Failures in dialogue

Dorothy here, writing you from somewhere in the Pisgah National Forest, on Peter’s login since it’s functioning better than the laptop I brought. (Two is one, and one is none…) Today’s article is dialogue: how not to do it.

Peter and I start our personal dialogue from very different places; I sometimes tell him he speaks in paragraphs, instead of bits and phrases. Its an old-school British thing, common to a lot of folks I’ve met of that more rigid schooling – they organize their thoughts before they speak, unlike the text-happy teenagers who are working hard to get a full sentence out, and think paragraphs fall under “TLDR.” (Too Long, Didn’t Read (but going to comment anyway.)) I’m usually somewhere in the middle.

Even if you keep roughly the same sentence length, though, the very phrases and word choice can drastically impact the reader’s opinion of a character. Connotation and Denotation, metaphor and simile… important things, these. Let me share a recent exchange that will let you point and laugh at me, as well as illustrating the matter.

Peter has a friend who is a beekeeper – I believe he has 87 hives, in three locations inside the Pisgah National Forest, so each group of hives produces a slightly different honey by the microclimate of the 2-5 miles range they each search for nectar. (It matters very much that one set of hives is close enough to American Chestnuts, while another is not – they’re finding tulip poplar and sourwood. And if one is catching more sunlight on their mountainside than the other, things will bloom at different times. It gets fascinating to go from abstract world building down to the nitty gritty 2-5 mile radius microclimate forest species mix, and how that impacts the timing of honey production.

Not-so-random-aside: Because his girls are inside the boundaries of national forest, with zero agriculture near their flowers or upwind, he’s the only honey producer in the USA I know of that has absolutely no trace residues of herbicides, pesticides, or fungicides in his honey. Amazing stuff!

Sean, as you can imagine, is a very busy man when the nectar’s flowing. He’s also holding tours with honey and champagne tastings – and he proposed we join a tour, so we can see him, his lovely and brilliant wife, their new house, and all however-many-million of his girls (the bees), without him having to find copious spare time he doesn’t have. Peter, lacking flexibility to get into the beekeeping suit and paint tolerance to go clambering around the mountainside to the hive boxes, stayed at the house and chatted with Denise, (the aforementioned wonderful wife,) as she prepared the various dishes for the honey tasting.

This left me in a group of tourists, as the odd person who was neither extremely young and fit and here to kayak and bike or hike many miles a day, nor fully silver-haired and taking the tour for education and amusement. I thought to myself, “Self, Sean runs these tours to try to educate people on the need to protect and conserve nature, on the widespread adulteration of honey with rice syrup and other sugars when sourced out of India and China, on the way that the drive for shelf life and stability kills the benefits and leaves you with adulterated sugar-water that’s often dyed to “honey color” in the bears on the grocery market shelf (and often contaminated with heavy metals at that), on the “windscreen phenomenon” and what’s causing it… the honey is the tangible starting point to get people to think about our role in conserving the environment and being wiser about where our dollars go, and what we support. This is his passion and mission, his chance to reach out and make the world a better place.”

“Therefore, self, you should not screw it up, keep your mouth shut, and fake like you’re Jane Random Tourist. You can do this!”

Could I do this? Um…

I was doing pretty well at keeping to the back of the pack and only adding comments like “What do you burn in the smoker?” (Pine needles to get going, then wood shavings to keep the fire cool. The point is to send a smoky message to the bees, not to crisp them by blasting hot smoke like a blowtorch.) and “Oh! So the fountain isn’t decoration for the house, it’s so the hives have a close water source for cooling?”

…right up until I looked down at the gravel on the path into the bee yard, and saw lots of shiny, glittery flakes. It wasn’t diatomaceous earth, that’s hydrophilic, and it wasn’t the right ore for mica. So I chirped, “Are the glittery flakes functional, or is that part of the local rock strata?”

Folks, that is apparently not how tourists talk. Sean replied, “There was an asbestos mine here.” He glanced at the expression on another tourist’s face, and continued in a slight rush, “But it was shut down very quickly.”

I blinked – I hadn’t been aware that asbestos glittered like mica. “Huh. Shallow vein that played out?”

He gave me a side-eye look. “Very shallow.” Then he pointed where I should go with a quick one-handed gesture near his waist, and I complied while he raised his voice, and said, “Folks, there’s a great selfie spot just ahead. Just be aware the sun is over there, so you need to stand facing this way, in order to not have your faces in shadow…”

I hadn’t brought a cell phone out – I don’t believe in staring at a phone screen when I could be eyeballing the actual view. And I know what I look like; I don’t need it in photos. Apparently, touristing fail. Sean noticed my lack of selfie-spots and interest instead in the bees. Have your characters bring the necessary props!

So then we get to the bees themselves. That was utterly fascinating, and very information-dense. One of the interesting things to know: bees like an optimal space of 3/8in between frames. If there’s too much space, they start measuring it by linking legs and stretching across the gap, then build comb out to close the gap. I was directed to stand near the hive entrance (but not in front of it), flanked on the other side of the box by the lone guy in our group who wants to be a beekeeper. When we had looked at the honey supers and the brood box, and it was being reassembled, I looked at the clearance (very tight; Sean was shooing bees off the top to avoid crushing them, and asked, “Is it a 3/8 inch gap horizontally as well as vertically?”

…total touristing fail. If you want to look like a tourist, precise measurements are contraindicated. So are words like ‘contraindicated.’ Sean gave me another look, and affirmed that he believed it was.

As we headed back to the house, and Sean was pointing out useful and really cool things like the sourwood trees that the bees were pulling from, and the glide slope you could actually see of bees coming and going from the sourwood trees, I mentioned, “When I worked for a meadery in Alaska, the master brewer had a small sample of sourwood honey, and considered it one of the holy grails of honey. But he said it’d be impossible to get 3-500 pounds in order to make a commercial batch.”

Sean gave me a look. A very direct, kinda squinty-eyed look, the kind where the feet are planted and the body swings around to face the target. “Yes. Completely impossible, and he never will.” (Now that I know it’s a mono-floral source in a small climate area with less than 2-week nectar flow, I can totally understand why.)

Tourist cover: completely and totally busted. And I suspect Sean formed An Opinion about me that did not begin and end with “Peter’s Wife”. Even noting later that I was only one of a group working as part-time temp help on bottling runs because we could get discounts on mead in lieu of wages… did not appear to change his mind and recategorize me under boring uninteresting people.

When I asked Peter later what that significant look he gave me was likely to mean, my darling man got this “I’m not laughing at you, really” look (I know that one.) He replied, “Love, Sean used to be a detective. He was reading a lot more into your questions and short answers that I think you realize.”

Oops. Make sure your characters do a better job with their dialogue than me!

22 thoughts on “Failures in dialogue

  1. Honey. Something I really shouldn’t have. OTOH, tiny quantities of really good stuff. Hmm.

  2. It’s always fun to write about someone pretending to be something they aren’t and completely failing at it.

    It’s even more fun if they don’t even realize that they’re completely failing.

  3. Today, drivers spend less time scraping and scrubbing. “I’m a very data-driven person,” says Scott Black, executive director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation in Portland, Oregon. “But it is a visceral reaction when you realize you don’t see that mess anymore.”


    He…really should drive to Lakeview.

    It’s not that far.

    See what he thinks, after that.

    (There are areas you have to stop every few miles and scrub the window; yes, aerodynamics plays a part. I REALLY missed my old Neon there.)

    1. *reading German guy’s report linked*

      “If we turn all the seminatural habitats to wheat and cornfields, then there will be virtually no life in those fields.”

      …he is out of his cotton pickin’ mind. From my observation, anyways. Bugs don’t CARE if it is farmed food. (They seem to favor cultivated, but that may be my “aaaargh get off of me!” bias)

      I went in search of the cultivated land in Germany. It dropped by over 1% between ’99 and ’07, in the only hard numbers source I could find (here, page 8). From the non-hard numbers, it’s becoming a hobby thing– like the US 70s joke about the way to have a successful farm is to have a wife that works in town.

      1. *wags paw* Depends on where you are. If you go to parts of eastern Germany, the old East, you will find very large monocrop farms. The old collectives turned into co-ops. And a number of the forests are also monocrop or close to them. Which can be a real problem if/when you have a crop-specific pest outbreak, like alfalfa bugs. A greater crop variety (like in central and eastern Poland) buffers you against that, and provides more habitats and microclimates for insects and other things.

        I suspect that urbanization and light pollution play a greater role in the observed changes in the insects, and what people remember from the past are population eruptions, like England’s legendary greenfly swarms.

        Don’t get me started about how EU and other regulations have afflicted agriculture in the name of improving agriculture. People who have never spent extended periods of time around livestock or crop-farming should not write the rules on livestock care or crop-farming.

        1. Dangerous, yes, that I’ll agree with– but wow how short sighted in preference for flipping out without LOOKING!

        2. Yeah, I lately read of some ridiculous law passed in Switzerland, of all places, that requires keeping your cows indoors during the winter. Seriously? cold-adapted critters that think nothing of an Alberta winter, indoors??

          As to the insect population pseudo-study, it’s been pointed out that it was nothing but variation in one tiny spot; it is hardly global. Urban types, as usual, have NO idea how much of the planet is still utterly untouched, and think of everything rural in the scale of their perfectly-manicured postage-stamp back yards. (I’m reminded of a ‘study’ that painted beehives black and put them in a sunny location, then proclaimed that bees were dying out because the hives were empty — neglecting to note that the bees had sensibly moved out of the resulting ovens.)

          And if you think bugs are decreasing… why do I lately have bats in my yard at night, and robins by the horde?? And if you’re measuring by windshield splat, consider that modern cars are designed to make air and its contents flow past, not run headlong into it.

          As to honey… the base is chemically identical to ‘high fructose corn syrup’ which is how imports get away with adulterating it. The only way to distinguish fakes from real is by looking for honey’s micro-contaminants (mostly pollen and bits of dead bees and wax, but having worked for a beekeeper, I can attest there’s a whole lot more …stuff… floating in the extraction vat).

  4. Folks, that is apparently not how tourists talk. Sean replied, “There was an asbestos mine here.” He glanced at the expression on another tourist’s face, and continued in a slight rush, “But it was shut down very quickly.”

    This is how tourists talk.

    But not NORMAL tourists.

    I R a tourist, sometimes….

    We also have a house where the guy who did the inspection told us all the possible problems and then tried very carefully to break it to us that the house has asbestos shingles, but it really isn’t dangerous unless you start sanding them and breathing the dust.

    Was completely freaked out when both of us were ecstatic to hear it, because we know how very effective it is.

    “Wait, what? I COULD HOLD A FLAME THROWER TO MY HOUSE AND IT WOULD BE OK? Uh, yeah, this is awesome!”

    1. You can’t get away with abnormal tourists in fiction unless the abnormality is integral to the story.

      This is why Aristotle called it more philosophical than history.

        1. Orson Scott Card observed that sometimes the stereotype is EXACTLY the tool you want to use. It’s for when you want characters to be wallpaper

            1. Wallpaper generally is. In fact, I’ve only read one story where it was part of the story.

    2. Oh geez yeah. I lived in a house with asbestos shingles, the thick hard kind, on all the exterior walls. Wildfire had burned right up to the house, with zero effect. Barely had to heat or cool it, and this was in the high desert where temps extreme in both directions. Only caveat being they’re brittle, so no banging on the walls.

      I have a small chunk of asbestos ore in my rock collection. Pretty stuff.

  5. Are you certain he said American Chestnut trees? Those were wiped out by the Chestnut blight in the last century, and although efforts to develop a blight-resistant variety have been underway for decades, I didn’t think that there were enough mature trees to provide nectar for bees. Could you clarify this?

    1. Yes. American Chestnut. Really. Apparently either the stand has some sort of mutation that protects it or is so isolated that it’s been safe thus far. The story about how he accidentally discovered what the bees found is fascinating . (Dorothy and Peter told me the story when they introduced me to the honey. Evil, evil Dorothy and Peter.)

    2. There are resistant specimens here and there (much as there are occasional elms resistant to Dutch elm disease). And a lot of tree nurseries have them for sale again.

      OTOH, if something would please come along and wipe out the horse chestnuts? thing is like a weed, comes up every damn place, seeds itself where it can’t get roots, and the abundant nuts are sadly poisonous. And it looks just like a giant pot plant, flowers and all.

    3. I was under the impression that the blight also didn’t hit the west coast as hard as the east coast. (I was looking at Washington state at the time and you are not allowed to bring any form of chestnut be it nut, tree, or anything inbetween into the state that wasn’t grown there. Period. Due to reason of blight.)

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