Are you interested in writing historical fiction? Or a story set in a pseudo-historical time period? Here are some of my best tips for writing authentic-sounding, readable dialogue.
Immerse Yourself in the Language
I noted in a post I wrote a couple years ago about fantasy dialogue that one of the number one issues authors can run into is not really knowing what the dialogue they’re aiming for should sound like. For instance, it is very common for people to use the term “Old English” to refer to anything from Jane Austen’s language to Shakespeare’s. In fact, Old English (or Anglo-Saxon) was spoken from about 450-1100 AD–and it’s not even readable to people without training. Before you write historical dialogue, you want to have a grasp of the facts.
My number one tip: Read a lot literature from the time period you want to emulate. Immerse yourself in the language. Get a feel for the sentence structure, the vocabulary, and other patterns. And, beyond simply reading a bunch of books from, say, the 1700s, try paying attention to detail and taking notes on what catches your eye about the language. You don’t have to emulate the language exactly, but you want to have a working knowledge of what it really sounds like from people who actually spoke and wrote it.
Be Realistic: Literary Vs. Everyday Language
Keep in mind, however, that “literary language” has always existed. It’s well-documented that the language everyday people spoke in various time periods often significantly differed from the language writers would use in their texts. The language of The Iliad is not truly the language of Ancient Greece. The language of Shakespeare is not always the language of the English Renaissance. So if the writing from a particular time period sounds rather formal and sophisticated (or just plain artificial) to you, there’s a chance it is. You’re perfectly free to tone it down for your characters, particularly ones who wouldn’t be well-educated or well-read.
Aim for Moderation: Give a Sense of the Period
Realistically, most authors are never going to write “perfect” historical prose. (In the case of Middle English or Old English, you wouldn’t even want to because few people would even be able to read what you’ve written.) Something to consider, then, is adding just enough “older” touches to your language, either in terms of sentence structure or vocabulary choice, to give your readers a taste of the time period you are going for. Too much old-timey language could be distracting or annoying. (Think about novels you’ve read where an author has overdone a character’s accent, and the character came across as a caricature rather than a believable person.) You just need to give your readers an accurate impression of historical language; you don’t need to give them the full deal.
Watch for Disjunction
The key to writing any dialogue is making it sound realistic enough that the prose itself is actually unremarkable. You never want a reader to stop and think “That sounds really odd” or “Sheesh, teenagers don’t use this much slang” or “This character has such a thick accent it’s just silly.” You simply want the reader to be able to keep reading because nothing is unusual enough to pull him or her out of the story. In novels (either historical fiction or fantasy) where you are going for an “older” tone of dialogue, these are some areas to keep in mind:
Narration Vs. Dialogue
Think about how well the prose of your narration blends with the prose of your dialogue. Is one far more formal than the other? Are the characters speaking something that sounds like authentic Middle English, but the narration is far more modern? Any distinct differences between the narration and the characters’ speech will pull readers out of the story each time a character starts or stops speaking, as they will have to readjust to the language.
This is particularly true if your novel is told from a first person point of view. It’s going to be noticeable if your protagonist narrates events (or “speaks to the reader”) in modern English but speaks to other characters in Shakespearean English. This will create the odd illusion the the character is capable of speaking both forms of English and is for some reason code-switching throughout the novel. In this case, you might consider going for a casually “older” style of prose throughout the novel, adding just enough touches to make the language seem authentic for the period but not going so over the top your readers have trouble following the story.
Switching Narrative Time Periods (Flashbacks)
If you’re writing a story that switches between modern events and historical events (for whatever plot reasons), consider toning down the historical language in the scenes that take place in the past. This is a story in which you really might want to give your readers “just a taste” of historical dialogue. It could be jarring to readers if one chapter they’re reading about teenagers from 2014 and the next chapter they’re reading about people from 1600. Each time the prose style drastically changes, the readers will notice and need to mentally readjust. (Imagine trying to alternately read sections of Shakespeare and Steinbeck.)
Mixing Historical Periods
This goes back to point one: knowing the language of the time period you want to emulate. Whatever you do, you want to be consistent in your language usage. A reader might not notice if an eighteenth century character generally speaks very modern English, as long as the characters in the book always speak modern English. It will, however, catch readers’ attention if the characters fail to stick to one time period with their language usage. You don’t want to use language that just sound generically “old” without discretion. If your characters mix styles from the nineteenth century, the seventeenth century, and the fifteenth century, it’s going to come across as odd. Pick one and do your best to stick to it.
Remember, readability is often more important than getting your historical diction 100% accurate. Of course, you don’t want to write something completely absurd or noticeably anachronistic. However, if your target audience isn’t historical experts, keep in mind what their reading experience will be like. Often, giving them the flavor of the time period rather than a full-on immersive experience into an older-sounding language will be what keeps them in the story.
Have you written historical dialogue? What are your best tips? Have you read any books that did the older language particularly well (or particularly badly)?