Speech has rhythm. To write good dialogue, an author must listen to each character’s voice, to discern timing as well as vocabulary.
Every era and region boasts its language and dialect, which can be learned through research or experience. But tone and timing can’t be taught. It’s in your bones...or not.
In my newest novel, Cowboy For A Rainy Afternoon, six old cowboys chatting can’t wait for one topic to die before blurting another. I worked to hear the tune of their chatter, the lilt of the lyrics, to produce an authentic, natural flow. And blend the philosophy within the words.
Talk slow and think deep. It’s part of the Code. It’s the way true westerners talked.
These cowboys told their stories often and not the same each time. That’s the beauty of oral history. It’s not a static photograph of the past, but a monologue that percolates, evolves, and sometimes digresses through the memory and heart, by the one who lived it. My task: be true to the characters, yet sympathetic to my readers. Spend a morning near the old-timers booth at the local café and you’ll know what I mean.
In Cowboy For A Rainy Afternoon, I used a lot of classic cowboy terms that have now disappeared. For instance, a phrase often used on a cattle drive was “man at the pot.” Someone at the coffee pot gave a shout-out to indicate he’d fill everyone’s cup.
To cowboys, ‘nobby’ signified fine, expensive clothing. They mention the store Nudies. That’s where Hollywood cowboys and country-western singers bought their fancy boots and rhinestone jackets. I bought a cowboy hat there…a plain, beaver felt XXX, size 7 7/8, dark brown Resistol with horsehair hatband…for the sake of research.
“You never know the luck of a lousy calf,” one of my favorite cowboy sayings. Healthy, sturdy calves seem to fall off cliffs or get attacked by wolves. It’s the scrawny, worthless ones that survive.
I once stood at the graveside of my rancher uncle. As I looked down at his coffin, an old-timer slid up beside me. “He was a good man, son. He lived by the Code.”
In my novel, Pop would “do to ride the river with.” That’s the highest compliment for a cowboy. Crossing wild rivers with great herds of cattle exposed dangers for man and beast. Not a time to trust your safety to some rookie just learning the ropes. “He’ll do to ride the river with” signified “I’d trust that man with my life.”
Every writer filters their work through a worldview. Mine happens to be Christian. Sometimes that pops through. In Cowboy For A Rainy Afternoon, you’ll find this quote: “If you feel prodded, Shorty, it’s the shovel of the Lord. He’s diggin’ you up and intends on restorin’ you.”
The narrator’s granddaddy chides his pals with the gospel truth. He cares too much to keep silent. He’s hoping that fifty years of friendship and five minutes spouting Jesus will open their eyes.
My suggestion: read Cowboy For A Rainy Afternoon aloud, as though you're hunkered around a campfire, to capture the cadence. Then, the characters will start to feel like family.
And maybe you’ll discover you weren’t born 100 years too late.
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