing the remnants of tamales, beef enchiladas, scraps of rice and beans, and the stem of a chili relleno, and picked up an orphan chip. Dipping it into the last of the hot sauce, I raised an eyebrow at Joe.

“Is there a good western wear shop in town?”

“There’s a Boot Barn a little ways from here.”

We adjourned to the parking lot that hot afternoon and waited while Friend took several photos of my truck. He’d never laid eyes on a dually before, a one-ton pickup with an extra set of wheels in the back (two on each side of the axle). Then he shot photos of the three of us beside the truck, photos of the dash, and shots of us inside the four-door cab.

Joe took the back seat while Friend rode shotgun. I fired up the big diesel and glanced at Joe in the rearview mirror. “Where to?”

“Pull out and hang a left.”

A thick line of cars going both directions held us up for a few minutes as I waited for a break in the traffic. “Looks like they let the gate down.”

“It’s that time of day.”

Because we’re both from the eastern side of the state, we have a similar accent. There’s another difference in where we live. Folks from behind the Pine Curtain, like Joe, speak with a distinctive southern accent mixed with deep regional inflections, while out in west Texas, the flavor leans more toward south blended with some influences from border Spanish.

“I’m gonna hammer it.”

“A’ite.” I heard Joe fasten his seatbelt as

“Y’all hang on.” I made the turn and my hat slid across the dash as we joined the traffic. When I’m with Joe, my own accent gets deeper and heavier. “Grab ‘at t’ere, wouldja Friend?”

He caught the hat and returned it to the center of the dash. I met Joe’s eyes in the rearview mirror. “How far, amigo?”

“Up ‘ere a piece.”

“Fur piece?”

“A ways. Maybe a mile as the crow flies.”

I steered around an electric car. “How’s mama’n them, Joe?”

“Fair to middlin’.”

We drive fast down here, so the mile went past in a blink. Joe tapped the back of my seat. “Right ‘chere. Whup in there.”

I steered into the parking lot and Friend finally spoke up. “Would you stop here for a minute, please?”

“Sure.” The parking lot was fairly empty, so I straddled several lines and shifted into park. “’sup?”

He turned in his seat to see both of us. “I haven’t understood a word you two have said since we got in this…pickup. Would you mind translating all that for me?”

We did, and he finally understood what two old country boys were talking about.

(We pause here for an author-service announcement. Don’t string that much local dialect together in your manuscript. It’s too much, and too hard to read. You’ll understand what I mean if you’ve ever read Huckleberry Finn, which is one of my favorite novels by Mark Twain. Just sprinkle in two or three regional words or phrases to help establish your character, and move on, dropping in a little more spice every now and then to help identify the speaker).

My fellow panelist at Bouchercon that year couldn’t have known how we talk down here, because you have to hear people (and not on television, either). To write about a location, in my opinion, an author also needs to smell the air, listen to the symphony of sounds in the location they’re describing, to walk the streets and feel the grit underfoot, or on their face.

The late Edward Abbey wrote some fine fiction and nonfiction. He was once a park ranger and an environmentalist who had plenty to say, and said it with a razor sharp edge. That old curmudgeon who loved our natural parks out in the American West despised cars, (and anything else that was unnatural in the landscape) and had this to say about people who visited his desert without stopping.

“In the first place, you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet, crawl on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbrush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail, you’ll begin to see something, maybe. Probably not.”

In that paragraph he described the red rock desert of Moab, Utah, and how visitors (read authors here) and miss details when they don’t personally visit an area. Go where you plan to set your novel. Research in person, and not on those infernal machines that take up so much of our lives these days.

At the very worst, you can write off a vacation, and at best, your characters and descriptions will come alive.

Much obliged for reading today, y’all.

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About Reavis Wortham

Two time Spur Award winning author Reavis Z. Wortham pens the Texas Red River historical mystery series, and the high-octane Sonny Hawke contemporary western thrillers. His new Tucker Snow series begins in 2022. The Red River books are set in rural Northeast Texas in the 1960s. Kirkus Reviews listed his first novel in a Starred Review, The Rock Hole, as one of the “Top 12 Mysteries of 2011.” His Sonny Hawke series from Kensington Publishing features Texas Ranger Sonny Hawke and debuted in 2018 with Hawke’s Prey. Hawke’s War, the second in this series won the Spur Award from the Western Writers Association of America as the Best Mass Market Paperback of 2019. He also garnered a second Spur for Hawke’s Target in 2020. A frequent speaker at literary events across the country. Reavis also teaches seminars on mystery and thriller writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to writing conventions, to the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort, SC. He frequently speaks to smaller groups, encouraging future authors, and offers dozens of tips for them to avoid the writing pitfalls and hazards he has survived. His most popular talk is entitled, My Road to Publication, and Other Great Disasters. He has been a newspaper columnist and magazine writer since 1988, penning over 2,000 columns and articles, and has been the Humor Editor for Texas Fish and Game Magazine for the past 25 years. He and his wife, Shana, live in Northeast Texas. All his works are available at your favorite online bookstore or outlet, in all formats. Check out his website at www.reaviszwortham.com. “Burrows, Wortham’s outstanding sequel to The Rock Hole combines the gonzo sensibility of Joe R. Lansdale and the elegiac mood of To Kill a Mockingbird to strike just the right balance between childhood innocence and adult horror.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review) “The cinematic characters have substance and a pulse. They walk off the page and talk Texas.” —The Dallas Morning News On his most recent Red River novel, Laying Bones: “Captivating. Wortham adroitly balances richly nuanced human drama with two-fisted action, and displays a knack for the striking phrase (‘R.B. was the best drunk driver in the county, and I don’t believe he run off in here on his own’). This entry is sure to win the author new fans.” —Publishers Weekly “Well-drawn characters and clever blending of light and dark kept this reader thinking of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.” —Mystery Scene Magazine

45 thoughts on “On Regional Dialogue and Locations

  1. I’ve tried to keep an ear for dialect and phrasing – and I followed/understood your dually conversation completely because I’ve heard it most of my life and wasn’t “reading” it…

    Your comments on the five regions of Texas and different sounds reminded me of something I watched recently on TV about “Appalachian-speak” – the differences in vocabulary as well as pronunciation can be pretty, well, pronounced, just over the ridge in the next holler and even up-creek on the same stream. I have to say I was glad they included some closed-captioning (but not quite “subtitle” translations as in a foreign film), to at least give me phonetic sense of what was being said…

    Y’all take care… see ya, hear?

    • Watching documentaries set in Texas and anywhere in the south is always entertaining for me. I never need the subtitles because those are the folks I grew up with. Thanks so much for your input so early this morning.

  2. Thank you, Rev. Your advice about using regional dialog is terrific. I could see why your friend from England was quickly at sea.

    Folks in West Virginia eat dinner at 12:00 PM too.

    I mention the following only because you did not…I am hearing all sorts of good things about THE TEXAS JOB, your next novel. It sounds like a winner. No surprise there.

    • Wow, Joe. Thanks so much for your enthusiasm and info. This is the first I’ve heard about any buzz on The Texas Job, which releases on February 15th. I sure appreciate the news!

      Thanks for reading and responding.

  3. I love this. Reminded me of my Mississippi aunts and cousins. Good times.

    I’m from Alabama. We don’t say Yee Haw either. We have 3 regions – coastal (where I’m from), home of the real Mardi Gras, where voices are soft as the bay breeze and rudeness is a killable offense. We have the middle (where my husband is from) which is cotton farms, steel mills, and salt of the earth people. The north is NASA and mountain folk, rockets and moonshine. For the whole state, the most important question is “Alabama or Auburn?” and nothing gets done during the Iron Bowl.

    We live in Florida now. Tampa and points south have a strong Cuban influence. North Florida (where we used to live) is fishermen, snowbirds and resort towns. Central Florida (where we live now) is mostly transplanted New Yorkers and people from everywhere else. Then there are Florida natives (I gave birth to two) who mostly can be found on farms, ranches, The Everglades and what remains of the orange groves.

    I’m with you, Rev. You have to have at least been there to write about it and have it ring true. The Internet can only take you so far.

    • Florida is fast becoming one of my favorite states. We love the gulf side, and especially the Keys and Key West. A special and influential author lives there and writes a manic series about a serial killer you come to love. If y’all haven’t discovered the great characters created by Tim Dorsey, you’re missing out. Start with Florida Roadkill.

    • Cynthia, such fun for this Alabama football-lovin’ gal reading your post. (Roll Tide!) I am a true Florida Cracker born many long years ago in Clearwater on Florida’s west coast when you could still take a short drive north and buy palmetto covered lots land and for what seems a pittance today. Fried mullet and grits and hushpuppies. Yum! I lived many years in Alabama after marrying, but now live in Oregon. A long way from those Southern roots…..but somehow (I wonder how) Alabama football gets mentioned in my books. Grin.

  4. Thanks for the trip home, Rev. I hail from southeast New Mexico, an unannexed part of West Texas. I heard your friend Joe speak on a podcast one time (can’t recall the name of the now-defunct podcast). I listened five times over a period of a few weeks. Not because I was ever lost but because it sounded so good.

    • Joe is a great interview and is always entertaining. My Bride and I have an affinity for all y’all out west. Thanks so much for reading and responding.

  5. I could always tell when the Hubster was talking to his father on the phone. “ey-yup” which he never said any other time. The central New York came through.

    When I was 13, I visited family in New York (Westchester area), and my 9-year-old cousin asked my aunt why I “talked funny.” Her example: “She says coffee instead of caw-fee.” (I’m originally from Los Angeles.)

    I just got back from a trip to Croatia.Not sure I’ll be able to incorporate much of the way they talk. I couldn’t tell one Croatian dialect from another. But my protagonists won’t be Croatian, so they can have the same problems I did.

    • Terry, the Bride says I slip back into East Texas dialogue and pronunciations when I’m on the phone with someone from out there, or when we go back home. We bought a weekend place up there this week, and I can already hear accent getting heavier as the days go by. I was the spokesperson for a huge school district here in Texas, and worked hard as eliminating as much as possible. Now that I’m retired, my heritage is creeping back, but I don’t care!

  6. Great post, Rev. And great advice about regional dialect. I loved listening in on your conversation while you drove to the western wear store. And I have to say, I’m jealous of your pick-up. I have a 1996 truck with 4 wheel drive that’s still going strong. I even changed the front end suspension from 1/2 ton to 3/4 ton so the truck could handle a snow plow. But, I would love to a have a diesel dually with an extended cab. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t fit in the garage.

    Have a great weekend!

    • A big dually won’t fit anywhere, not even in most parking lots. I recently downsized to a half ton, and love driving it. I can park in just one slot these days, and not two. Thanks, Steve!

  7. Great post, Rev. I grew up in a county that academic studies determined had the purest American English accent in the entire US. And even we have regional dialect idiosyncrasies. We call soda a pop as one example.

    My wife and I spent 11 weeks in Liberty, TX on a short term work assignment. We spent one glorious evening in the Liberty Opery. Now that is a local cultural experience!

    Thanks for sharing.

    • We call sodas, or soft drinks, Cokes. I love it when move-ins to our state hear this conversation.

      “I’ll get the drinks. What do you want?”
      “Okay, what kind?”
      “Dr. Pepper.”

      Coke stands for a number of soft drinks including orange sodas, Pepsi, Mr. Pibb (do they still make that?), Seven up, and any other carbonated beverage.

      Have a great week!

  8. I grew up in Memphis and have lived most of my adult life in North Mississippi. The only person I’ve ever heard say Yee-haw was from Minnesota. Oh and around here when there’s a long string of cars, we say “Someone left the gate open.”

    Enjoyed your post.

    • Yee Haw makes my skin crawl. I’ve been known to tell folks never to say that around me when they’re trying to be country. In fact, most writers who shoot for country just can’t get it right and it always sounds corny and hokey.

      Thanks, Patricia!

  9. Funny. Reading that conversation I understood every word and heard my daddy talking. He was born, reared, and lived his whole life in Florida. He was always “goin’ to see a man about a dog,” when I wanted to tag along as a skinny little girl. He always wanted to go out west, but never left Florida. He died too young.

    The initial part of your post still has me scratching my head in wonder that anyone could possibly not understand “Hand me that pair of dykes so I can cut this wire.” But then, I’m my daddy’s daughter.

  10. Another informative and evocative post, Rev. I felt like I was riding in the cab of that pickup with you three, tooling through Nacogdoches. Texans have way more idioms than we Pacific Northwesterners do, though I have baffled friends who moved to Oregon from back east when I said something was too spendy, or mentioned going outside during a sunbreak.

    Very good advice about the need to soak up local color if you’re going to write about the locals. Have a wonderful weekend!

    • Pacific Northwesterner here, too, Dale . . . but being from central Washington, sunbreaks last a month! Ha! We go outside barefoot, in T-shirts and shorts to enjoy a thunderstorm.

      Sounds like you’re from the sandals and socks side o’ the mountains . . .

      We probably talk the same, though, starting with “I’ll have a large p-nut butter truffle latte, double shot, with a hint of pumpkin sprinkles over the fat-free whipped cream . . .oh, and here’s an extra $5 for the car behind me.”


    • That’s the perfect example of doing your research in person. Do you know what the desert southwest smells like at any particular time? Most don’t. The Bride and I were walking through a residential neighborhood in Honolulu a couple of years ago and I kept smelling something. I was slight, but wonderful. I kept thinking we were picking up the scent from dryers sheets or air fresheners in the cars we passed (they all had their windows down), until I walked past a particularly lush plumeria plant in bloom. Then I noticed all the yards were full of plumerias and other flowers. I was smelling the naturally perfumed air of Hawaii.

  11. I’m so relieved the passenger in the pickup had no idea what you two said, ’cause I didn’t either. Thought I was missing the point, but as usual, you nailed it, Rev. Thanks for another entertaining read!

    Speaking of regional dialects, audiobook narrators can destroy a novel if they don’t speak the language, so to speak. My former publisher hired a narrator for book 1 of one of my series. The MC hails from Boston. The narrator, I found out later, lives in Rhode Island. Two vastly different accents. To make matters worse, she tried to swing a Boston accent and it came out as New York, with a tinge of Long Island. I was horrified, listening. Still haven’t made it past Ch. 3.

    • Sue,
      It is comical to hear how Boston accents are often interpreted in movies. If they knew that like most regional of local patois, there are linguistic rules to Boston accents for such things as when you drop a word ending or add an “r’ to a word ending, their accents would be more accurate.

    • Many narrators fail in their attempts to create the right accent. I offered to narrate my own books, because I know the people who live there in reality, in the novels.

      One thing I know, I wouldn’t even try to mimic any other parts of this country, or others. I’ll stick with what I know.

  12. Spending time in locations before writing about them is an ideal situation. But it’s not always possible to spend enough time doing that.

    If I visit a new spot, it’s much easier to capture the physical and sensory aspects of that location: how sea oats tickled my legs when I walked on a beach in Pensacola, and how a densely packed row of tenements made me squeeze into the sliver of dark space between two houses just to figure out how somebody could paint the sides of those houses. (They couldn’t. The facing sides were moldy and different colors from the house fronts.)

    In contrast, I need more than a few hours, days, or weeks to come up with “authentic” local characters. For example, the best I was able to do in a four-day trip to Minneapolis was pick up on a couple of speech patterns, how they treat their city environment, and how they react to strangers. (Minneapolitans end sentences with an upward lilt, as though every sentence is a question. I’ve never seen such immaculate streets and sidewalks. And they are far friendlier to and trusting of strangers than those of us from Boston.)

    • That’s exactly what I mean. There are so many tiny things you can take with you by just walking through an area. Thanks, Truant Librarian, hope that truancy doesn’t end up on your permanent record!

    • I can feel them oats!

      A few days ago I passed two businesses about 8″ apart and wondered the same thing: how did they paint those walls? I finally concluded they went up to the roof with a paint roller on a long pole and worked downward, using a very wet roller and letting the spatter distribute the paint everywhere.

  13. Brings back memories. I’ve travelled a lot for work. I also lived in the United Arab Emirates for three years.

    Going from coast to coast in North America, you hear a lot of strange things. At fist you let it slide, but eventually you have to ask what the people are saying or talking about.

    Maritimer’s are the hardest to catch on to. When in Texas, they at least smile and tell what was said before I had to ask.

    When I sat down for dinner back in the UAE, there would usually be a Brit, A New Zealander, an American, a man from Amsterdam, a Turk, and myself from the great Canadian West. The conversations can be a challenge especially when I got going. I sucked at editing myself.

    Good day, eh!

    • I often have trouble with hearing other accents, now that my hearing is…aging. Too many guns for too many years (and then there’s that misspent youth too close to loud speakers) have caused problems that are usually exacerbated by lots of people talking around me. Loud restaurants are horrible, so I spend a lot of time reading lips, and turning to the Bride for interpretation.

      • My hearing loss (getting noticeable) is from spending time in loud spaces and not wearing ear protection. Shame on me for being the safety guy on top of it too.

        If we ever meet up, we can develop some simple hand signals.

  14. Luv readin’ yer stuff, Rev. Quick story. A few years ago, I spent a week in Austin on a business trip. First time to Texas, although over the years I’ve ticked off 38 States and have had nothing but great experiences with my US cousins. I was so impressed with Austin – clean, prosperous, modern, and invigorating. But after three or four days, I realized something was missing. I said to the lady at the hotel’s front desk, “I haven’t seen any cowboy hats, boots, or big buckles here. I might as well never even left Vancouver.” She rolled her eyes and said (in a very neutral accent which might have been a Vancouverite’s), “Oh, you have to go up to Dallas for that.”

    • Sigh. I fear we’ve lost Austin, and she was close with her recommendation, but Ft. Worth has more hats per capita than Dallas. The real hat wearers are down around Kerrville, or out west on the big ranches. Of course, there are still plenty of us who won’t go outside without proper headwear.

  15. Amen, my even-further-South brother. I hope you explained to the benighted Italian that Western clothes shops are mainly for city folks, Yankees, and people who need a fancy outfit when they ride in a Christmas parade. The feed and grain store is a more authentic alternative.

    I am born and bred in the Piedmont of North Carolina, around fifty miles away from the real Mayberry, and you have pushed ALL my buttons with this. Some writers can’t even get the core Southern values and behaviors right, let alone the regional ones. The traditional South is as alien as another planet although the rest of the world has been moving in and terraforming to the point I sometimes don’t recognize it. Another rant for another day.

    Under no circumstances do you ever set a series in an area you haven’t lived in for years, and the type of town/rural area you’ve spent almost as much time in because you will always get in wrong. Always. You will embarrass yourself without knowing it, your book will be thrown against a wall, you will be cussed at as an idiot, and your books will never be bought again.

    At the same time, if you have lived in the place you are writing about, readers will love you. When I read the first Sookie Stackhouse (TRUE BLOOD) mystery and Sookie began to put together her beloved grandmother’s funeral, I went “Dang, this writer is from the South” because she hit all the nuances of a Southern funeral.

    Anyway, a YouTube site called “It’s A Southern Thing” is happy to explain Southern weirdness to others and make real Southerns smile in recognition. My personal favorite parody is LAW AND ORDER: SVU called SLAW AND ORDER.


  16. If you haven’t read the Sonny Hawke series you need to grab a cup of coffee, slide into your porch swing and get started. You will not regret it.
    However, when the SHTF, you may need to boost that coffee with some Jack. Stuff gets excitin’ when Sonny takes over.

    • You are very kind, sir! Thanks for the compliment. I’ll introduce you to a stock inspector named Sonny Hawke in a year or so. He and Sonny would be a great team.

  17. Loved this article, Rev. I was born and raised in Savannah, GA. I had my first dialect lesson when I left the state after college to move to New Jersey for a job. I stopped at a service station to get gasoline and I asked the attendant to “please check the awl.” I couldn’t imagine why he looked confused. It took a minute or two for him to come to an understanding of what “awl” was.

    My husband and I have had the good fortune to have lived in five or six different states. Wisconsin has some interesting regionalisms.
    A water fountain is a “bubbler.”
    You don’t go to see the Smiths, you “go by Smiths.”

  18. I understood every word of Texas jargon. I’ve been to George West, Houston, Dallas/FW, Plano, Corpus, San Antonio, Three Rivers, and Swinney Switch. I found the people polite and easy to understand. If I were ever to settle there, I’d look at Plano, first.

    I grew up in L.A. across the street from the daughter of a Methodist minister from TX. She had many colorful expressions, like “If that doesn’t beat Jesus on a bicycle!” Then she’d deny she said it. Her husband, G., burnt out a bearing on the way west while passing through a small Texas town with no garage. He dropped the pan, removed the bearing, made a mold, and poured a new bearing with a little help from the local blacksmith. He never did replace that bearing.

    G. once had a traffic incident in Los Angeles. A cop found him pulling the other driver out through the open window, and asked what the problem was. “He called me a son-of-a-bich!” G. told him.
    “How long have you been in Los Angeles?” the cop asked.
    “Fifteen minutes.”

  19. You nailed the reason I based my Penns River novels in Western Pennsylvania. i grew up there, so it’s a relaxing exercise just to let everyone talk the way i grew up hearing things. it’s also an excellent way to lend a sense of authenticity, even for those who never heard some of the local expressions, such as “a pig in a poke” or a mention of how slippy the roads are.

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