Writing Dialogue In Historical Novels, by Adrian Goldsworthy
Dialogue is one of the most important things to get right in telling any story. Done well, it helps to drive the narrative as well as making it easier for the reader to get to know the characters. Whether the novel is contemporary or historical, the dialogue aims to sound realistic rather than actually be realistic. If you think how much conversation in daily life is banal and repetitive then you will understand why we want it to give a flavour and the essence of how people speak rather than set down everything they say.
Characters can convey a lot of information to the reader in speech, but you need to be careful to make it all seem natural. Even if someone in the story is supposed to be instructing or reporting you cannot afford to simply write pages and pages of explanation which simply runs the risk of becoming a rather dull lecture. Humour can help to make the passage flow and not stop the narrative. Much like public speaking in the real world, if you can make the audience laugh then they will far more readily be on your side and want to listen. It is also worth thinking about making any such passage a discussion or conversation between two or more characters. That way you can flesh out their personalities and relationship at the same time as explaining things. Some things can also be written as a character’s mental reaction to what he has been told.
For a historical novel, unlike a contemporary novel, there is the basic question of how the characters should speak. In some cases we have next to nothing to go on – just how did a Viking warrior or Saxon peasant speak? We get some hints for the Greeks and Romans through little snippets in our sources, and a degree of guidance from the plays of the period, although even then, a lot will depend on how you translate the text.
We have a little more idea of how people spoke in more recent and better-documented eras – fiction and other material from the era give a strong impression of Regency or Victorian conversation, and there is even more material for the twentieth century. A lot of dialogue in the novels of these eras is surprisingly modern, and some expressions go back further than you may think. As useful as the words themselves is the etiquette. People were genuinely formal on a lot of occasions, even in their own homes. For a famous example, think of the Bennett’s in Pride and Prejudice addressing each other as Mr and Mrs, or the convention apparent in the same book of introducing the older daughter as Miss Bennett, and the others as Miss ____ Bennett. Christian names (or first names as they tend to be called outside Britain and these days in officialdom even here) were rarely employed even by intimate friends, and so Darcy and Bingham refer to each other by their surnames. Only once in the entire book is Wickham mentioned as George.
Understanding the manners of an era helps a lot to make the conversations work. Also useful are such things as The First English Dictionary of Slang from 1699, or the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue from 1811, offering some of the slang of their respective periods. These can be a useful alternative to much of the other period literature that tends to preserve more genteel speech. A little of this helps to give flavour as long as the meaning is clear, but you do not want to spend half your time explaining lots of period slang. Too many ‘short-heeled wenches’ or ‘doodles’ will probably make the speech sound unnaturally false, unless you want a minor character speaking almost entirely in slang.
Slang brings us to swearing, and this is something else that gives a particular flavour to speech, whether by its absence or relative frequency. A lot of novels set in the Greek or Roman worlds make their characters swear in very modern ways and this can work, for instance in the series written by Harry Sidebottom or Christian Cameron. Personally I am not sure that the Greeks or Romans swore in this way, but that is really beside the point as we know so little about day to day speech. Patrick Mercer’s trilogy of novels set in the Victorian era focus on the British Army, and he makes his nineteenth century soldiers speak and swear like their modern counterparts that he encountered when was a professional soldier. His dialogue works, and does convincingly portray the spirit of a lot of regular soldiers, although again I suspect it is wrong for the Victorian army. Some abusive terms that would be deeply insulting in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries now seem mild or quaint, robbing them of the force you want to convey. In this case anachronism can help to give a better sense of the emotion involved. In my novels the characters sometimes describe others as ‘bastards’. It’s not actually clear when the word became one of general abuse rather than specific insult about illegitimacy, and so this may be an anachronism. I have kept them in partly because I am not sure about this, but also because it read well and just seemed to work.
Oddly enough, it can be hardest to write convincing dialogue for the most recent periods simply because the audience is more likely to spot anachronistic words or expressions. Again, sometimes this is as much a question of manners and behaviour as the words themselves. I have read quite a few books set during the First or Second World Wars that simply do not ring true because the characters’ conversation is too modern. Often this is a sign of how far the author has immersed himself or herself in the period as a whole and not simply the specific or technical details involved in their story.
As with so many things, how accurate you want your dialogue to be is a personal choice, and it can still work if it is modern as long as it is well written. As an aside I remember reading that Raymond Chandler used to write on filing cards so that in that small space there would have to be something good in those few lines. That may be one of the reasons why his dialogue is so punchy. It is very important for a novel, so however you decide to do it, it is well worth thinking about and finding the right voice for each of your characters.
Adrian Goldsworthy’s author website: www.adriangoldsworthy.com
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Writing Historical Novels