A while back, I met a Jewish gentleman - Holocaust survivor - who spoke at length about displaced persons camps in Europe after World War II. I was fascinated and continued my research after that.

I'm now working on a mystery story that is turning into a novel length manuscript set in such a camp.

Here's my question or problem. The camps were often a huge mix of various European ethnicities, especially Eastern European since the U.S. promised not to force displaced persons to return to Soviet dominated countries.

So my question is ... dialects and accents. What are your thoughts and advice on handling these things? I'm trying to research speech patterns and colloquialisms of the day to help use language to differentiate a couple different ethnic groups, but I don't know if it will be enough.

I know there are some writers who handle such things with great skill. I'm not sure I'm one of those, but I'm also not sure if straight forward, more conversational English, which is how I normally write fiction, will work in the dialogue of this story.

Thoughts, advice and input appreciated.

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Keep in mind rule #1: Write to your audience.

If your audience will be stateside, use italics for the foreign words crucial to setting the scene/plot. Speak in the American vernacular otherwise. Remember, Eastern European folks in WWII spoke their native language. You don't plan on writing your novel in Polish, do you? So write it for your English-speaking audience (if that is what your aim is), adding dialect flavor via italicized words.

Through my college's journalism program, I was lucky enough to travel to Poland in 2005. Part of the tour was meeting with veterans of the Polish Resistance during WWII (and later during the Iron Curtain years). They printed pamphlets on mimiographs (sp) in secret, risking their lives to do so. It made me thankful for the First Amendment freedoms in the US of A.

Best wishes on your novel.
As Benjamin says, think of your audience first.

Languages, accents and dialects are special interests of mine, for reasons similar to yours. I have to fight the temptation to over-do the differences of origin and language in my writing. What interests me so much, I've learned, will either be impenetrable or plain old annoying to most readers.

So my rule for myself is, "Enough dialect and phonetics for flavor, but not enough to slow the reading."
Good advice. Dialect is horribly difficult, and you are dealing with multiple ones. And yes, they are in languages different from English. The reader not only doesn't want to guess at meanings too often. He also tires quickly of a steady barrage of dialect. So use only a few selected words for flavor and to characterize a person.
The trick with dialect is not to let it fall into stereotype. I have a couple of Asian immigrant characters in my new book, and a bunch of Eastern Europeans--all speaking in English to Americans. So, a bit of a minefield to cross. I think the key is to listen for diction, syntax and interesting turns on idiom--the main Asian immigrant character (a waitress in a Vietnamese noodle shop) was relatively easy because my ex-wife is Singaporean Chinese, and a lot of Lang's (the waitress's) syntax and idiomatic stuff is lifted straight from my ex: she'd say stuff like "wham, bam, thanks a lot" instead of "wham, bam, thank you ma'am." I avoid trying to replicate the sound of dialect--so I keep away from apostrophes and alternate spellings (no "dat" instead of "that," even though my ex said "dat") because it looks bad on the page, and even a little seems overdone. The other Asian character is a Taiwanese-American gangster named Lenny, who talks like a hip-hop artist--that one I did mostly for laughs. For the Eastern Europeans the big challenge was not to make them all sound like Boris and Natasha, even though a lot of Eastern Europeans really do sort of sound like Boris and Natasha. Instead I gave them a lot of the diction, syntax and idiom of an Iranian guy I knew in college--it was funny, and it seemed to work.
Bear in mind that if you have, for instance, a Polish character and a Romanian conversing, the language would probably be German, which was the lingua franca of Central and Eastern Europe at the time.
Maybe. If both are Jews they might be speaking their own regional variants of Yiddish.
Another idea would be to give some of the characters manerisms to help the reader associate the dialect with an action. Maybe the Polish woman picks lint off her clothes when she speaks or a man clasps his hands behind his back. Sprinkle in the dialect like pepper in cooking.
Enjoy the writing!
You want I should give you my two cents? A little pepper and onion is good. But too much shmaltz and your readers will choke on the whole ferkakhte meal.

In other words, less is better. Don't kill your writing with fancy accents and foreign words. But a little turn of phrase, choice of words, rhythm, or syntax variation and you'll get your characters across. If you need to get a feel of the way these people talk, try to find an online interview or profile. Someone, I think it was KCRW in Santa Monica, did a radio program called The Yiddish Radio Project with a lot of interview material.

Good luck.


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