The danger of teaching “You can’t….”

We’ve just been discussing the dictum of a well-known and (previously?) respected author who stood before an auditorium full of budding and established writers a few weekends ago and laid down a number of her rules about point of view.  Most had to do with the idea that you can’t write from a POV that you haven’t experienced, as, for example, a man should never write from a female point of view.

I was excited and almost overwhelmed by your responses to that blog.  Comments agreed with my own thoughts.  Her rules were “horsefeathers.”   You can probably think of many, many exceptions to her POV  “rule” beginning with childrens’ stories written from the point of view of , say, a rabbit.

Now then, here’s another rule I heard an author with nearly a hundred published novels to his credit lay down during a talk to another group of wanna-be writers:

“Don’t write in dialect,” he said. ” Too hard to understand, and editors won’t touch it.”

(I might say up front that this author, who writes westerns, has broken the  rule in some of his own novels.)

And so have I.   I did it openly in one of my most popular novels, MUSIC TO DIE FOR, now out of print but soon to be brought back to life by Wolfmont Press.   The book is set deep in hillbilly country in and around Mountain View, Arkansas, and at Ozark Folk Center State Park.  Both are in remote Stone County,  AR, where the first paved road, county-wide,  appeared in the late 1950’s.

My favorite character in MUSIC TO DIE FOR (other than protagonists Carrie McCrite and Henry King) is a one hundred-year-old family matriarch called Mad Margaret Culpeper.  The Culpeper home is deep in the forest, and contact with outsiders is rare unless Margaret’s boys are out selling some of the family’s, uh, product.   (Her oldest boy is 80, I might say.)

Here’s Margaret, talking to Carrie and Henry, who, hoping to save a kidnapped child,  have dared a hike to her home in the middle of the Culpeper compound.

“Elizabeth weren’t ‘special purty  ‘n’ niver had purties to fix up in, but she done good at school.  She were good at poetry ‘n’ thinkin’ up music. Oh, my, she loved music–she had the purty things in her head. She made music all the time.”

And, later….

“Elizabeth niver had friends. She daren’t to bring young-uns home, see, ‘n’ town folks didn’t want a Culpeper playin’ with thur chillern.  She weren’t asked to parties nur other affairs the young folks had….   So she got to spendin’ all her time in the woods….”

Margaret raised her arm and waved it in a wide, circular sweep. “It were out there she met the stranger.”


Every time she opens her mouth, Margaret Culpeper speaks in dialect.  And this book has gathered praise from editors and reviewers, including Library Journal and other notable sources, across the spectrum to local media here in the Ozarks.   Margaret’s speech has often been commented on with praise.

So, what do you think?  What am I supposed to think when someone says “Never write in dialect?”

(This is one reason I never say “never” when I teach or speak about writing. I think the minute you state a rule someone has broken it…beautifully.)




15 Responses to “The danger of teaching “You can’t….””

  1. Vicki Lane Says:

    Oooh, I can’t resist commenting here. My own New York editor only bought my series AFTER I added a subplot almost entirely in the dialect of rural western NC.

    My fifth novel is just finished. At that same editor’s request it’s all about an old mountain woman and it’s got plenty of that mountain talk in it.

    I know that some folks hate reading dialect and I do keep that in mind — trying to use just enough to give the idea of the speech patterns without rendering every last word phonetically.

    And no, it’s not making fun of people to reproduce faithfully and lovingly the way they speak — I have had nothing but praise from my neighbors who are glad to see those lovely, musical old speech patterns preserved.

    I do think that the key is moderation.

    • radine Says:

      Judy, that was my worry with Margaret Culpeper…was her speech too heavy with dialect? But, to this day (and I actually wrote that novel almost ten years ago) I love “hearing” her talk and re-reading what she says.

  2. Larry W Chavis Says:

    “Never say never,” to be trite. Part of the magic of good writing is that it knows when and how to break the ‘rules.’ Granted, dialect in every part of a book may grow tiresome, but … I’d much rather read an Ozark hillbilly say “. she niver had purties to fix up in” than “she never had nice things.” It rings more true (by the way, I’m from down below Little Rock, myself). Again, the skill of the writer comes in knowing how much and when to use dialect.

    That’s my opinion, anyway.

  3. Judy alter Says:

    Like everyone else, I believe there are no hard and fast rules made except to be broken. As an acquisitions editor, I caution writers to use a light hand with dialect, almost hinting at it rather than trying to capture it totally. It is easier for the reader, but I admit it’s hard to do. I once had an editor “correct” the language of a street child in Fort Worth in the late 19th century, and I quickly complained.
    Hardest chapter I ever wrote? From the viewpoint of an escaping slave, during the Civil War, in a collaborative novel.

    • radine Says:

      My husband and I are planning a trip to Ozark Folk Center State Park soon (we go at least once a year) and I look forward to visiting these people again and hearing them talk! Vicki, thanks so much for sharing! (And I have no real-life model for Margaret Culpeper, though many of the other folks in MUSIC TO DIE FOR are similar to friends at OFC and in Mountain View.)

  4. Lynette Hall Hampton Says:

    I believe in a few nevers such as, don’t spell the agent’s name wrong, don’t tell the agent or publisher, God told me to make you publish this, etc. In writing your manuscript, I don’t believe in nevers. I have a woman in one of my books speaking in her mountain drawl. Nobody complained when she said things like, “I seen you do it, but I ain’t gonna do nothin’ bout it now.” Shoot, I know people who talk this way today. I think a little dilect and/or a few localisms make a book more interesting and belieavable.
    Great blog, by the way.

    • radine Says:

      Well shucks, thanks Lynette. I am cheered especially by how many out there are writing about–well, folks one of my dictionaries defines as “backwoods hill people, usually from the south.” (Definition for hillbilly.) That’s backWOODS, not backwards! Your post made me smile.

  5. radine Says:

    Larry, thanks for being in my “corner.” Me? I love hearing the Ozarks dialect.

  6. Auntie Knickers Says:

    I am always seduced by writers who can get across the way people really talk — John Sayles and Susan Straight come to mind outside the mystery genre — so when dialect is done well as in your examples, I love it! I wonder if the prohibition on dialect dates back to a hundred or more years ago when writers who didn’t really know the people they were writing about would use lots and lots of misspellings, and in a rather condescending way. Your method of dialect writing has nothing in common with that. You are, as Judy Alter said, using a light hand with the dialect — great! And I really want to read your books now.

    • radine Says:

      Thanks, Auntie! (Is Auntie a form of dialect?) I love hearing these people talk inside my head. By the way, Shirley and Roger Booth, long-time Ozarkers and best friends and neighbors to Carrie and Henry, use a much milder form of ‘Zarks’ than Mad Margaret, but their speech still has a few quirks. Next to Margaret, Shirley Booth is my favorite secondary character. Talk about a s t r o n g woman! Whoa.

  7. Pat Marinelli Says:

    As a retired teacher of commercial fiction writing, I like to use the Sean Connery/James Bond technique when it comes to any ‘rule.’ “Never say never.”

    Use dialect sparely and where comfortably needed to reflect your writing, get your point across and entertain your reader. How much you do this is your decision. Just do it well.

    I sure don’t want a gang member in the local hood talking to my rookie cop like his schoolteacher father would speak to him. It would be totally out of character. I’d flavor the dialogue with local usage and age-appropriate words, use improper grammar, lots of dialogue emphasis and meaning appropriate to the scene, plot and setting, and, of course, lots of attitude.

    Lastly, I do whichever my editor asked in order to sell that work—too much, too little, whatever.

    • radine Says:

      I think my initial reply to Pat’s comment got eaten in cyberspace.

      Pat, you bring up a point I didn’t think to mention. We do what an editor suggests or approves.

  8. Tony Burton Says:


    I love writing in dialect, but it’s not something everyone knows how to pull off. As an ardent admirer of your writing, I know that you DO know how! An author in the Writer’s Digest once remarked that only Samuel Clemens had ever done dialect correctly, and that modern writers shouldn’t attempt it.

    Hogwash. It’s as silly as saying that you can’t write about being a murderer if you have never murdered, or about being a policeman if you have never been a cop.

    I wrote a story once, “Bluetick,” published in Reflection’s Edge, and after the editor published it she remarked that it was one of the most well-done pieces of dialect writing she had ever seen, and asked me if I would be willing to write an article on the art of writing dialect. It’s still there if you’d like to see it (, and has been republished in The Writer’s Journal as well.

    Tony Burton
    Atlanta Writing Examiner

    • radine Says:

      As far as I am concerned, Tony’s article (referred to above) is a definitive word on dialect. I was able to print it and plan to keep it as a reference…being from the Ozarks ‘n’ all. Thank you kindly, neighbor.

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