How do characters talk?
"So what is it you'll have?where we in Canada or the U.S. would reply "Just a mineral water."
"A mineral water just?"
I don't know if this quirk of speech is Irish, Northern Irish, English, characteristic of one or another social class, or just a favorite of Ian Sansom's. (On second thought, I may have seen it in other Irish writing.) I do know it punctuates the novel and lends it a suggestion of authenticity or, God help me, texture.
Certain varieties of Indian speech use the word only in similar fashion. I first noticed this tendency in H.R.F. Keating's stories, where characters say things like "I am a simple policeman only." It was easy for me to condescend to Keating, to feel just slightly uneasy with this white Englishman's imitation of Indian speech.
Then I found that Vikram Chandra has several of his characters use the same speech pattern in Sacred Games. More recently, as I have read blogs from India, I find that the tendency to end sentences with only appears to be a living feature of Indian English, at least around Kolkata (Calcutta) and Mumbai (Bombay). This was a rich education for me, not least because it made me repent my own ignorance in having felt morally superior to H.R.F. Keating.
But this is a crime-fiction blog and not a confessional. I'll close with some questions: What role does speech play in creating setting? How far is too far when it comes to trying to capture the flavor of "ethnic" speech? How do authors strike a balance between maintaining an illusion of everyday speech on the one hand and creating memorable dialogue on the other? What happens when authors give up the effort at maintaining a balance? Who are your favorite writers of dialogue, and why?
© Peter Rozovsky 2008