On Writing Dialogue In Historical Novels, by Kathleen Benner Duble
If you are writing a historical novel that takes place in the 1600s, your character is obviously not going to run into his best friend and say, “Hey! What’s up, dude?” People didn’t talk that way in 1620.
As a writer of historical fiction, you want to be sure that your dialogue, like your setting, is authentic. However, if your audience is young readers, you must keep in mind that it is easy to bog them down in the strangeness of language from centuries ago. Let’s face it: if your characters truly talked the way they would have when your story took place, your young readers might not understand their words.
So how do we, as writers of historical fiction, go about writing dialogue that reflects the period without overwhelming our readers?
While writing the story of The Sacrifice (the story of my great grandmother ‐ nine times back ‐ who was accused of witchcraft in 1692), I read through all her trial transcripts ‐ listening to the way people spoke, writing down terminology used in 1692 and immersing myself in the language of the Puritans.
Then I wrote the book with as much of that dialogue as I could shove into the story (my characters were shouting: “Doth thou?” to each other throughout the manuscript). When the book was finished, I put the story away in a drawer and didn’t look at it for a month. When some time had passed and I was finally ready to do revisions, I was amazed at how all that heavy dialogue was slowing the story down. I painstakingly took most of the dialogue back out, making sure that there was still enough left to give my young readers a flavor of how people spoke back then while not burdening them with too much Puritan vocabulary.
Date-specific language is not the only way you can set the tone of an historical period. Is your character an immigrant to the US during the 1920s? You can add a flavor of their accent to your story. Is your character a snob? Add an upper crust inflection to their speech.
In my book Hearts of Iron, about an iron-producing town that existed on a mountain back in the 1820s, there were educated and uneducated people inhabiting the settlement. Dialogue became a means through which I could emphasize the difference between the two classes of people living on that mountain. Readers were quickly aware if someone worked the iron furnace or if they provided the more educated peripheral services the town needed, such as a teacher or a shopkeeper.
One word of caution: Be careful of using unwieldy spellings to reflect your character’s dialogue. Using “ain’t” as a way of showing that your character is uneducated is fine, but avoid using a word like “sumpthin”. The phonetic spelling may be accurate in the way your character would have spoken, but it will make your reader pause and slow down your story.
So while dialogue is a great way to flavor your historical piece, use it sparingly and in a way that makes the story continue to flow smoothly.
Kathleen Benner Duble’s author website: www.kathleenduble.com
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