Much has been made of Kate Winslet’s Delco accent on the HBO detective series Mare of Easttown. In some circles, like the scorching they gave her about it on Saturday Night Live, they thought if ridiculous. But being from South Jersey, with Easttown across the Delaware River in an county outside of Philadelphia, the accent is more than familiar to me. Although I was born a tad north, people around here, like people across the river, say Trent-on for the capital of NJ (accent on the first syllable, hard “T” on the first “t”, soft “t” on the second), and not Tren-ton. Because of that, we can instantly tell when someone is outside of the area. So when Mare says something like “You gonna go to the store?” instead of “You going to the store?” (we are always going to go, not just going), we know she’s nailed it. She worked long and hard to get that accent right, and from someone whose sound of it is natural to the ear, she got it perfect, right down to the Rolling Rock and Yuengling. (And for the record about Mare: oh yeah, big fan.)
So how do you translate accents to your writing? It’s not really something you can do that well on “paper,” as dropped “g’s” and convoluted phonetic spelling which is out of favor (and for good reason) in this day and age. But word choice is important (such as going-to-go) as well as doing the research to pick up on local terminology. No one around the Delaware Valley (also a localism) would never call pork roll Taylor Ham, or use sub instead of hoagie (if you don’t know what I’m referring to, then that’s a good example of what I’m referring to). But getting authentic also refers to much more than the area you’re writing about. It’s also important to get micro when you’re writing about a specific group or profession.
Winslet’s been praised because she got into the weeds about what it’s like to be a small town detective. This would go for any profession you’re writing about, as nothing says amateur like when you get something that should be common wrong. Such as the weapon an officer carries called a service arm, or their badge a shield. Or take one of my favorites fields of interest – when journalism meets politics. A press conference is a presser, a gaggle is an informal press meeting with the press secretary, and a pool spray is a quick photo op following an important meeting. But these are just a few examples. So, how do we get authentic enough to find them?
Sorry all, but it’s always going to take more than looking things up on Google. The way to become authentic is to become immersive. If you’re writing a detective novel, then find a real detective and ask questions. Read police reports. Watch pressers, as there’s always one after a crime that warrants a huge media interest. I’ve attended writers conferences where there’s actual detectives giving talks, and they will be the first to tell you that what you see on TV or in the movies is bullshit. But books? They’ll admit that sometime they get it right, at least closer to right than a lot of other media. So make a detective happy. Let the one that gets it right be yours.