Writing as if I cannot spell

Ruby helps out again!

Ruby helps out again!

Stop laughing out there, I can spell!

Well, I’ve learned a lot of things while writing the Portia Adams Adventures:

  • How to write a ransom note in Italian
  • How to write a note in code
  • How to write a story where there is no dialogue because my detective has lost her ability to hear or speak

But now, I have to write a note as if I cannot spell. More specifically, one of my characters needs to write the note and he cannot spell. The character is an unnamed member of Portia’s Baker Street Irregulars – a street child of London who has minimal education. My idea is that this poor child was thrown out on the streets after at least a few years of public education (since at this point we are well within the years of the Great Depression, this is viable), and has minimal writing and reading skills.

So what words do you misspell? Do you write phonetically? Do you drop all silent letters from words? How far do you go before what you’ve written is not actually readable or understandable?

Here is what I’ve come up with so far, let me know in the comments what you think the “boy’s” note says:

Ruby waved at me, and then elbowed one of the boys who had accompanied her, who to my surprise, handed me a dirty piece of newsprint he had written the words: “we fownd your bom persun.”

I blinked at this note rapidly, and then, spying the outdoor furniture for the café stacked in the alley, led the children over there to right a table and a few chairs so that we might sit in the relative protection between two buildings.

Handing the pastry to Ruby, I pulled out my own notebook to write a response while she carefully divided the treat into three. I waited for the boy to scarf down his portion, and then handed him the notebook with my pencil.

He looked down at it, scratched his head, and then answered a question from Ruby, who was looking down at the note curiously. She nodded and said something back to him, which he leaned over the table to carefully write, my pencil hesitant over the paper in his hand.

I had asked two simple one word questions: “Who?” and “How?”

Dont no her name,” his note answered, “but we braut you the ting.”

I tapped on the word ‘ting,’ – not understanding, and in answer, Ruby barked something at her other companion, who reached into her voluminous winter coat (probably an adult size, but I know chosen for its warmth) and pulled out a bunch of wires and a metal cover.

My eyes widened, and found Ruby’s. She was nodding back at me with a smile I rarely saw on her face.

“The person whose name you don’t know. Take me to her now.” I wrote, handing the note to the boy, and handing a bill to Ruby.

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8 thoughts on “Writing as if I cannot spell

  1. This looks very intriguing! I always think of things like dropping silent/ambiguous letters (like leaving the ‘c’ out of ‘scissors’), spelling phonetically and putting ‘e’ at the end of words when I think about characters who misspell. Also I’m not sure why but I really liked ‘braut’ instead of ‘brought’ – it’s not what I would have expected with the misspelling of that word, but it gives the character who wrote it a very distinctive voice, which is really cool

  2. Okay – I read the note as “We found your bom person.” I don’t know what “bom” is.

    One of my characters talks with half words, so I understand what you are trying to do. It has to be readable and understandable, but still show the limits of your character’s perception and/or writing skills.

    I would go for phonetic spelling, as that makes sense.

    With regard to “who”, I recall reading with fascination about a man who did not learn to read in school but learned to later in life. He was frustrated after searching for something in the dictionary and finally decided there was no such word because it was not there in the dictionary. The word was “who” – he had been looking up “hoo”.

    So, would your character who cannot spell well know the meaning of “who” or wonder at it?

    “Dont no her name” is perfect in my view. I like “braut” as well. Not sure of “ting”. If the meaning of the word is “thing”, does the character pronounce that as ‘ting”? (In which case, yes, perfect).

    Don’t know if that helps any. I hope so. 🙂 Cheers!

      • Thanks, I’m glad I helped a little. If there is a “bomb person” them “bom” works fine. If “bom” is something else, so long as it’s in the story and made plain, readers will get it. 🙂

  3. I would suggest; “we fownd your bom persun.” read as ‘We fanned yer bom geezer.’ This is correctly accented for London, but obviously it needs to be readable. Fanned is how the word ‘found’ would be spoken.
    “Dont no her name,” would be sound like ‘Dunno er name,’ and “but we braut you the ting.” should sound like “but we brung yer ‘er fing.” The ‘th’ sound would be replaced by an ‘f’ sound and the ‘h’ is normally lost.

    However, it needs to be readable, so there would ‘ave to be a compromise somewhere.
    .
    Hope this aint just made fings ‘arder, missus! 🙂

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