Rediscovered Voices

by K.M. Lockwood

As part of our Undiscovered Voices theme, K.M. Lockwood offers some points about getting voices into your work, and some exercises to help.

The standard advice you get is to listen to people on public transport. Well, I use the bus a great deal and unless I wanted to transcribe one-sided conversations on mobiles about where to meet and when, it’s not much use.

Most of my work is set elsewhere and elsewhen – so contemporary voices with their Americanisms won’t do. It would be like trying to film in Jane Austen’s Bath with all the Subways, Starbucks and KFC outlets in shot. And even if your work is bang-up-to-date contemporary, beware of current slang. It goes off quicker than a prawn mayo sandwich in a heatwave.

So what’s a writer to do?

I went back to my roots. I studied linguistics epochs ago in Loughborough and I have a longstanding passion for dialect. I’m not suggesting you transliterate any – it looks ugly on the page – but do listen for the distinctive phrasing. (Dialect does have rules – just different ones to standard usage).

And it’s not just for dialogue or first person narrators. Close third person tellings need distinctive voices too.

Your bit

Here’s the plan:

1. Visit Survey of English dialects for just English counties or Accents and dialects/BBC Voices , Millenium memory bank & Langlit/sounds for all the UK
There is some international work here:
Dialects Archives though most is a set text.

2. Find the voice nearest to where you grew up – the nearer, the better.

3. Enjoy listening carefully and look at the notes or transcripts where available. (Some bits are for keen linguists but the grammar can be useful).

4. Create a short monologue for a younger version of one voice.

5. Now go back and select a different place – perhaps where you’ve been on holiday, have relatives from, worked or studied at. Repeat steps 3 & 4,

6. If you’ve not become completely hooked by just listening, have fun putting your two diverse characters together. Maybe they share a railway carriage, embark on a ferry together or meet in some other way. Notice how local phrasing can be distinct and different. Don’t be afraid to repeat verbal tics – people do. It gives verisimilitude, if done subtly.

One last point – this is one occasion when the much-maligned adverb and adjective can come into their own. How else can you convey the character spoke huskily, or had a nasal twang? ‘I reckon it’s best to avoid dialogue tags unless needed,’ she said thoughtfully... 


K. M. Lockwood is a writing name of Philippa R. Francis. Once a primary school teacher, she became a graduate of the MA in Creative Writing at West Dean College in 2011. Her story The Selkies of Scoresby Nab was short-listed for the Mslexia Children’s Novel Competition and long-listed for the Times Chicken House in 2012/13. She was born in Yorkshire but now lives by the coast in Sussex. Her writing shows her deep fascination with British folklore and the sea. Her interests include reading, scuba diving and belly dancing, though not at the same time. She also blogs at


  1. Very interesting, thanks Philippa!

  2. So glad that, occasionally, adverbs and adjectives get a reprieve.
    Thanks Philippa, great tips

  3. Thanks P. Will def be looking at those links. May do exercises with my writing workshop too. :0)

  4. Great exercise, Philippa! I'm going to try this out next week.

  5. Making dialect work using only sentence construction and no phonetic translation is a great challenge and great fun! I actually have got quite a lot from listening to people on public transport, especially my year working in Slough, where I got to hear a lot of British Asian slang that I otherwise wouldn't have been exposed to. I remember being very amused by a young lady conducting a phone conversation entirely in Urdu or Hindi, but pausing at the end of every other sentence to add "innit"

  6. Great blog, Philippa, and thanks so much for the links. I've been stalking a couple of people to help with my characters' accents. This seems a much safer route!


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