Getting all timey-wimey with your dialogue

Late last week, I put out a call on Twitter for ideas for blog posts because, frankly, I was kind of tapped. It worked, because not only did I get some good replies, but it turned on my own brain-spigot as well. I’m good for, like, March.

So today we’re going to talk about dialogue, particularly in alternate history and/or historical fantasy. This is, of course, my authorial sweet spot in terms of genre, and the late 18th century dialogue in The Daedalus Incident was singled out for praise in reviews. So maybe, just maybe, I got something to say here.

We don’t really have a sense of how folks spoke in day-to-day life back in 1777…or 1947 for that matter, which is the time period for MJ-12: Inception. Yes, we have books dating from the late 18th century, and we have radio addresses and movies from the 1940s. But here’s the first real tip I have for you: Books, movies and video are only part of the journey.

Think about Shakespeare for a moment. We’ve distilled his mighty poetry and plays into a parody of themselves. Such as…

Yeah, no. It’s a funny, funny line, but it’s also a warning bell for any would-be author — if thou hast prose in thine work that hast echoes of this madness, thou must trasheth thy laptop and set it ablaze with alacrity and furious intent.

When writing historical fiction, you’re really going for verisimilitude, language that sounds historical and yet adheres enough to modern language so that it doesn’t grate on the ears and ultimately makes sense to the reader. So maybe you’ve been inspired by Jane Austen, but it may behoove you to avoid total mimicry. For example, from Pride and Prejudice (sans zombies):

“How despicably have I acted!” she cried. — “I, who have prided myself on my discernment! — I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity, in useless or blameable distrust. — How humiliating is this discovery! — Yet, how just a humiliation! — Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind. But vanity, not love, has been my folly. — Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment, I never knew myself.”

Whoa, Jane. This is a speech, a soliloquy, a rant of the highest order. And frankly, only Jane Austen could get away with it today, and even then with the modern reader knowing full well that this was published in 1813. You are not Jane Austen, and neither am I. Trying to grab this early 19th century voice wholesale is, in a word, folly.

Now, there’s good stuff in there. The vocabulary is pretty cool, and reflects a well-educated woman of the time. (A sailor during the same period would be all like, “Wot? Disdained? Beggin’ your pardon, but is that a word for a trip to the head, then?”) The overall gist of the thing is lovely, too. But it’s too much. Again, there’s only one Jane.

So yes, study the literature and films of the time period. I read a lot of late 18th century novels and memoirs. I’ve did a 1940s movie kick, and some radio besides. I looked up the slang, lingo and vernacular of the time. There’s a sound I wanted to emulate there, something that enjoys its own melody, as it were. But I didn’t copy it 100%, because I think it would’ve thrown the reader off. So I riffed on it.

There’s also a rhythm to speaking, and while your words can play a melody of the times, the rhythm of the dialogue is important.Think about how we talk on a day to day basis. That modern dialogue rhythm isn’t often found in period literature — people talk, uninterrupted, and then they stop and it’s someone else’s turn. It’s not found in movies either, where the protagonist has to blurt out exposition to keep the plot moving and people quip things right after an explosion.

The vernacular of the times is important, but my personal take on historical fiction is that the dialogue should have more of that universal rhythm that we’ve come to expect. Nobody really soliloquizes much, and certainly not without interruption. So you marry the words of the times with the rhythm of today to get something like this, a short excerpt from The Daedalus Incident: 

Morning arrived abruptly in the form of a rather loud and exuberant midshipman. “Mr. Weatherby! Mr. Weatherby! Wake up!” Forester shouted.

“Wha? What is it?” Weatherby asked, feeling suddenly panicked. “Are we under attack?”

The boy merely laughed. “No, sir! Miss Baker is asking after you. She’s setting up a demonstration!”

Weatherby swung his legs out of his hammock. “A demonstration? A demonstration of what?”

“Alchemy, sir!” The boy headed for the door. “We’re told it’s to be quite spectacular.”

“I see,” Weatherby grumbled, running a hand over his face. She was headstrong, certainly. Were he more awake, and perhaps of a more self-reflective personality, he might admit such stubbornness was part of his burgeoning attraction. “Go on, Forester. I will be up in a moment.”

After splashing some water on his face, Weatherby grabbed his hat and coat and went above decks, where he could see a small crowd of idlers on the main deck, looking forward toward the bowsprit. There, Miss Baker had set up a table and had one of the 18-pound cannon balls upon it. “Ah, there you are, Lieutenant!” she called as he approached. “Let him through!”

The idlers parted and allowed Weatherby to move forward. “I did not think you would make such a spectacle of this,” he said quietly, trying not to allow his foul mood enter his voice.

“Nonsense,” she said sweetly. “If I am to make a name for myself as an alchemist, I need to start somewhere.”

“Very well, then,” he said. “I hope, for your sake, this comes off well.”

She handed him his sword. “If you please, Mr. Weatherby.” Her tone was one of challenge.

He looked at the blade. It caught the sun and stars particularly well; if nothing else, she had polished it perfectly.

“Now then,” she said, loud enough to be heard on the main deck below. “Let us see if I’ve been successful. I’m but a woman, so surely I am quite unable to test the blade properly.” The onlookers had a laugh at this; the tale of her bout with O’Brian had obviously spread. “Take your swing, sir.” She motioned toward the cannon ball.

I think this little bit certainly shows the rhythm of dialogue, first between Weatherby and the mid, and then between Anne and Weatherby. But there’s also the notes of the period from the “I did not think…” “If you please…” and “…so surely I am quite unable to test…” bits. I’ll leave it up to you to judge whether I was successful in conveying life on deck in 1777.

Anyway, to sum up, here’s my take on historical voice and dialogue:

  • Go for verisimilitude, not exactitude. It’s more important to be understood than to show off.
  • Avoid copying the soliloquies of the day unless you have a super-good reason.
  • Remember the rhythm of dialogue.

Of course, remember that there are no rules. If you can avoid doing all three of these and still have an awesome novel, more power to you. But, you know, grab some beta readers and get their take to be sure.



Filed under Books, Writing

4 responses to “Getting all timey-wimey with your dialogue

  1. Ken

    Nice essay, Mike! In my own mid-late 19th century historical fiction I’ve found that the rhythm is important, and an easy way to get a feel for the time is to expand all the contraction which we commonly use. That and finding period equivalents of modern phrases. Back in they day they didn’t ‘work their asses off.” But they did ‘work their fingers to the bone.’

    • Contraction expansion — and there’s a fun term! — is definitely one way to get a feel for the period. Though I will say some judiciousness is necessary, as most contractions were regularly used in speech, though not in writing, for centuries.

      • Ken

        Contraction expansion sounds like a type of steam engine! You’re right of course that some of the contractions we use today were certainly in use ‘back then’. I found it useful to write formally — expand them all in the first draft — then judiciously contract things in the second pass to make the dialogue flow better.

        I have several characters who speak much less formally — uneducated frontiersmen, blacks and native Americans — and writing those sorts of dialect speeches so that the reader can understand them is another whole skill set!

  2. Pingback: MJ-12: Inception by Michael J. Martinez | Fantasy-Faction

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