This Business of Writing

How to Write Historical Dialogue in Novels

In The Craft of Writing on November 10, 2009 at 8:15 am

by C. Patrick Schulze

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A recent post on this blog concerned the technique of bringing forth language from an earlier time and making it understandable and enjoyable for contemporary book lovers. I sat in the audience of a panel recently and the talented author Susann Cokal gave me the secret I’d been seeking. She said, and I paraphrase, to use modern terminology in your historical novels, but present it with the flow of the language from the time in which you write. Susann Cokal writes medieval historical fiction and her example was something of this nature; “Forsooth, verily I am smote!” (“Rats! I’m dying.”) Again, I rephrase, but I’m certain you understand the point. In the meantime, I’ve come to the personal conclusion if a writer also inserts the occasional word from his era of choice, his dialogue will ring true and be enjoyable to read.

As an aspiring author who writes historical fiction, I also read in that same genre. At this time, I’m reading “Shadows and Strongholds” by Elizabeth Chadwick. (@chadwickauthor on Twitter.com) As I read this interesting and entertaining novel, I’ve run across what I think are perfect examples of what Susann Cokal was trying to exemplify. In “Shadows and Strongholds,” a monk has just rescued a boy from other youthful evildoers. In this scene, Elizabeth Chadwick wrote the following dialogue from the monk to the rescued boy:

“If you are not a foundling, which I judge not by the cut of your tunic, someone will be looking for you.”

Let’s take a look at that sentence in a bit more detail. If you note the words Elizabeth Chadwick uses, each of them you might use today on a daily basis, save maybe, “tunic” or “foundling.” Who among us would ever use the word, “foundling?” (Not many, at least if you wish to survive junior high.) Yet, when Elizabeth Chadwick employs the word, it feels as though it’s a perfect utterance for the time. There’s that occasional word from the era inserted into her dialogue as I mentioned earlier.

Looking to the center phrase, would you ever say, “which I judge not by the cut of your tunic?” I suspect not. However, it melds well with your impression of medieval speech patterns, doesn’t it? It sounds like something one from that era might intend, if not formally articulate, which is the very point I’m trying to make.

Consider the final phrase in the sentence, “someone will be looking for you.” I can hear those words coming from the mouth of any modern adult with an child they don’t know in their presence. Can’t you? With ease, Elizabeth Chadwick has taken hold of the thoughts of any adult throughout history and made them work for her readers and her storytelling. You’ll also note there is neither a single apostrophe nor any of the wild contractions writers often use to simulate historical dialogue. Her writing is meaningful to the modern reader, but she’s not lost the story’s medieval tone.

Another example of dialogue I appreciated in “Shadows and Strongholds, follows. FitzWarin, the father of the aforementioned boy, is speaking to one his underlings.

“A moment is all it takes.” FitzWarin made a terse gesture with his clenched fist. “I have no time for this now; I’ll deal with you later. For the nonce, we had better find my son.”

Here, Elizabeth Chadwick speaks in the fashion any irate father today might speak when looking for a child he knows is not really lost, but only misplaced. The one exception is the word, “nonce,” though its meaning is clear by its use. Here again are modern words, punctuated by a single medieval term, with the lilt of a fourteenth century speaker. What she has done to bring her dialogue into our time was to alter the phraseology.

By studying how Elizabeth Chadwick incorporates past times into her historical conversations, we see how to give our dialogue life while still having it appeal to the contemporary reader.

So, kind readers, the task of creating captivating dialogue in your historical fiction novels is not as mysterious or onerous as you might think. It does take a bit of practice, but the mixing of a past parlance with a modern manner of speaking is not such a daunting task. Learn from the successful and you’ll do well.

I wish you all success and best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze
Author of the emerging novel, “Born to be Brothers”


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