At a recent library book club engagement I chose to openly explore the subject of writing dialogue in historical novels. As you can imagine, this is an area of the writing process fraught with difficulties posed by which period of history you have chosen and the availability (or lack of) detail about language during that age. My audience found it fascinating, evident from their own eager input during my talk, which became more of a group discussion. (I love it when that happens, don’t you?) I decided, therefore, to expand on it and share it here.
I have found historical dialogue to be a fine balance between staying true to a period and not alienating readers. Whilst there are those whose excitement mounts at every historical term used for armour, weaponry, clothing or day-to-day utensils, not everyone is after a language lesson. The majority of readers are in search of intriguing story and larger-than-life characters. One of the ways in which we authors can move the story forward and enhance the image of our characters is through the exchange of speech. We can immediately gain a sense of character when they open their mouth.
I continually develop my technique and strive to find this balance through a variety of experimentations and investigations. I love languages. Grammar and verb usage between different languages fascinates me, as does the etymology of words. When I began writing ‘Wulfsuna’ I knew there would be two distinct groups of people communicating: Saxons and Romano-Britons (who became known as ‘Seaxens’ and ‘Brytons’ in the novel). One initial experiment I attempted was the use of ‘thee’, ‘thou’ and ‘thy’ as a way of differentiating between the speech of my Saxons and the indigenous Britonic tribe. This trips the tongue when read aloud, thereby detracting the reader from the important content of the dialogue, so I moved on.
Reading text written at, or about, the time you are writing is a good source of inspiration. Depending on your chosen time period this can be an issue if written material is not available. ‘Wulfsuna’ is set in 433AD. I read excerpts from Bede, Nennius, the Anglo-Saxon chronicles and Tacitus. All of these provided me with a historical context of the 5th Century, albeit mostly through the eyes of people writing in later centuries. For a more Germanic flavour, I then turned to Beowulf (Seamus Heaney’s translation) and listened to several online videos of Old English [OE] poetry.
“There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes,
A wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes.
This terror of the hall-troops had come far.
A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on
As his powers waxed and his worth was proved.
In the end each clan on the outlying coasts
Beyond the whale-road had to yield to him
And begin to pay tribute. That was one good king.”
[‘Beowulf’, Seamus Heaney translation]
My English dictionary provided further investigation into the history of certain words. Knowing the language root of a word makes it a more viable choice in dialogue. For instance, ‘skirmish’ can be traced to 14th Century French usage (eskirmir), which is of Germanic origin, related to Old High German ‘skirmen’, meaning ‘to defend’. Likewise ‘fight’ is from the OE ‘feohtan’, related to Old Frisian ‘fiuchta’, Old Saxon and Old High German ‘fehtan’. Words of OE extraction, I feel, give depth to dialogue set within the era:
E.g. Bright, Quell, Hail, Darling, Forsooth, Abide, Folk, Oath etc
I have dictionaries in six languages and find them an inexhaustible reference. In my opinion, you can never have too many of them in any language. Words feed writers; they nourish our novels. Wanting to add an element of the period without compromising my dialogue, as had been the case with ‘thee’, ‘thou’ and ‘thy’ I turned to my OE dictionary. I chose to insert complete and selective phrases of OE dialogue. For instance, when a Britonic character is confronted by a Saxon who says ‘Ic bidde thee’ this is not only foreign to the Britonic character, but also my reader. This helps to immerse the reader in the perspective of the Britonic character. For my Britonic lead I turned to a Welsh dictionary, feeling this may best capture that indigenous language. I knew from the start I didn’t want to use Welsh, as the spelling and pronunciation would deter even the bravest of readers! Once again I experimented, this time writing in modern English but with Welsh syntax. I was endeavouring to create an alternative ‘sound’ and rhythm to differentiate this character from her Saxon companions. Unfortunately this resulted in her sounding like a certain small, green Jedi and had to be abandoned. I wonder if George Lucas used the same method?
Research is also an excellent source. Knowing, for instance, that Saxons gave names to their weapons, can provide you with an opportunity to play with words. Some good examples are:
- whale road / seal road (the sea)
- Bone-house (the body)
- Battle-light (a sword)
- Battle-icicle (a sword)
An understanding of a culture, its spiritual beliefs and etiquette will add weight to a period in terms of how people speak and address one another. Mannerisms and distinct phraseology add nuances to characters. When we listen to people talking we notice that:-
· Some people swear, some don’t
· Some people give long explanations or descriptions
· Some people are very economical and almost monosyllabic
· Some people use epithets or nicknames a lot
These factors exist in historical language as they do in modern speech. For example, I have a character that is not as able as his predecessor in a role of responsibility. His recurring phrase, “I know not,” becomes the cause of frustration during one particular exchange and akin to his trademark. It becomes this character’s raison d’etre to eventually ‘know’ what he needs to know when the book reaches its climax. Developing physical descriptions alongside dialogue, especially when introducing a character for the first time, aids the reader. Here are two dialogue excerpts from ‘Wulfsuna’ introducing two characters near the start of the book. Both men are addressing their Lord’s son who is about 18:
1) Chapper, a trader with a weathered face like oak bark and a shaved head, waved a hand. “Out the way baby warrior. Does your father know you’re not on your mother’s tit?”
2) “Get dressed, weaner,” shouted Thegn Heahstan. An ageing warrior, built like a mighty stone wall with white hair and a long beard, he resembled Woden himself.
What images do the descriptions and ‘voice’ of the characters create in your mind? What does their tone suggest of their relationship with their Lord’s son? What else can you glean from these pieces of dialogue and description?
Well, I hope you enjoyed this peep into my strange world of investigation, experimentation and inspiration. It is, of course, an ongoing cycle of learning and there will doubtless be things that slip through the net from our modern lives from time to time, but it’s all experience and no one’s perfect! How do you approach writing dialogue? What resources do you use to sculpt your characters? I’d love to hear your thoughts.