Pen writing…or so says the famous line attributed to George Bernard Shaw (except, of course, it seems it may never have been written by the great playwright.)

Nevertheless, it’s still a killer line, and one that often springs to mind when I create a non-American fictional character and need to be careful about dialogue.

I thought of this recently as I was reading an Irish novel, which I truly enjoyed, that is partially set in America. Although I loved the novel, I was a bit surprised to realize that all the American characters all sounded “a wee bit” Irish.

Did it ruin the book for me? Not at all.  I loved it. But it did get me thinking about the difficulties we face in ensuring that dialogue rings true when we choose to create characters from a  country different from our own (even if the language is the same…) * Sigh*

I have one time travel novel where the American protagonist studies in Bath alongside British colleagues, so I had to be careful on dialogue and was lucky enough to have critique partners from the UK who could point out to me when I slipped. Things got more complicated when my character goes back to the 19th century, and I had to think carefully about speech patterns and expressions of the time.

Luckily, it’s not just English. A Spanish writer is bound to get mixed up if he adds in an Argentinian character. And a Parisian may have to do her research if she wants to write French dialogue for a character coming from Sierra Leone, or another country in French-speaking western Africa.

So, writers, what have your experiences been trying to guarantee authenticity for your dialogue when your characters are ‘separated by a common language’? Do you find it odd to read books with characters from your own country where the dialogue sounds off? Would love to hear your views on this!