I am thrilled to bring today’s guest post from author, Sandi Layne.
Writing Dialogue in Historical Fiction
~ or ~
King Henry VIII Did Not Speak in Iambic Pentameter
by Sandi Layne
“Put me down,” I cried furiously. “Put me down! I don’t want to be Emperor. I refuse to be Emperor. Long live the Republic!”
But they only laughed. “That’s a good one. He doesn’t want to be Emperor, he says. Modest, eh?”
“Give me a sword,” I shouted. “I’ll kill myself sooner.”
– From I, Claudius by Robert Graves. Copyright 1934
If one were to take the narrative from any current work of history or fiction and compare it to a direct transcription of a conversation over the perfume counter at, say, Nordstrom, one would immediately notice a difference.
In the following discussion, I am speaking mainly to people writing historical fiction that takes place before there was a proliferation of “contemporary” books being printed. In other words, if you’re writing a Regency Romance and want authentic dialogue, read Jane Austen—she knew how her people spoke every day. If you’re writing during the time of King John, however, you have to get a bit more creative.
We don’t write the way we talk.
In contemporary fiction, dialogue isn’t a problem. An author can sit down at the mall, a nail salon, in church, or even hang out in a supermarket checkout lane to discover the local patois. His ear will recognize “speech patterns” and differentiate them from “narrative patterns.” This should, if he does his job well, enable him to have his characters speak in an authentic manner.
Alas, we cannot take trips back to the Champagne Fair in France in the 12th Century to listen to the various craftsman hawk their wares. Overhearing the latest trader gossip or catching the flow of a bargain is not the kind of research we can do these days. When writing in a time that we don’t inhabit, we have to seek different ways of presenting authentic dialogue for our characters.
However, most of what is written by the contemporaries of our chosen eras are written in a formal manner. The Old Norse Sagas, famous for their adventures and vibrant characters, were written in a particular manner and for effect more than they were written to share how people actually spoke.
Basically, people speak to communicate. In any culture, in any language, the day to day conversations folks have served the purpose of communicating. Thus, they will use words that work. When a writer of historical fiction wants his reader to become immersed in the culture being shared, he will use words that don’t get in the way of this immersion. A conversation… should sound like a conversation, rather than a set piece of epic lyric poetry.
Be on guard against anachronisms.
Here, I’m not just talking about calling a night rail a nightgown. I’m talking about using words such as “nursing” as in “nursing an infant” before the term “nursing” was used for breastfeeding. This happened to me once. My editor caught it and we changed the word, for which I am in her debt.
However, the most common anachronisms one finds occur when the writer is too free with our common expressions. “Wow” was not a term used in Medieval Europe, for example. “Awesome” referred to the state of reverent wonder and perhaps fear one felt in the presence of royalty or in a church.
Conversely, a “drive-by shooting” was indeed the term used in the American Old West for rowdies who rode their horses through town, shooting up shop windows and the like. Some things, it seems, never change.
Different cultures show respect for one another in different ways, of course. One way is through their conversation. One thing I look for when reading historical fiction is if the author conveys the societal norms in this regard through the dialogue. Is a heroine mouthy to her overlord, for example? Does a servant from the Middle Ages snap back a witty retort to a master’s comment?
These things just don’t work in terms of how different members of societies viewed each other. Word usage, forms of introduction, even eye contact all convey the degree in which one party holds another in esteem. The historical fiction author is free to tweak some things, of course, but having characters act like they belong in our time does snag a reader’s attention, removing them from the story.
Somewhere in Nordweg:
Here is an example of a conversation from my book, Éire’s Captive Moon, to serve as an exemplar:
Such a hurt was punishable by fines or by like treatment here.
But I am only a slave here. Bran is only a slave. Surely they won’t bring us before the lovsigemann.
“Lord Els,” Charis said, her voice respectful because to be otherwise might be dangerous right now. “I say again that I did not cause him permanent damage. I had an herb in my hands when he tried to strike me and the herb caused him the damage as it flew from my fingers.”
“There! You see! She did have something to do with it. She did hurt him! She’s put out his eyes!” The cries rose from various men in the group. “Find out what it was and do the same to her!”
Charis raised her hands and, strangely, all the men were silenced, save Arknell. “You have heard the men, Eir,” he began to say.
“It was only an herb!” she protested. “Thyme! He has an unlucky reaction to it, but truly, my lords, it was just thyme.”
Charis, a slave, speaks to a local free man as if he were a lord. She uses formal language when speaking to him because she is pleading her case. People often use a lot of words when they’re trying to explain how something happened that they’re being blamed for, I’ve found.
The men erupt in protest, but I included no cursing or swearing in this section. This is a group of men holding an impromptu trial; they’re keeping it formal, after a fashion.
The notion of an “allergic reaction” to anything was unknown in this place and time, so when a character exhibits just such a reaction to the herb thyme, Charis can only say that the character is unlucky. This was also a reason posited by the Ancient Romans when someone was found to get ill after eating something others could eat without concern.
Folks who could use some practice writing historical dialogue tend to either go all out and mimic the old Sagas or stories or they veer to the other extreme to make their characters “relatable” and have them converse just as people do today.
Rather than doing either of these, I suggest that you research the societies in which you wish to set your story, learn about their structures, their manners, their music and any literary accomplishments they boast. Seek out real or plausible “oaths” they can swear when frustrated. Find out whom they worshiped and how they did so. All of these elements contribute to the rich dialogue that your characters can speak naturally and that your readers will believe.
About Sandi Layne
There are many profiles that detail the author’s lifelong dream of authorship being realized with the publication of their first novel or short story. This is not one of those profiles.
To make an exceedingly odd story more so, Sandi Layne had no wish to be a writer, but went through a storyline boot camp in the form of strange dreams for a month and took careful notes. Fifteen years later, she’s still writing stories that veer slightly off the beaten path, both in Christian and historical fiction.
Married for more than twenty years to a very tolerant (and brilliant!) man, she has two sons, no pets, and a plethora of imaginary friends. Her interests range from ancient civilizations to science fiction for both reading and research. With degrees in English and Ministry, she also claims Theology’s crimson Masters collar which she has been known to don on rare occasions.
If you drive by her window before dawn, it is likely she’ll have a light on for you. Or at the very least, she’ll be alert on twitter. She invites you to visit her online space at sandyquill.com.