Who would have thought the Daily Telegraph would play so prominent a role in the resurgence of my accent? It was during Louise Doughty’s year of writing a weekly column about short stories for them, when they ran a monthly writing competition and hosted a sort of discussion and exercise forum on their website. The Short Story Club had been running a couple of months already when someone (probably my mum) told me the Telegraph was having a writing competition. I entered, but only lurked on the fringes of the online club until May when I plucked up the courage to join in.
At school, we were warned that regional accents were looked down on. Anyone who wanted to get on in life needed to speak in standard English and preferably received pronunciation.
Speaking with an accent was akin to dubious sexual practices: try not to do it at all and if you absolutely can’t stop yourself, for God’s sake keep it to the privacy of your own home.
My own grandmother (the aspirational one, not Nana who I lived with) told eight-year-old me in the 1980s to start shaking off the accent, because (being The Clever One) surely I didn’t want to sound like my older sister, who worked in a mill. Thankfully I had enough of a rebellious streak to keep on speaking normally (strong Bradford-ish accent and a sprinkling of dialect) at home, if only to annoy my grandmother.
I learnt what I later discovered was called code-switching though, talking as posh as I could to people I imagined expected it: teachers, university lecturers, prospective employers.
Even my flatmates at university commented on how much stronger my accent got when I was on the phone to my family.
What, I hear you ask, has that got to do with writing competitions and The Daily Telegraph? Two things: the voice I wrote fiction in, and not hearing people’s accents in an online forum. By 2012, the year the Short Story Club began, I was in my early thirties and I’d been submitting stories with some success for a few years. Mostly they were science fiction and/or microfiction (a few sentences long) and they were written in a sort of BBC English. Through my teens and twenties I’d read Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, PG Wodehouse, Agatha Christie and Anthony Trollope in a kind of accentless interior voice that I couldn’t have reproduced out loud. It was inevitable that the stories I wrote (and I was always writing stories) would be in that voice, not recognisably from Yorkshire except where I’d failed in my disguise, perhaps not realising a dialect word wasn’t universal or only being able to imagine the word order the way me or my sister or Nana might say it.
The Telegraph’s short story competition was for stories up to 2,000 words and though it didn’t ban genre fiction, I had an idea something more general, more like literary fiction, would have a better chance. I’d written a few stories like that before, one (Rain Stopped Play) had even been shortlisted for Mslexia magazine, but they were all as alien as the sci-fi, written in a style I imagined was expected. Characters who spoke precisely and politely, in voices I’d overheard or cribbed from films, the nearest they came to me was the version I tried to portray in job interviews. The previous year I’d written a story called Viv’s 64th for my mum. Free from expectations, it came out as a monologue that Nana could have spoken if she’d still been alive. I loved it, my mum loved it, but it was for family eyes only. Code-switching, you see.
But the Short Story Clubbers were so encouraging, and none of them could hear my accent and make assumptions, and I couldn’t hear any of theirs and feel intimidated, and we’d started to become friends (some of us are still in touch). So in the November when there were only two more competitions to go, and a group of us had exchanged email addresses so we could critique each other’s stories and hopefully improve them before submission, I grew bold. I’d written another story where I’d allowed myself free expression, starting with characters based on Nana and her (deaf, mischievous, mute for many years) sister. I called it The Silent Witness, sent it round the group and held my breath. I still have the first email I got back from a member of the group.
“Really different from your usual fare,” he said. “What a wonderful voice you have found for this story. Must have taken a while to perfect?”
“I’ll let you into a little secret,” I replied,
this one’s the voice that isn’t a voice, it’s as close to authentic Jacqueline as you’ll ever get written down…
I just wrote the damn thing and worried about tidying it up later, and then I found it worked so much better after I’d stopped trying to ‘write’ it and just let it flow.”
It didn’t win the competition, but the positive reaction from the group let me write a few more stories that let my background come through, with characters that wouldn’t be out of place at a family gathering. I eventually read Viv’s 64th on local radio, then again by request at York International Women’s Festival. These days I like reading at events or recording stories for my blog so I often write for my own voice, and though my accent might not be as strong as if you caught me on the phone to my sister (and it’s been modified by twenty years with a Geordie), there’s no denying it’s there. A far cry from the terror of being asked to do an audio version of a fantasy story years ago. It doesn’t mean I never write BBC English as a narrative voice, or characters who speak that way, but at least now I’ve got a choice and my writing’s richer for it.
JY Saville lives in West Yorkshire with a Geordie and a cat, and procrastinates on Twitter @JYSaville. She self-published a collection of fiction called The Little Book of Northern Women in 2013, which includes Viv’s 64th and The Silent Witness, and is now available as a free download at her blog. You can also find links to her conventionally-published work there: https://thousandmonkeys.wordpress.com/about/