Speaking for the past

If you’re writing a historical novel, chances are you’ve worried about writing dialogue at some point or another. You’re putting words in the mouths of people who’ve been dead a long time. It’s an extra layer of interpretation, and it can be tricky. Here are some thoughts on how to make it easier:

Do your research. If you’re lucky enough to be writing about a time when there are recordings of regular people speaking, listen to them. Especially if they’re candid recordings. You can get a good sense of the cadence of different accents and regional word choice that can go a long way to enhancing voice.

If your time period happens before recording technology, read diaries or correspondence (if they’re available) to get a sense of how people put their thoughts together. Newspapers have letters to the editor and advice columns that can be useful. If your era happened before the printing press, things like court records can give you confessions or testimony that are occasionally in the person’s own words.

Be creative; even in eras before regular people left written documentation of their mental landscapes, they often had brushes with people who could and did keep records. Just remember these records were kept by human beings with an agenda, so read them with that in mind.

But be careful not to overdo your research. People often speak differently when they know they’re being recorded. Radio and TV were (and are) scripted and intended to be consumed a certain way for certain purposes. It’s not that you can’t learn from sources like these, but like all evidence, you should use them with an understanding of their potential biases.

If you’re writing about a time before sound recording, be especially careful as you analyze written sources. People speak very differently than they write, so if you faithfully reproduce the writing style of an age but the words come out of people’s mouths, you run the risk of having a person (especially a young person) sound too stilted and flowery. You also may sacrifice readability and character development for pretty clauses and ornate diction.

Know your character. Consider things that would influence your character’s speech patterns. Social class and ethnicity are good places to start, but think, too, about things like education (or lack of it) and hometown and birth order and habits of mind.

For instance, if your character has never seen the ocean and then refers to feeling seasick, it’s going to feel inauthentic. Does she have a lot of friends, or is she relatively solitary? Rural or urban? All these things impact the words a character will use and how comfortable they’ll be around different people and in different situations—all of which affect what (and how much) comes out of their mouth.

But also consider your reader. One of the important tasks of historical fiction is making the past accessible to a modern audience. The way a character talks is a great way to make this connection, but it can also put the reader at arm’s length.

For me, too much dialect is offputting. Too many ain’ts and fers and hangin’ apostrophes don’t sound authentic; they just make it hard to follow the story when there’s so much emphasis on the character’s speech patterns. It’s like the story is the speech, and unless that’s the story you want to tell, you may want to consider how you’re presenting a character’s words on the page.

Be sparing with unfamiliar words. We historical writers love to geek out over our research. But consider every unfamiliar word you use (especially if the word is in a language most of your readers don’t know) is going to stop a reader and take them out of the story while they try to figure out what the thing is. Using just the ones you need balances readability with worldbuilding. An example (using ridiculous words just for the hell of it):

“Take your tregnum off the dillyhopper and get outside to pick grunches for Noonmeal.”

“Go put on your tregnum so you don’t get cold, then go outside and pick some salad greens for lunch.”

The first example overloads us and makes the line all about the words, while the second is more selective in what it emphasizes and also gives us more context. We can figure out that a tregnum is some kind of jacket and then move on with the action – the harvesting. Determining which foreign item or concept you want to emphasize can develop your character’s voice and worldbuild as well.

But don’t be afraid to use terms that fit the time period. If your character is a well-to-do girl in the antebellum American South, she’s going to have calling cards and wear hoopskirts. Overexplaining an unusual item feels clunky and wouldn’t make sense for the character, especially in terms of dialogue.

It’s good practice to assume an “ignorant but interested” reader. That is, your reader might not already know what a calling card is, but is curious to find out. Trust that your reader is going to be able to figure out things from context, then provide that context in an unobtrusive way.

Be willing to sacrifice strict historical accuracy. One of my all-time favorite historical TV shows is Deadwood. If you’re not familiar, it’s about the South Dakota town of that name in its nineteenth-century frontier days when everything was dirty and violent and full of rough people looking for gold.

One of the best characters constantly uses a swearword that rhymes with “rockmucker,” which is definitely not historically accurate, and the writers were called out for it.

Their argument for using the word stuck with me.

A lot swearwords people used in the nineteenth century would seem comical and goofy and old-timey to a modern audience–“bullfeathers” or “gol ding it”–and the writers wanted to capture the raw impact of bad language to help develop this character. To do that, they had to choose a modern swearword that would shock a modern audience.

It wasn’t that they didn’t know this word was historically inaccurate. It was that they made a creative decision in spite of it. And it worked very well.

But be willing to give up a historical word that feels modern. A good example is the f-bomb. This word has been around in English since at least the sixteenth century. It has the same meaning and rude connotation then as it does today.

But yet, if a sixteenth-century girl says something like, “I wish she’d stop f*****g my sweetheart,” it’s going to sound like something you’d hear in the hall of the average high school. Perfectly historically accurate, but since it would take a reader out of the story, you’ll do better to change it (however reluctantly).

Good dialogue in any book works well when it feels effortless, when the reader is so pulled in that they feel like they’re over the character’s shoulder and in the middle of the conversation. Historical fiction is no different. Bottom line: make your historical people feel real. Readers can forgive a lot when characters speak to them clear and honest and true.


About J. Anderson Coats

J. Anderson Coats writes historical fiction for young adults chockful of name-calling and petty violence. THE WICKED AND THE JUST (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012) is about teenagers behaving badly in thirteenth-century Wales.

6 thoughts on “Speaking for the past

  1. courtneymck says:

    Yes! And for some reason it’s one of the things some people love to pull the “gotcha” thing on because they’re more concerned with absolute accuracy than with meaning. Also, I just about can’t read a book with excessive dialogue, no matter what time period it’s trying to evoke.

    • J says:

      There’s also this implication that the past is homogenous somehow, that there was a way “people talked” and there was absolutely no variation.

      If I wanted to write a history textbook, I would. But I’m writing fiction. “Getting it right” has so much more nuance in fiction.

      • courtneymck says:

        Also, don’t know if you knew, but people NEVER cursed in the past. Everyone was squeaky clean. Also, sex was invented in the 1960s. No one had heard of it before then.

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