Accurate Dialogue with Kelsey Bryant

I have Kelsey Bryant here with us today to tackle a controversial subject indeed - historically accurate dialogue. We don't live back then, so how can we possibly even come close to sounding like we do? But, then, our readers don't live back then, either, and we might confuse them...

Kelsey is the author of the lovely Suit and Suitablity, a Depression-era retelling of Sense and Sensabilty which is my newest favorite book. Seriously, I can't recommend this story highly enough.

Kelsey Bryant
Christian/Contemporary/Historical Fiction/Retellings


Historically accurate dialogue is one of those controversial topics that only historical fiction lovers debate. We know that dialogue is crucial—it brings the world of a book to life, and if it isn’t done right, readers can never fully immerse themselves in that world. So how is historical fiction dialogue done right? Well, here are a few thoughts.

Standards vary from reader to reader. Some like it to be as near as possible to what historical people would have said—the harder it is to understand, the more accurate it is!—while others prefer almost modern language to be transplanted into the historical era—you couldn’t possibly relate to the characters otherwise!

Most of us fall somewhere in between. So as authors, we need to decide what level of historical feel we envision for our novels, weighing readability, accuracy, and what we think will satisfy both ourselves and our readers. Actually, this isn’t as hard as we might believe at first. Dialogue of past decades and centuries was far from unintelligible. As you study primary sources, you might be startled to realize that if you simplify the dialogue just a bit, it’s not too different from our own nowadays.

When you’re setting out to write your historical fiction, spend time with primary sources from your era, especially those with lots of dialogue. They’ll rub off on you and get you thinking in the words your characters would use. Movies and TV shows are a treasure for recent history (1930s movies were some of the best research tools for my 1930s novel, Suit and Suitability), and contemporary plays, novels, magazines, newspapers, and letters are wonderful for earlier periods. (Try Grace Livingston Hill for early 20th century America.) Keep in mind, however, that like today, written language was more formal than everyday speech. Using formal writing as a basis for dialogue won’t give you accuracy.

No matter how deeply we immerse our brains into the dialogue of the past, our modern vocabulary is going to pop up in our historical characters’ mouths. If you want to investigate when an English word came into use, I highly recommend etymonline.com. I used it to look up countless words when I was writing Suit and Suitability. I made some surprising discoveries: “Orientation,” in the sense of a job orientation, isn’t recorded before 1942. For the verb “audition,” as in trying out for a role, it’s 1938. If a word wasn’t used during the period you’re writing about, it’s super easy to exchange it for a period-accurate synonym. Besides dialogue, you can further solidify the atmosphere of your novel by using period words in the narrative and in characters’ thoughts.

Slang is an effective tool, but wield it carefully. Most doesn’t age well and could leave a reader clueless as to its meaning. And since it does tend to pass out of favor quickly, using it even a decade after it was popular could be a problem. For example, “the cat’s meow” is notorious 1920s slang, but teenagers wouldn’t have used it in the 1930s. Instead, I put it in the mouth of a rather eccentric older woman in my novel. Check out slang dictionaries for the periods you’re writing about. (I just downloaded a free Kindle eBook called the “1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue” by Francis Grose.)

Contractions are worth discussing. Although they were frowned upon in formal writing during the 19th and 20th centuries, they were just as common in regular speech during the whole of English language history as they are now. There were even more varieties, in fact. (See this interesting web article.) But on the flip side, not using contractions automatically makes fictional dialogue feel older without sacrificing clarity. Do your research and decide how you want to handle them.

Besides vocabulary, sentence structure and syntax (word order) can also evoke historicity. Read any classic novel and you’ll see what I mean. For an extreme example, here’s a line from Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Black Arrow, set in the 1400s: “Master Dick, Master Dick,” said Bennet, “what told I you? Y’ are brave, but the most uncrafty lad that I can think upon!”


In the end, all authors will agree that dialogue should help, not hinder, your novel. If 100% accurate historical dialogue makes your readers’ eyes cross (if they even bother to read it), it’s probably best to tone it down. If overly modern dialogue jolts your readers out of your story’s world, that’s a sure sign you need to increase the historic feel. Trust your instincts, but try to find beta readers who are familiar with good historical dialogue and aren’t afraid to note if they feel that something’s off. With enough care, you’ll be able to put words in the mouths of your characters that bring your readers alongside them in whatever year they lived. 

Comments

  1. I meant to add a question at the end of this post to those who wish to answer: What else have you discovered about historically accurate dialogue and vocabulary?

    Another word I remember having to edit was "right?" at the end of a sentence. According to etymonline,com, that's from 1961. :)

    Kendra, you blessed me so much by saying that about Suit and Suitability! Made my whole day. <3 Thank you!

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  2. Excellent, helpful, and practical article! I’ll definitely be referring back to it when the time comes for me to write historical fiction.

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  3. I may not write historical fiction, but as a fantasy author, I still have deal with historical dialogue to some degree, especially in stories where the setting is more closely tied to a real-world time and place. (For example, my steampunk novellas in a world inspired by Victorian-era England, or my ancient-Asia-inspired Snow White retelling.) So, I definitely appreciate the tips and resources you have here. Thanks muchly!

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    1. Yes, in fantasy where you're trying to create a definite feel, dialogue is super important, too! I like it when fantasy authors base the dialogue off olden times rather than modern speech. You've got intriguing story worlds from the sound of it. :)

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  4. Seriously helpful resources! Bookmarking now...and I'm sure my readers will thank you somewhere down the road! ;)

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    1. Aw, that's great! Happy writing! It really is fun to get into historical dialogue. :)

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  5. Very timely advice on the word "audition." One of my characters is an actor. Very informative article. Thanks.

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    1. Glad it was so timely! Words like this are not that hard to work around, fortunately.

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