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May 2008 Worlds Apart

May 2008 Issue

The Pitfalls of Dialogue


Last month we looked at the technique of using dialogue to introduce necessary historical facts or context into your story. It’s an excellent vehicle for that purpose, but it started me thinking about dialogue itself, its importance – and its pitfalls.


What I’m getting at here is not historical context, characterization or any of the other things dialogue can be used to provide or enhance, I’m concentrating on sound. Dialogue is, after all, the spoken word, and if you are going to create a realistic and accurate historical world, it has to sound right.


So how is that to be done?


Every generation has its own manner and patterns of speech, its own special words or phrases that mark it out from previous generations. For example, until its unique re-interpretation in the mid-1950’s, the word cool usually referred only to temperature, although it did have other special uses such as in the expression a cool customer. As another example, we can think of the current, and sometimes infuriating, repetitive use of the word like, whose meanings today seem to be almost endless. Language is not static, and when generations are expanded into centuries, differences in speech become very marked.


We discussed anachronisms – the placement of things in a timeframe in which they could not or did not exist – some time ago, and one of the prime places where anachronisms can crop up if you aren’t careful, is in dialogue. It is important, therefore, to become very familiar with the speech habits and patters characteristic of the time in which your story is set.


In the seventeenth century, people did not say good grief; they said gramercy (short for great mercy). In the sixteenth century, they said zounds (short for God’s wounds), God’s teeth, ‘sblood (short for God’s blood) or God’s body. The latter expression then changed over time until by the mid-seventeenth century it had become odds body-kin, and ultimately odds bodkins. (Bodkin is an archaic word for needle, by the way.)


The best way to become familiar with the speech of the historical era you are dealing with is to read the language written at the time. There are many sources to turn to, but novels, letters, journals and diaries are among the best. There is no better way to learn how the landowning gentry spoke in the eighteen century than through reading the works of Jane Austen. You can learn a great deal about their attitudes, values and perceptions into the bargain. For a taste of the nineteenth century there is always the incomparable Charles Dickens or the great Herman Melville, and for a slightly later, less formal period around the turn of the twentieth century there is John Galsworthy, and the reading of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is, of course, elementary my dear Watson. And speaking of those great detective stories, you will note when reading them that gentlemen of the education and social position of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, called each other by their surnames only. Watson never, but never, said, “My dear Sherlock.” It simply wasn’t done.


Letters, journals and diaries are useful as well, because although they don’t always provide examples of dialogue, they do show how words and phrases were used and do provide valuable insights into vocabulary. For a view of seventeenth century language, try the diaries of Samuel Pepys, and then the journals of Boswell and Dr. Johnson, written about a hundred years later. Don’t forget Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson either. These personal writings are highly entertaining and will provide you with a true flavor of the language of the day.


There is in fact, no shortage of material, and apart from traditionally published works, you can now also turn to the Internet. The Worldwide Web seems to have an endless supply of letters, diaries, journals and similar documents that are freely available. At one point in my novel The Gospel Truth, I needed to know all the titles that belonged to King John of England during his reign in the thirteenth century. After a few minutes’ search on the Internet I was able to be sure that when the arrival of King John was announced, the herald could list the royal titles in full and in the proper order. Just for interest’s sake he was:


…King of England, Lord of Ireland, Duke of Normandy and

Aquitaine and Count of Anjou.


Had the herald not announced all these titles, and in that precise order, not only would the statement have sounded wrong, but the scene itself would have been inaccurately portrayed.


The words and phrases you use must ring true to the time in which your story is set. We will consider this further next month.


Write on,