Friday, December 9, 2011

Writing Credible Historical Dialogue

by Beryl Kingston

There is a common and cheerful fallacy that we are all the same 'under the skin' and that our fictional characters will therefore think and speak in the same way as we do. It leads to some wincingly anachronistic dialogue in 'historical dramas' both on screen and TV and I don't believe it is necessarily so. We are all children of our times and, particularly if we live in Britain, of our class. Even in quite a short lifetime we all see speech and attitudes changing. To give you an example, which has always made me smile, my grandmother, born in 1871 and a lower middle class Victorian, used to admonish little girls who were showing their knickers to 'Cover your whereabouts'. She had no word for the female genitalia and her disapproval of them was clear in the words and tone in which they were spoken. A far cry from the Vagina Monologues.

Similarly, when I was writing a musical back in the sixties about Ben Tillett and the dockers' strike of 1889, I found a column in a contemporaneous copy of The Times in which the marching strikers were described in scathing terms, 'carrying stinking fishheads on a pole' while in the very next column, a 'splendid sermon' given by a renowed bishop, on the text ' Thank God you are rich' was endorsed and applauded for its 'high moral tone.' I don't think a bishop would preach in such terms today. Could be wrong though.

Contemporary newpapers and magazines are good if you're looking for current opinions and accepted prejudices although the language they use is mostly educated and upper middle to upper class and you won't find any working class voices there.

Contemporary fiction and drama is better because it gives a wider range of speech patterns, quirks of speech, dialect and opinions. I say this over and over again when I'm giving classes. Always sit at the feet of the great. Dickens is superlative for the voices of the nineteenth century. So is Mayhew, because being a reporter he quotes actaul words. Austen is superb for the middle class mores and speech of southern England, the Brontes are equally superb in their own county and they have a wider range. Shakespeare gives you the variety, humour and stunning word play of Elizabethan England and if you want the speech of the fourteenth century look at the Miracle Plays. The list is enormous and local librarians - while we still have them - will point you to more in your chosen time and region. But go for the most powerfu writers. They have a truer ear.

I'm on a happy hobby-horse here and probably telling you things you already know. In which case I hope you'll tell me.


  1. That was a good piece of helpful advice. The newspapers and the contemporary authors are a great place to start to get a feel for the language.

    Thanks for the post!

  2. the problem lies in the compromise! at least it does when going back to the tudors and further. Even Shakespeare is obscure to the modern ear [we had an excellent English teacher who unravelled the smutty bits for interested teens] and by the time you are further back yet, a compromise between language with a flavour of the time and going over the top in too much middle English has to be struck especially for those of us who are geeks and read Chaucer for fun.I think the best compromise is to include some period words, preferably ones that are obvious in context or explained within the text by reference to them in other terms or obliquely, and by avoiding words coined too recently [a good etymology dictionary is invaluable here and there's one online at
    which I've only caught out once and then erring on the safe side. This is worth using for ANY period!
    the other thing about medieval/tudor is PLEASE people, learn the rules of how to use archaic speech and remember thee and thou etc are ONLY used to servants, children and intimates.
    I wrote a rant about it at
    under 'speakest thou in the familiar' if anyone doesn't know the rules.

    Many thanks for this post, it's a very important one, and the idea of using newspapers profoundly clever.

  3. Sarah, I am laughing at your comment about using thees and thous. It's so true!

    Obviously, language has changed more rapidly in the 20th and 21st century due to the introduction of radio, television, film. It did used to be that dialects and usage here in the UK stayed fairly constant, even town by town, but certainly county by county, because people just didn't travel far and wide and they weren't exposed to the influences of so many different pronunciations or idioms.

    I once was taking a writing seminar, led by a fine poet and author, but amongst the students was a lady who had clearly spent the better part of the last decade taking writing courses--and she knew everything. (Or so she thought.) (She's probably reading this and I'm probably about to stick my foot in it...) Anyway, she kept interrupting the teacher with rules which she had gleaned from her years on the circuit. And one was, "No gadzookery!" (Which I'm afraid caused me to nearly have to suffocate myself to avoid laughing aloud--all I could think of was Brian Blessed in Tom Jones...or any Restoration comedy you'd care to name.) However, she'd heard it pronounced by someone and therefore it was law. It's a nonsense actually.

    The point is, I think, whatever period one is writing about, you have to make it work for you and your readers. Yes, I could construct perfect Austen sentences or Edgeworth or Radcliffe sentences if I chose. I could and have reconstructed the speeches given in Parliament in 1812. But the final analysis has to be: does it work? Does it sound stilted? Or contrived? Patrick O'Brian made it work. He didn't very much cater to modern speech or mores--but because he was so thorough, he made it work and one accepts these characters and this speech as it's written. There are always going to be readers for whom taking the slightest trouble to think in a different century is going to be too much effort--forget that. It's got to work. If you're writing in the 18th century--men swore just as they do now, only they used different obscenities. Use that to your advantage and make it work for you, let it give the reader a flavour...

    Robert Low also makes it work, for me. His last book set in Scotland was the first I've read in a long time that got across the pervasiveness of religious worship to their thought and speech. Though I'm told some people found all the Scots dialects a little tricky.


  4. Thanks for your article. I suppose one reason I write in the Regency Era is my fascination with their language. What I would give to go back in time and experience it for a few days.

  5. I so agree with MM Bennett's comments. I'm on a PhD prog and had to write about dialogue in historical fiction in my thesis reflective work. I avoid anachronistic words myself. My period is AS. Other than that, like Robert Lowe I go for the psychology of the period as best I can. I feel I am a translator otherwise who would read it. We always bring something of today into writing the past.

  6. Yes it has to work. I reviewed a novel set in Scotland and I had to work to understand every sentence! I'm a patient soul, but it was annoying.
    It amounts to what an editor will let you get away with too. The cry is usually "It will take the reader out of the story!"

  7. Re what Maggi said about a Scottish book - I've read a couple of Charles Gibbon novels from the 1860s and if anyone uses those to get a feel of Victorian Scottish dialect they'll throw themselves from a train. Extremely difficult to comprehend - although praised at the time for their authenticity. Replicating that success in a historical fiction may be difficult!

  8. In my novel, The Flower to the Painter, I had to produce narrative and dialogue for upper class American expatriates in 1870s Europe. The novels of Henry James and Edith Wharton were an excellent source, especially for distinctions in speech and manners between old moneyed Americans, who sometimes tried to be more English than the English, and the newly rich, who retained their Americanisms while sometimes making clumsy attempts at seeming more sophisticated and European.

    Some relatively recent films are also a good resource for that period and society, especially Peter Bogdonovich's film version of Henry James's "Daisy Miller", Martin Scorsese's film adaptation of Edith Wharton's "The Age of Innocence" and the BBC production of Wharton's "The Buccanners."

  9. Books and short stories incorporating nearly unintelligible dialects were very popular in the 19th century. The Samantha stories, in rustic American, were considered howlers. Walter Scott's novels treat the reader to Scottish dialects that, for this reader, were miserable to get through. Vaudeville traded on the supposed humor of dialects. We've lost the presumptuous superiority that made this sort of language seem funny. I suspect many such renderings were phonetically authentic, but now we prefer clear communication. I recall, on my pilgrimage to Austen's home, standing in the village and asking if this was Chawton. No one knew what I meant. To them the place was "Joe-ton."

  10. Thank you. I greatly appreciated your post, not least because I use quite a lot of dialect in my "Gang" books. Peter St John


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.