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Discussion Topic: Dialogue and Historical Fiction

When writing historical fiction, how much should your dialogue reflect the actual historical period you are writing about? Is it a good idea to write — as say — a knight during the medieval period might actually speak, or write in more contemporary language for the reader?

My personal thoughts are it’s good practice to use a blend of both. You want your dialogue to sound authentic but not at the expense the reader must make in trying to understand it. Bernard Cornwell, in my opinion, does an excellent job of creating dialogue that seems authentic and styled to the period, but still written in a way that is easy to read.

Obviously, if you’re writing medieval historical fiction, you wouldn’t want to write your dialogue in Middle English. If you’ve ever tried to read through the Cantebury Tales, you’ll understand why. I do think it’s a good idea to understand how the people of that period might have spoken, so reading contemporary sources can help you — as the writer –understand and learn the various words and phrases people of that period might have used. You can then intermix some of this language throughout your story.

What are your thoughts?

20 thoughts on “Discussion Topic: Dialogue and Historical Fiction”

  1. I think the most important thing is consistency. Whatever you choose, keep it throughout. Peppered language here and there makes for a convincing read, and is slightly different enough to feel unusual and dated. Jacqueline Carey does a good job of this in her books, as does George R.R. Martin. Too much and it’s impossible to read; too colloquial and the reader is not convinced!

  2. Dialog isn’t just in the words used but in the way they are used. That gives plenty of room for maneuver.

    Using terminology correctly, such as titles and names of equipment (from weapons to household items) can give a good sense of a milieu without having to change the rest of the language you use.

    Example: Most people know a sword has a hilt, rather than a handle. But there are different pieces to a sword, such as the crossguard, fuller, tang and pommel. Using such technical terms can show that the people are part of their period even while the rest of the language is more understandable to readers.

    Manners can also make a huge difference. If the king walks into the room and the people already there say, “How ya doin’ your kingship?” It will come off completely false, even if you translate it into more period appropriate words. But if you describe people using proper deference, it will work even with more modern words.

  3. Nothing irritates me more than an author shoving in a lot of prithees and thous to make dialogue sound more historically authentic. All it does is ruin the flow.

    If characters are talking about subjects relevant to their time and using proper terminology, they can certainly get away with “normal” speech.

    Laura Essendine
    The Accidental Guru Blog

  4. Irv, most certainly understanding some of the “technical” language of the period helps with authenticity. Completely agree with what you’re saying.

  5. Laura, the old “thou” type language irritates me as well. It’s certainly not necessary to make a reader feel as though they are a part of a certain period.

  6. I had to make such a decision when I started writing my novels about Rashi’s daughters, set in the household of the 11th-century Talmud scholar who had no sons, only daughters – daughters reputed to be learned in a time when women were forbidden to study the sacred texts. How to make the characters sound like they lived 900 years ago?

    Since I knew I wouldn’t be able to write medieval French sounding dialogue, I found that if I never wrote contractions [used cannot instead of can’t] and made sure to avoid modern terms, my writing seemed old fashioned, but not any specific time period.

    Maggie Anton

  7. Like other commenters I think there is a fine line between going too modern and bringing out the ‘ye olde’ stereotypes.

    I think avoiding obviously modern terms and language is a good idea, but you can’t analyse the etymology of each word you write.

    However, what about the different languages actually spoken? It might be worth making more of that in distinguishing the class and background of characters. For instance Latin would be understood wherever they came from, most of the nobility would communicate in French of some sort in England and France, whereas your peasant would be unlikely to be understood outside their local dialect area. English only started to become more standardised in the fifteenth century.

  8. My daughter, Adele, has done quite a bit of reading of Middle Age ballads, lays, and texts, and feels that the common speech of the people was much closer to today’s speech than we realize.

    Yes, there are many words that we have forgotten, but the grammar was very similar.

    The spelling is also a big stumbling block unless you discover key things like “v / u” switch-arounds and different vowel arrangements, etc.

    To reflect that in a novel, she wasn’t afraid to use modern grammar, cadences and phrases, as long as she also represented older ways of speaking along with it.

    For instance, modern words like “bloke” are represented in older dialects as “gloke” and “loc / lok” for “man”.

    You can also find all sorts of things we think of as modern expressions in 16th century and older texts, like “Oho!”.

    Anyway, this is an interesting topic. Thanks, Steve, for starting the discussion.

  9. With the first draft of my novel, I cut out all contractions because they weren’t in use during that time period, but when I went back and read through it, every character — regardless of status — came off sounding too formal and rigid. For me personally, it didn’t seem authentic to have common soldiers speaking so formally, so I inserted contractions into the dialogue for certain characters to give it a more salty, earthy feel.

    I try to think of it in terms of foreign language today. The Spanish language does not use contractions, but when I’m translating for someone in conversation into English, I’ll throw in contractions b/c that’s how we would say it.

    You may chose to have certain classes and characters speak a certain way to represent the different languages that were used in that period. Obviously, a priest or a English nobleman might speak more formally given the situation (Latin for one and Norman French for the other, for example), whereas an English archer or levy soldier would speak in the vernacular with their certain dialect.

    For the first group (clergy and nobles), you might chose to use more proper English when writing dialogue for them (no contractions), but for the common soldier, you might chose a rougher form of English (“street language” without the modern expressions) to represent the vernacular they would speak in.

    Whatever you chose — given the characters and situations — be consistent.

  10. There are some interesting points here, especially about the use of other languages, which is at least partly tied to education. In medieval times, educated people knew Latin but the illiterate masses did not. In England, after the Battle of Hastings, the ruling class spoke French, but others did not. This pattern was common worldwide, actually.

    But portraying that in fiction is another story. If you write a book where some characters speak French and others speak English – or Welsh or Irish or German or whatever – you’re going to find your audience highly limited. More likely, you will simply explain that people are speaking a different language that other characters don’t know, or else throw in a few words that someone else translates for both another character and the readers.

    The interesting point in that, though, is the way culture is tied to the language. I think everyone in this discussion has tried to find ways to give the feeling of the correct culture while continuing to use language modern people can read.

  11. I’m late to this discussion, and perhaps a bit of an “oddball” here, because I find some attempts at using “olde timey” language in historical novels quite irritating. And I’m not talking about “thous” and “thees”. I’m talking about things like “mayhap”, “nay” “ere” etc. I call this “writing forsoothly” or “fake poetyic”. And she does this a lot. Personallyl, my preference is to have people speak in what I call “modern standard”, even with contractions, and even if it isn’t quite “historical”. I want the reader to clearly understand what is being talked about, so it doesn’t interfere with the flow of reading, even if it isn’t entirely, well, “historical”. OTOH, I there are ways around the problem of using “modern standard” and seeming vaguely “ahistorical”/ using terminology like “hauberk”, “gambeson” “Destrier”, “castellan”, and so on, just to cite medieval examples, should be good enough. Also maybe try to describe the kinds of clothes people were wearing in what ever historical peirod, or the kind of dwellings they lived in, etc., should give a good “historical” feel, amd be reaspmab;u aitjemtoc. wotjpit irritating the reader.
    Anne G

  12. Anne, I completely agree with you on this one. I use contractions all the time. In one of the initial test reads of my novel years ago, a friend of mine pointed out that I didn’t use contractions and it was very jarring to him as a reader. It interrupted the flow of the story, and he became completely focused on that aspect.

  13. Steven:

    That’s kind of what happened to me with Sharon Kay Penman’s “{Devil’s Brood”. I ended up focusing on her (IMO)overuse of “olde-tiumey” language.
    Anne G

  14. Does she use the same type of language in Here Be Dragons? Everyone I know raves about that book. It has a 5 star rating on Amazon out of 162 reviews.

  15. I am currently writing a historical fiction about a book set in Mexico among Castilian Spanish speakers. I have been writing first in correct Spanish and then translating without contractions and using the more formal language of native speakers of Spanish. Several of the characters also speak English fluently and when they do, they use contractions and more informal speech. However , among my acquaintances, native Spanish speakers always seem to use more formal language than English speakers.

    How authentic should I try to be?

  16. Marilyn,

    I would think if you are trying to capture the authenticity of native Spanish speakers conversing in English, I would use the more formal English if that is what they tend to use in real life. Spanish speakers using contractions in English actually may sound a bit awkward, as I also am friends with many folks from Mexico, and they really don’t use contractions much.

    Just my personal opinion. Hope this helps.

  17. I’m writing a medieval fantasy story. Would it make sense to avoid contractions based on the person’s class and who they are speaking to? For example, if the main character is a healer and she is speaking to a stranger, she wouldn’t use contractions, but if she is talking to a close family member or close friend, she would.

    I want the feel to be right, without it being stilted.

  18. P.D., I try to base mine on the person’s class in a sense. If the situation calls for more formal language, you might avoid contractions, but use contractions if the scene is less formal. For example, in my novel, soldiers talking to other soldiers, I generally use contractions. Think of it in terms of how we would translate someone else’s language into English. For example, most of the time we would answer the question, “how are you doing?” and say “I’m doing good.” It’s rare, except in certain scenarios, that you would actually say “I am doing well,” which is correct but more formal. Hope that helps.

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