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!