I hail originally from Kentucky, land of hills and horses, bluegrass and bourbon. Growing up, I earned pocket change by learning how to handle a pitchfork and worked with people who preferred dip or chew over a smoke any day. I get the cult of UK basketball, the difference between barbecuing and grilling (the former involves beef only if you're from Texas), and why Appalachian ghost stories are so good. Also, I understand Kentucky voices, their lilt and twang. They're voices I sometimes find myself profoundly missing in south Florida, a place full of people whose speech primarily rides South American and European cadences. But though I love the voices of my birthplace, I never ever want to see them in my reading.
Not that I don't want Kentuckians in books or Southerners in general or Midwesterners, Northeasterners, Indians, Australians, Russians and Indonesians. Add them all to the narrative stew if you'd like. But please don't try to replicate the way they talk on the page. No matter the tongue, the result is generally always the same: It trips the reader up, makes him feel as though he has to translate on the fly, breaks the story's flow. Anne Lamott plainly states that if you must attempt to ape specific speech patterns, "be positive that you do it well, because otherwise it is a lot of work to read ... It makes our necks feel funny. We are, as you know, a tense people, and we have a lot of problems of our own without you adding to them." Perhaps my desire to see such a technique completely eradicated says something about my general stress level, but that's a topic for another essay.
So what techniques does this leave to the writer who likes characters with varying accents? Quite a few, actually. Word choice, use of similes and sentence length vary significantly from region to region. (For example, you won't likely here someone in Seattle say that a particularly nice day was "fine as frog's hair.") Those just learning a language will likely fall into some standard grammatical errors, although you have to be careful not to cater to stereotype. One of my favorites to read is extended description of an individual's voice, the pinching of particular consonants, rounding or flattening certain vowels. It's difficult to do well, but those working with English accents can turn to the International Dialects of English Archive, an audio database with vocal samples from every continent. Log on, take a listen and get to describing.
(Picture: CC 2008 by Brent and MariLynn)