Hitler Speeches with accurate English subtitles
How to Write Accurate Dialogue in Historical Fiction
When writing a novel, creating dialogue can be a difficult task because you want the speech between characters to sound natural. This is even more challenging when your novel is set in a historical setting. In a historical novel, you want the dialogue to be true to the time period, in syntax, style, and slang, as that will give the whole novel a more true-to-life feel. Research will play a large role when you are writing historical dialogue, as it will help you decide what is right for the period before you begin writing your dialogue.
Researching to Prepare
Read primary sources to familiarize yourself with the time period.In order to get in the mindset of writing for your time period, read letters, journals, and other types of personal communication.
- Take note of the differences you see between that era’s dialogue and modern dialogue.
- Reading these works will inherently train your subconscious to identify and utilize historical constructions in your writing.
Watch period television shows and commercials to acquaint yourself with more recent time periods.For a historical novel set in a more recent era, watch television shows made in the decade you’re writing about, to get an idea of how the dialogue plays out when spoken.
- Also, watch the commercials to brush up on dialogue, and gain the added bonus of learning about products that are true to the time period.
Consult people that lived during your setting's time period to get firsthand insight.You can try talking to people who lived through the time in which your novel takes place, if there are any still alive.
- Ask them questions about the language they used, and what slang was popular when they were young.
- Also, see if they’d be willing to read your dialogue to see how true-to-life it is.
Use dictionaries and other text resources to learn about the history of certain words.Most dictionaries will tell you when and where a word first appeared, so if you’re not sure if you should use it, look it up.
- Some great resources to use for works set in much older settings are The First English Dictionary of Slang from 1699 or Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, published in 1811.
- Essentially, any dictionary published near your time period should be helpful, though slang dictionaries will be even more useful.
- Many older dictionaries are available online.
- One problem with researching profanities is that they often weren’t written down in older time periods.
- Therefore, even though many curse words are fairly old, their histories are more difficult to trace.
Writing the Dialogue
Keep dialogue short.Long paragraphs of dialogue can overwhelm readers, so make sure the dialogue that you write is full and vibrant, but not too dense.
- Keep the dialogue as exchanges between characters, not overly long monologues.
- Dialogue should always move the plot along.
- The dialogue should serve the plot, not the other way around.
- Take out any unnecessary dialogue, especially if it is long-winded.
Use words appropriate to the time period.When you're writing, think actively about the vocabulary you are using.
- Avoid using contemporary words.
- You can use your dictionaries to help you determine what words are contemporary.
Use appropriate syntax and slang to construct historically accurate sentences.Think about using accurate syntax, which is a bit more difficult than choosing the proper vocabulary.
- Syntax is the way sentences are structured, and it does change over time.
- One way to think about syntax is to think about historical dialogue as its own dialect (a sub-section of a language, with different inflections and words), which it essentially is.
- Look at this example of a southern American dialect from Flannery O’Connor:
- “He and the girl had almost nothing to say to each other. One thing he did say was, 'I ain't got any tattoo on my back.'
- 'What you got on it?' the girl said.
- 'My shirt,' Parker said. 'Haw.'
- 'Haw, haw,' the girl said politely.”
- Of course, words like “ain’t” and “haw” stand out as southern slang/dialect.
- However, the structures are different from standard English as well.
- For instance, the sentence, “What you got on it?” leaves out the "being" verb, as normally “have” would go before “you.”
- Historical dialogue can also have different structures, and the only way to learn those structures is to read primary texts and even secondary texts from the time period.
- In fact, the best dialect writers rely more on syntax than on trying to make words appear accented by changing spellings and shortening words.
Use older idioms to evoke a bygone era.An idiom is a phrase the meaning of which is not directly derived from its actual words.
- Idioms are often phrases that don’t necessarily make sense, like “It’s raining cats and dogs", or "He kicked the bucket".
- They are often metaphorical in nature, though not always.
- Like looking for vocabulary, you can read older sources to find common idioms of the time period.
- Similarly, idiom dictionaries can help you find out-of-use phrases, as well as the slang dictionaries mentioned above.
Use action to break up long stretches of dialogue.Using only dialogue bores readers over time, so keep the action going between exchanges.
- Monologues, especially when they are in hard to understand historic phrasing, can lose your readers attention.
Avoid using overly formal language.Although language may have been spoken more formally in the past than today, not all language in the past was formal and there were still divisions between formal and informal speaking.
- In other words, if your character is talking to a close friend, their language needs to be less formal than when he or she is talking to a complete stranger, even in historical fiction.
- Also, dialogue doesn’t need to be—and shouldn’t be—in complete sentences all the time.
- When writing formal language, remember “formal” does not necessarily mean “stilted.”
- For example, if you’ve ever read Jane Austen or the Brontë sisters, you will realize that even formal language can have wit and punch.
- Try speaking the dialogue aloud, and make sure that you don't stumble over it.
Don’t overdo historical phrasing.While you don’t want your text to sound modern, you don’t want it to be so “historical” that readers have a difficult time understanding it.
- Your text should still be enjoyable to read, and not require too much "translation".
- This will allow your readers to move through your book at a fairly quick pace, and avoid losing interest.
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