with guest Vickie McDonough.
Howdy folks! I’m excited to return to Seekerville and visit all of you nice people. I have a cold sarsaparilla here to wet my whistle, and I’m settling in to stay for a bit.
For those who don’t know me, I’m best known for writing historical romances set in the Old West, but I have been known to dabble in contemporary writing. As of this October, I will have 34 books and novellas that have been released, and only three of those are contemporaries. My latest contemporary is Rancher Under Fire, a Love Inspired Suspense, which releases Sept 2nd.
Today, I thought we’d talk about few random things that will help you create good historical dialogue. As with science fiction and fantasy writers, the historical author must create a believable world for their characters to live in, and a big part of that world is how your characters talk and communicate. To engage the reader, you must bring the time period to life with interesting dialogue.
1. Remember that your reader wasn’t born a hundred years ago.
The majority of your dialogue should be speech your reader can easily understand. Give your characters a unique word or two that belongs only to them, but don’t go overboard. Sprinkle in words from the past to add the flavor of the time, like you would lightly season your supper.
Here’s a line from The County Fair Bride, which will release next summer and is part of the 12 Brides of Summer Collection.
“Miss Willard, how nice to see you again. Might I inquire after your father?”
Today’s version: “Prudy, it’s great to see you again. How’s your dad doing?”
See the difference? Historical dialogue is often more formal, such as in using a person’s surname instead of their first name. The flow is a bit stiffer at times with a more formal cadence, especially for wealthier characters with a high status in society and a good education. The manners and customs of a historical era governed how the people would speak and behave. In a historical, dialogue is one of the most powerful tools to use, both to create the setting and to establish the characters.
2. Avoid overuse of dialect.
Does anyone remember the Red Neck Reading Test?
M R Ducks
M R Not
M R Too
C M Wangs
M R Ducks = Them Are Ducks
M R Not = Them Are Not
M R Too = Them Are Too
C M Wangs = See Them Wings
Here’s a link if you want to read the silly whole thing: http://jokes.edigg.com/Redneck/Reading_Test.shtml
Let me just say, do not
write like this! I’m sure you wouldn’t, but I don’t want you to think
I’m endorsing it. I just goes to show you that you can take dialect way
Okay, I’ll confess that I’m a g-dropper. I write a lot of westerns with cowboys and sometimes hick characters, and I tend to drop a “g” on the end of some verbs. Some sources say not to do that, but I like it and think it gives the reader a better sense of the character’s drawl. Don’t drop the “g” on every –ing verb though. That would be overkill. Be selective with any dialect you use.
3. Watch for anachronisms: What is that? Something or someone not in its correct historical or chronological time. I once read a historical set in the 1880s where the hero was carving a toy truck for a child. Yikes! He can’t carve something that hasn’t been invented yet. Keeping with the topic, words that are common to us often slip into our writing, and we never stop to think they weren’t around at the time our story takes place. Take the word, “nursing” as in “nursing an infant.” According to http://etymonline.com/ this term dates to the 1530s. If you write Biblical fiction or stories in the Early Middle Ages, you’d be inaccurate if you used that term. “Electrifying” is another word you must be cautious of in historicals.
Here’s a goof I got called out on by my editor while she was editing Song of the Prairie, which just released:
Aaron mentally smacked himself upside the head.
I changed it to: Aaron inwardly chastised himself.
The second version doesn’t have quite the visual impact that the first one does, but my editor was correct in saying it sounded too modern.
Here’s another site you might find helpful in determining when a word was used: https://books.google.com/ngrams
I asked a couple of writer friends for tips to pass on to you.
Here’s one from Connie Stevens—the author, not the actress:
Nothing will yank me out of a story faster than a character in a 19th century story saying something like, “No way” or “I’m out of here.” Even many phrases that were used in the 18th and 19th centuries carry a different connotation in the 21st century, so we must be careful to stay in the period with dialogue.
For example: the term “out of pocket” was originally used in the late 1600s to mean someone was broke—out of money. It later grew to mean having to pay for something out of my own pocket or to label “out-of-pocket expenses.” Today, “out of pocket” can mean a person is going to be out of the office. So even if the phrase is essentially correct, it can sound contemporary.
Angie Breidenbach says:
Using words of the time period. It helps to read books published during the time you're writing. Read letters and journals too. I love the old newspapers!! Hilarious stuff in those and very much written as the spoken word, gossipy, in most of them. Look at the ads too. The way ads are phrased is very conversational in old newspapers and magazines :)
From Amanda Cabot:
In general, I advise authors to use more formality in dialogue. That means fewer contractions and fewer sentence fragments. I also like to substitute "four and twenty" for "twenty-four," since it adds an historical flavor to the story without being overwhelming.
Margaret Brownley offers two resources I haven’t heard of before: My favorite dialogue resources are I Hear America Talking and Listening to America by Stuart Berg Flexner. These books are well-organized and fun to read. For example if you look up the word courtship you’ll find pages of the popular terms used throughout the years starting from the 18th century (bill and coo) to the roaring twenties (dating).
That’s some excellent advice from well-published authors. I hope you found something you could use. Before I close, I want to leave you with some other resources to help with writing dialogue and dialect.
The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms book.
Here’s an interesting dialect map if you can make sense of it and read the tiny font: http://aschmann.net/AmEng/#SmallMap
This is a cool site that lets you listen to audio recordings of people from all 50 states so that you can hear their dialect: http://www.dialectsarchive.com/united-states-of-america
Dialect Survey: http://www4.uwm.edu/FLL/linguistics/dialect/staticmaps/states.html
I LOVE! this site. Each state has a long list of words with different pronunciations, and it shows the percentage of people from that state who say the word each way. In the example below, 87.76% of Oklahomans say “ant” for the word “aunt.” (How do you pronounce the word?)
a. [ ] as in "ah" (6.12%)
b. [ ] as in "ant" (87.76%)
c. [ ] as in "caught" (2.04%)
Farewell, y’all, and may God bless your writing. Be sure to share your pet peeves when it comes to dialect. Two commenters will win a copy of Song of the Prairie.
(Winners announced in the Weekend Edition.)
Song of the Prairie
Janie Dunn's life changes when, at the request of her dying cousin, she flees with her cousin's newborn son to protect him from his abusive father. She moves to Kansas, but things take a dire change when her brother is killed. Is a marriage of convenience to kindhearted Aaron Harper the answer to her problems? Is Kansas far enough away from New York that they are safe from the baby's father?
Bestselling author Vickie McDonough grew up wanting to marry a rancher, but instead she married a computer geek who is scared of horses. She now lives out her dreams in her fictional stories about ranchers, cowboys, lawmen, and others living in the Old West during the 1800s. Vickie is the award-winning author of over thirty published books and novellas. Her books include the fun and feisty Texas Boardinghouse Brides series, and End of the Trail, which was the OWFI 2013 Best Fiction Novel winner. Whispers on the Prairie was a Romantic Times Recommended Inspirational Book for July 2013.
Vickie has been married thirty-eight years, is the mother of four grown sons, one of whom is married, and she is grandma to a precocious eight-year-old girl. When she’s not writing, Vickie enjoys reading, antiquing, watching movies, and traveling. To learn more about Vickie’s books or to sign up for her newsletter, visit her website: www.vickiemcdonough.com